The mainstream approach to parenting says that you must limit the quantity of . . . everything: 1 hour of screen time, 1 piece of candy, and so on ad nauseam.
Let’s dissect this today.
What is the fear behind this parenting tactic?
If I don’t turn off the screen after 1 hour he will . . . never leave the screen and 80 years from now all that will remain is a skeleton with a game controller in hand?
The fear seems to be that if you don’t regulate your children, there will be no regulation, moderation, or balance. When your child is granted screen time, the intensity of binging is scary. When not granted screen time, the fixation is unsettling.
Is that your fear?
There is also a value judgment on some things in the parenting world that I invite you to explore fully. Screens are a prime example of this. What is the fear behind your anti-screen sentiment? So much learning can take place through a screen, truly. Everyone agrees that a child playing with sticks is great but a child playing Minecraft is not. Why? The research certainly does not support this (and I encourage you to read some of Peter Gray’s writing on this topic). Also, (more on this later) this is a false dichotomy. My children can both play with sticks and play Minecraft.
Another example of this is the B natural rhythm. Is your child a natural night owl? “Sleep is important,” is a mantra I often hear in reprimanding parents for children up late. I agree! Sleep is so important. So be sure your children are granted the time and space they need to get all the sleep they need. But they can get that sleep from 10pm-10am just as well as from 7pm-7am. What is the fear behind the B rhythm? Is it leftover from the Protestant work ethic farm days when the pigs needed to be fed at sunrise? A B schedule does not equate to laziness – same amount of sleep, remember?
Do you have fears of value judgment?
When something is forbidden, tightly controlled, and clearly scandalized yet enjoyable, it fosters fixation and binging. Think alcohol during prohibition or for college aged kids from strict households. Have you ever been on a diet that limits carbs? All you can think about is bready deliciousness and if you cave, you are far more likely to eat an entire cake than you ever were pre-diet.
You create this phenomenon in children by hyper regulating things in their life.
You can even artificially create this phenomenon around something completely arbitrary. You could take anything they enjoy and apply pressure of disapproval (SHAME) along with strict limits and observe as they become fixated on the thing and when they are permitted access, they will binge with obsessive desperation.
Well, don’t literally conduct this experiment on your children (super unethical). Just open your eyes to these forces.
Children will develop self regulation but not if you are over regulating them.
Alfie Kohn’s studies around external motivation always come to mind when thinking about this. If you always praise or punish your child, they lose or don’t develop the ability to do things on their own intrinsic motivation.
Studies around children, food, and weight also come to mind. If you are always required to eat what, when, and how much you are told, you lose the brain-body connection to self regulate your own food intake. That is, to eat when you are hungry, stop when you’re not, and choose what your body craves to be healthy and strong.
If your children are free to start, consume, or stop something of their own volition, they will develop the self regulation to be balanced with it. If you are that force for them, when you are not around or once they are beyond your control, they struggle.
There is a force in economics called diminishing marginal utility, which describes the value experienced by someone based on amount. I first learned about this from Pam Sarooshian on Pam Larrichia’s unschooling podcast, in which she uses an ice cream metaphor. The first scoop of an ice cream cone is so valuable to you and is experienced as tremendously enjoyable. The second scoop less so. The third scoop you may or may not even want. The fourth scoop you will probably decline. The more of something that is available to you, the less value it has.
So if you are only ever seeing your child’s relationship with screens in the context of the 1 hour a day of imposed regulation, they will devour it and want more. But if they choose how many scoops, they won’t want 10.
The key difference between children who develop unhealthy habits around things like screens is not a lack of parental control but a lack of a healthy, joy-filled life.
The kids were playing an Olympics video game together next to me while I wrote this article. I told them as soon as I was done writing we could go take out the bikes and ride all over the new dirt/gravel mounds left all down our driveway yesterday before they are evenly spread tomorrow. They are presently wiggling with excitement.
A child with a full life has a natural balance. Unlimited access to a kitchen full of healthy foods yields a healthy, self-regulating eater. A child with the freedom to utilize screens as a part of life to find the answers to their questions, connect with others, stimulate thoughts through entertainment within an overall picture of a life full of fun experiences and connection will thrive now and into adulthood. Let go of the limits and TRUST.