The following blog appeared originally on the Great River Facebook page as part of a discussion about the use of digital tools in the family. It was suggested to CMI as a read that would be of interest to the Mason community. This blog was prompted by a question to Maura Timko from Janet Pressley-Barr regarding screen time and battles related to screen time in Maura Timko’s home. Here is her response.
Janet – I cannot answer your question briefly. I will not go into detail about what our screen time looks like now, because my boys are so much older. That is another conversation! But I can talk about how screens were handled in my home when my boys were much smaller. I think it will be more relevant to the group.
Recalling the days when my boys were in elementary school, I imposed very strict limits on their screen time. (I love how Jenn Stec places the responsibility to turn off the screens directly with the child – well done!) In our home, we had a routine to our homeschool days. This was a good thing. Everyone knew what was expected of them, what we were doing, when we were doing it, where we were going, etc. The screen time was worked into the mix, and at the end, everyone knew it was coming. After everything was done for the day, we all had free time – screens were usually a part of it. All of this was fine.
I used to set a kitchen timer, and when it went off, that child’s screen time was finished. If the device was not turned off promptly after the timer beeped, I turned it off myself. At that point, tomorrow’s screen time was taken away, as a consequence. Shoddy school work had to be redone, or no screen time. Attitudes had to be good, or no screen time. You had to be kind to your brothers, or no screen time. Chores had to be finished, and done well, or no screen time, etc.
In hindsight, I was much too harsh. Talk about a scarcity mentality! I set up the screens as the ultimate reward, and made “much ado about nothing.” I gave screens way too much power. All I can tell you is this: please learn from my mistakes.
I was right to limit the screen time with my elementary-aged children. It can be harmful in excess. However, I should have been much more flexible and gracious. If they wanted to “bank” some screen time for a bigger project (e.g., building in Minecraft), I should have allowed them to do that. I should have talked with them, discussing how much time was reasonable, and why. I should have followed Jenn Stec’s example, placing the responsibility with the child – not with me. I should have treated them as persons, doing something they enjoy and easily forgetting the time. (How often do I do that?) If they were on a device for too long, I should have spoken to them calmly, reminding them of God’s desire for obedience – not ranting about the hazards of too much screen time. (Just so you know: no 10-year-old will ever care about that!) I should never have used screen time as a reward, and I should not have taken it away as a punishment (unless it was a natural consequence). By handling the screen situation the way that I did, I made a mountain out of a molehill, I gave it way more power than it deserved, and I lost a great opportunity for the Holy Spirit to train their hearts. SIGH.
But our God is so gracious. He showed me that the problem was mostly with me, and not them. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when the problem is with me! (God is always so right!)
So, how was I as a model? Because – sure enough! – they were always watching me. Did I watch too much TV? Did I stay up too late at night watching shows (and get grumpy the next day)? Did I sit for way too long at my computer? Am I on my smartphone too much? Updating Facebook? Reading my email? Texting my friends? Again – BIG SIGH.
After realizing that I was a terrible model, I began to think about screen time alternatives. I was just learning about Charlotte Mason, and I acquired tons of great books, which was great. BUT. . .”Education is a Life.” I needed to get a life!
I had to begin taking delight in other interests myself first, before I could ever expect it from my children. My boys needed to see me enjoying poetry, learning to crochet a scarf, or learning about the Hudson River School artists. They had to see me reading God’s Word, journaling, and copying a scripture or a quote into my Book of Mottoes. I needed them to see me spending time with people – not screens. I needed to be ‘caught’ sitting outside, just listening to the birds. They needed to flip through my nature notebook or book of centuries. I needed to be excited about the new books that I read, and talk about them. I needed to make the time to go outside with my children – and not just ‘send’ them out. (“Will you boys turn that thing off and just go play outside!?”)
I realized that my children needed me to spread the feast. The first step? It is spreading the feast for myself. I found that as I began to practice “Education is a Life,” my boys became interested in broadening their own interests as well. They were not always interested in the same things as me, but they began to see that there was much more out there. My boys’ desire for the screens became less – although it is still a source of great enjoyment and time.
Everything changed in our house when: 1) I became more present myself; 2) I practiced “Education is a Life” in front of my children, and with my children; and 3) They discovered ‘other affinities,’ with my help. Wow.
I love what Mason says about the topic of ‘interests’ in School Education (Vol 3). The context of the quote is a quotation regarding business (things we “have” to do, out of duty) versus desire (things we want to do, out of joy):
“Quoth Hamlet, ‘Every man hath business and desire.’ Doubtless that was true in the spacious days of great Elizabeth; for us, we have business, but have we desire? Are there many keen interests soliciting us outside of our necessary work? Perhaps not, or we should be less enslaved by the vapid joys of Ping-Pong, Patience, Bridge, and their like. The fact is that ‘interests’ are not to be taken up on the spur of the moment; they spring out of the affinities we have found and have laid hold of.” (pp. 188-189)
For Mason, the antidote to becoming ‘enslaved’ by ‘vapid joys’ was BROAD INTEREST. Note that Mason never condemns these activities. Morally, they are fine. They can be fun, and they certainly have their place as recreation. However, her language gives me pause: ENSLAVED. Yikes! Yet, I think that parental over-reaction, and playing out a scarcity scenario, can push kids further toward enslavement, and not toward freedom.
So what would I do now with elementary-aged children, regarding screens? I would have some boundaries, but I would also lighten up. I would make screens much less of a ‘thing.’ I would give screens much less power. I would help my children, instead, to learn moderation and obedience. I would be gracious with their failures to turn off the screens, and treat them as persons while I hold them accountable. I would make that “sliver time” the time spent relating to the MOST SPECIAL people and things in my home. I would keep a keen eye out for my children’s ‘affinities,’ which may be turned into ‘interests’ and ‘laid hold of,’ given time and encouragement. I would keep a very careful, prayerful watch over it all, so that no one would become ‘enslaved.’ And I would play Minecraft WITH THEM (or at least I would try – I would be really awful!) I would redeem the time.
Disclaimer from Maura Timko: I make no claim to being an ‘expert’ on this topic. There are many, wiser minds who would disagree with my perspective; they may be right. I am always open to the Lord changing my mind about it. But we, as a family, have made our peace with the screens. They are a part of our lives, inevitably, but no longer a source of strife. We can interact with screens AND persons. Hooray!
© 2014 by Maura Timko