Screen time is kindof a big deal in our house. There is whining. There is fighting. There is begging. There is complaining.
Can I have screen time?
When will it be screen time?
I didn't get screen time!
He's hogging the computer!
I want the TV first!
I never get a turn on the iPod!
I tried setting a specific time for video media. I tried allowing free access to video media. I tried giving each person a time limit. I tried deciding for them whose turn it is. I tried letting them decide. No luck.
Then, when all three of them preferred sitting in front of a screen to going outside or playing with one of their many toys, I was at my limit. Hearing "I'm booooored" whenever they weren't playing a video game was irritating. It was taking over our lives. It was preventing them from being the masters of their own fun and from being active and imaginative.
So, I decided - unilaterally, which is rare around here - that there would be ZERO screen time Monday through Thursday. None. It's too hard to have playdates and spontaneous outings and after-school activities and homework time and dinner without also worrying about fitting in video media and making sure it's all perfectly fair or hearing whining when there wasn't time for it that day. So we're just not doing it, and on weekends, there will only be screen time when it works with everything else. If you didn't get any that day, then you must have had an awesome, active day. This met some resistance among the troops, but they immediately rediscovered the yard and their toys. They got along better. They found their sense of creativity. They stopped talking about nothing but video games. I was encouraged by the quick success of this plan (although we're back to detoxing again after too much screen time during three weeks of winter break - but it will be better soon).
The one continuing issue is this: how do we manage screen time itself, when we have it? The whining and fighting continued over what's fair and who had more time. I would ask them to work it out themselves, but they didn't. Or couldn't. I would ask for a plan ahead of time, but again, this was beyond their capacities.
Then I had an epiphany: I told them that screen time would be available at 3pm and last until 5pm that afternoon, but only if they first presented me with a written plan delineating who would be doing what and when. I anticipated some pushback and procrastination and was pleasantly surprised that instead, they started working on a schedule immediately.
Griffin took the lead, gathering his brothers together and collecting information. I heard him in the studio, asking each brother whether or not he was interested in each available media form, and I knew just what he was doing. I peeked in and it was confirmed: my logic-loving kid was making tables and laying out the data in front of himself. The child was born to work with arranging facts and numbers. (One of his brothers added smiley faces.)
When each kid had answered his survey questions, Griff read off the results: "So, I'm interested in using the computer to play Pirate 101 and Wizard 101 and Minecraft, Reese wants to play Danball and Minecraft on the computer and Minecraft on the iPod, and Xander wants to play Minecraft on the computer and Lego Star Wars on the TV." The younger kids confirmed that this was, in fact, the case.
A few minutes later he came to me with this chart, representing their plan:
On the previous page, he had started working out how many minutes each could have on the computer - it looks like he estimated 50 minutes, worked it out and realized that it was too much, stepped down to 45, same thing, then arrived at the conclusion that 40 minutes each would add up to 120 minutes, or two hours. He assigned 40 minutes to each brother for the computer, then was a little stuck on how to divide up the other time and media opportunities. I pointed out that this chart accurately assigned 40 minutes of computer time to each brother, but did not tell me who would have the first turn, the second turn, and the third turn, or what times they would be using other devices. I suggested that perhaps a schedule chart showing what each child would start playing at 3pm, 3:30, etc (or other times, as he could determine) would solve our dilemma. He went back to work. I left him working with Reese and Xander on forming consensus on the order of turns for the computer.
Unfortunately, the scheduling task quickly became frustrating, and his worksheet ended up balled up and thrown across the room. I retrieved the paper and we looked at it together. He had worked out that 40-minute intervals resulted in start/end times of 3:00pm, 3:40, 4:20, and 5:00. But how to work out what to put in each time slot?
He declared that he needed to use a computer to lay out the data for himself, and I advised that Google Docs, which he wanted to use, was probably not as easy to use with tables as drawing the tables. I suggested that he approach the problem like sudoku (which he has loved and excelled at since age 5), filling in the easier spaces first and working up to the harder ones, which would become easier as the table was filled in. He didn't want to keep balling up paper, and I asked if using another writing implement, such as pencil, might feel easier. The idea of working in pencil felt satisfactory to him, and I could see him relax a bit.
Since he felt stuck on the table, I re-drew the same schedule that he had drawn, but bigger. We agreed that nothing needed to go into the 5pm space because that was when they should stop, so I drew a stop sign in each block. That left 9 blocks to fill. I mentioned that we didn't have to go straight across a row or down a column. Why not start with the computer, since that was the easiest to divide three ways?
Suddenly it seemed as if he could see a path, and he was able to fill in who was first, second, and third for the computer by finding the intersection of their name with the first, second, or third time slot. The schedule and the concept of scheduling was starting to make more sense to him. Which was the next-easiest thing to divide up and assign? He determined that it was the iPod, after which filling in TV slots was simple. We decided that if somebody didn't want to use their assigned item, they could trade with another person, which would be uncomplicated now because it was clear who had priority on which electronic device.
And voila! A schedule was made! Peace rested over us (at least as far as talking about screen time went) because everybody could see that they would get a turn and when, and they felt reassured that turns were divided fairly. I accepted their plan and posted it on the refrigerator. I let Griff know how impressed I was by his leadership and his ability to think through the problem on paper.
Come screen time, everybody knew what to expect. No fights. No "it's not fair!" or "he always gets to go first!" The magic of laying out our data clearly.
Griff and I agreed that I should blog this, because it seems like a breakthrough idea for us and maybe another family might be interested in solving a similar situation this way. I imagine it could be applied to a variety of sibling dilemmas. It's also interesting to think about the steps that Griffin took to solving the problem.
At first, I was thinking about this as a "teachable moment," but then realized that it wasn't about teaching, it was about learning - a learnable moment. Griff arrived at new ways of thinking about time, and he learned some scheduling skills - no easy feat, considering how much trouble his dad sometimes has creating on-call schedules for his practice. He had the opportunity to exercise consensus-building strategies among his siblings, and to look at new ways of solving frustrating problems. He had the gratification of knowing that all of the answers came from him; I had provided nothing but support and had not dictated any of the scheduling. I had the opportunity to see his mind at work and to appreciate his methods, which were different from what mine might have been, and ultimately very effective. I also got to stay out of the decision-making, which is important to me because I want the kids to handle as many of their issues among themselves as possible, for the sake of their growing minds and my mental health. The younger boys were able to witness this process and learn by example how to handle a sticky turn-taking situation. We all got to enjoy a nice, drama-free afternoon.
I'll be on the lookout for other family issues that might be solved in a similar way. We are all happiest here when we grasp the learnable moment and enjoy the results.