Dollar Store Academy

There are days where it would be so, so, so much easier to let the kids come home from school, turn on the TV, and let it roll.  We try pretty hard at our house, though, to limit TV watching–or game playing or Netflix or movies or videos–to days that aren’t “school days.”  Which is an ancient way of saying we don’t watch TV on nights when there is school the next day.

How many studies have been done to date indicating that children AVERAGE something like 35 hours of TV watching per week?  That’s, like, four hours A DAY in front of the tube, IN ADDITION to laptops and tablets and iPhones and video games.  IN ADDITION???  For real??

I could go on and on about how “back in my day” we didn’t do that kind of thing, but you’ve heard it before.  If you have kids born after 2005, you’ve DONE it before.  You lived it, right along with me.  Back when there were no smart phones and no iPads and no cable, for crying out loud.  I don’t think it’s reasonable to pretend that we’re going to go back to that kind of lifestyle, because it’s never going to happen.

I know some parents have been very successful with the “tickets” method of controlling screen time: their kids earn a particular number of minutes of the privilege for each task or chore they accomplish.  On the surface, it seems like this really great idea, right?  They have to earn it, and when it’s used up, that’s that.  They’re being taught personal responsibility and limited resources and budgeting, all those things.

Here’s what I think: as much as that system appeals to me on the surface, it’s still presenting television and computers and the internet as a reward.  And I don’t want my kids to see it that way–I want my kids to think of technology as a tool, not a treat.  And allowing them to “earn” the privilege to engage with media in that way seems to perpetuate the idea that they ought to have that treat, want to have that treat, need to have that treat, that things are better with the treat.  It’s the same idea as when my college professor criticized the Pizza Hut plan to reward kids’ reading with free pizza: he claimed all you’d end up with was fat kids who hated to read.  And he was right.

Instead, we’re trying a new tactic at our house.  It’s HARD, let’s just say that outright.  It’s HARD ON ME.  But it’s simple and it doesn’t require any oversight, which puts it over a ticketing method that would put the onus on me to keep track of who had done what task for what “minutes” value and when their minutes were used up, and then policing their redemption of those minutes.  Gak.  Like I need one more administrative task in my day.

Here’s our new approach: I say no.  And then, like Isak Dinesen, just when I think I can’t go ONE MINUTE MORE, I take a breath, and I know that I can bear anything.

The children come home, and the house is a mess, and I have a deadline to meet, and dinner to cook, and everyone wants a snack and to watch a video or Netflix or play on the computer.  And we have a big TV that streams the internet and an iPad just for the kids and a laptop in the kitchen and my smart phone that they know all-too-well how to operate.  And it would be so EASY to just plug them in and go in the other room and take a breath and a break and let it slide.

So I don’t.

I say no.

And it’s HARD.  Did I mention how hard it is?  Like, SUPER hard.  They whine and they complain and they want explanations.  And while they’re used to the idea that we “don’t watch TV on school nights,” there have been exceptions.  There are always exceptions.  And so they’re hoping for another exception.

I don’t like to disappoint them.  And let’s be honest: a lot of days, there are three of them and one of me and it’s only 2:30 in the afternoon and I’m TIRED and I just don’t know if I want to fight it out.  I want to give in.  But every time I don’t give in, every time I say “no” and stick to it, I am overwhelmed with how grateful I am that I did.

Like yesterday:

dollar store coloring books for homeschooling

They did the spiel.  They whined and complained and two of them had to be sent to their rooms for pushing.  Even playing outside they couldn’t seem to get along, and there was constant bickering.  Nothing SO bad, not really miscreant behavior, just tired kids who are still recovering from those four days at Gramma’s, who need more sleep and some peaceful time at home.

I wanted to turn on the TV.  It would have been easy to turn on the TV.  And instead, I got out some coloring books.

dollar store fill in the blanks activity book

Yep.  Coloring books.  From the dollar store.  The DOLLAR STORE.  I bought them on a whim when I was picking up paper goods for the spring parties in their classes.  One for each of them, chosen for their interests.  I placed them on the table–like a treat, like a reward.  And they gasped with excitement.

dollar store dinosaurs

Y’all, they GASPED.

selfdirected learning with dollar store coloring activity books

And for the next NINETY MINUTES, they worked and shared and read and colored and played with one another.  Heck, they were so great that I brought in my hand-sewing and sat next to them, answering questions and exclaiming over how great their work was.  The little one wasn’t feeling the coloring, but the mood in the room was so peaceful and cooperative and loving that she brought out her Inchimals and started playing with those, all on her own, doing MATH PROBLEMS.

learning math with inchimals

I know.  It sounds like a fairy tale.

My point is this: I want our parenting choices to reflect not what we’re FEELING but what we’re HOPING.  My husband and I aim to make decisions based on the kind of people we hope our children will grow to be–how they will view the world and the degree to which they can interact with it open-heartedly in the far-off future when they are grown adults and we are just a bi-weekly phone call.  And they won’t grow into loving, caring, patient, kind, generous, joyful, faithful people with self-control and the ability to delay gratification if WE can’t do that, will they?  No, they won’t.

And so we say no.  BECAUSE it’s hard.  Because by saying no to them–about something small, like television, or something large, like television–we are asking them to do and be MORE.  More than what’s easy, more than what someone else has chosen to show to them through a screen, more than an unfiltered look through the glass.  They are being asked to be small a little longer, and to dream big a little longer, and to use that box to make a spaceship a little longer.  They are falling in love with connect-the-dots and with spot-the-differences and with using all the colors in the box, just a little longer.  And maybe, if we’re right about our beliefs in our own influence, when they are grown and no longer under our roof, they will not look at the internet or the television as a treat and a reward, but instead see it as a tool–a tool that can lead them to explore bigger worlds and love in small doses, the kind of love that keeps each of us going day to day, when it feels like we just can’t bear any more.

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  • Evelyn
    April 17, 2014 at 2:11 pm

    Thank you for this! It encourages me. I too say no to the television quite a bit, and have been thinking that even more boundaries on it might be good for us. Hard. But good. And isn’t that the way it goes? A lot of Good Things are also Really Hard. Awhile back I toyed with the idea of the TV tickets and just couldn’t quite figure it out. I think it may not be for us. I think maybe we just need to choose something else, something productive, instead of the TV, most of the time. Not all the time, and not denying exceptions like you mentioned. Just mindfully choosing creativity, or quiet, or outside, or the harder, more tiring thing (i.e. bringing my son into the kitchen with me to cook dinner instead of doing it more quickly and easily by myself). May you and your family have many more fairy-tale moments like the one you described! 🙂

  • Diane
    April 18, 2014 at 8:16 am

    Love the reference to Out of Africa. I can hear Meryl Streep’s voice in my head. She’s sitting among her “Limoges”, tagging things for her yard sale, smoking a cigarette.

  • Leah
    April 21, 2014 at 3:18 pm

    “My point is this: I want our parenting choices to reflect not what we’re FEELING but what we’re HOPING.”

    I LOVE this. I need to write it down somewhere I’m going to see it often. At present, I am mom to a 2.5 year old and a newborn. TV isn’t our issue (it really is easier if you never start it) but there are lots and lots of time I parent based on how I feel. You’ve got me thinking. Thanks!

    • Deborah
      April 21, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      Man, it was seriously the hardest thing I ever had to verbalize when I first had kids. And it takes that moment of conscious thought where you say, “I COULD do (whatever it is) but I OUGHT to (whatever the better choice is) and so I WILL.” Way, way, way harder to say than do. The second hardest thing I had to learn was to forgive myself and try again when I picked the easier path. Gotta have room for good days and bad days, right??

      Thanks for helping me feel like we’re figuring this out together–it’s always good to know other moms have these moments, too! 🙂

  • Hannah O'Key
    April 22, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    We struggle with the whole screen time thing too. It’s so hard when we live in such a digital age, even at school they use laptops and iPads on a daily basis. I do a similar thing and have no tv or computer during the week except on Thurs (random but it’s the only night we don’t have after school activities). The only exception is homework for the computer but this brings it’s own challenges (why can’t we look stuff up in a book????).

    I like the idea of technology as a tool not a treat, I shall ponder that further.

    You are not alone!

    • Deborah
      April 22, 2014 at 5:25 pm

      I know!! The school/homework thing kills me. First week this year, they had an assignment (in 2nd grade/primary school) to watch a TV show FOR HOMEWORK. I had to tell the teacher our daughter couldn’t do it because we don’t permit television during the week. Totally awkward conversation.

      While I absolutely value the use of tech and see that it has a place in the classroom, I disagree that they need a computer on every desk ALL THE TIME. And since standardized tests still have questions about guide words and the Reader’s Guide and card catalogs (!!!) I can’t determine why they don’t use them?

      Good to know I’m not the only one who spends precious daylight (and nighttime) hours pondering these things!

  • Julia
    April 23, 2014 at 6:11 am

    Isn’t it amazing how much pressure exists for the “screen?” We noticed the effect of commercials on our young children and took drastic measures. We moved our tv downstairs which is 10 degrees colder! We borrow dvd’s from the library and use that area to view them on weekends. We have a laptop in the kitchen that they may use for Tumblebooks only. We try to promote good old stuff like playing outside, helping with house projects, art projects. So far we’re holding the line! As they age, we recognize how challenging this will be.

    • Deborah
      April 23, 2014 at 8:43 am

      Oh, the commercials!! Even at our weakest, we avoid actual television for exactly that reason–our pressure tends to be for Netflix, videos or streaming PBS Kids. The commercials seemed to directly affect their behavior and attitude, and we were horrified! I love your idea of limiting the laptop to Tumblebooks–our kids love them, and we have already severely limited where the laptop can access, including those. Thank goodness we have a swingset in the backyard for these months when it’s warmer! Once the pool opens, we’re hoping requests for the screen plummet–fingers crossed!

  • Hannah O'Key
    April 23, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    At least in here in the UK we can avoid the commercials as much of the ‘good’ kids stuff is on the BBC (no ads) and we don’t subscribe to cable (only get the free channels). I’m a big fan of iPlayer (catch up BBC) as this encourages my kids to actively choose what they want to watch (and I police that choice too!) and it stops the vegging out in front of the box as it only plays one thing at a time.

    It’s tricky with three tho (10, 8 and 4yrs) to manage appropriate viewing!

    • Deborah
      April 23, 2014 at 3:54 pm

      That’s so true: the age range does make it extra tough. We feel like we do well with Netflix, which is similar in its on-demand structure and the way it allows us to police their viewing, but with the iPad they have some degree of mobility and we have to really be intentional about it. There are just so many days it’s easier to say NO to all of it! Plus, we find that their behavior–and this is our 7, 5 and 3 year olds–really degrades when they get too much screen time under their belts. When we’re struggling with discipline and we know they’re fed and rested, we can almost universally ascribe it to an overage of screen exposure. One more reason to eliminate it during the week, at a bare minimum!

  • Rebecca Zaidi
    June 1, 2014 at 7:36 am

    I loved this post 🙂 I am the one who is always saying No, but then I was the one that bought Netflix!
    We are lucky, we have a code on the TV – last summer the kids had lots of fun cracking it!! So now DH and I have come up with a new ‘Code System’
    But despite all this, in exasperation and UK weather (it has rained for most of our mid term break) I do switch it on.
    Yes we have BBC in the UK, and it’s super easy to restrict commercials.
    I always try and get them (4) to watch a movie, but with 11, 9, 6, 4 yrs it can be tricky to find something they will all enjoy. But it can work.
    Plus they know I mean No, when I say it. Not with DH tho 🙂
    The computer thing for school assignments also annoys me. I have threatened so many times to write into school and say the kids don’t have access to one.
    Fortunately DH is our inhouse IT expert and he is helping the kids learn to program – DD1 did a school presentation on programming in Python!!
    But Yes, we as parents have to be responsible for our kids and remember that they are our kids, so it’s our choices that matter.
    I grew up in a house where the TV was switched on as soon as we came in, and this has really shaped my choices re. TV time for my kids.
    Sorry for the ramble 😉