A Full Life
Preface: This essay is about screen time limits, which are different for every family. But it's about much more than that, so if you are triggered by my family's limits, please ask yourself why before commenting.
"Half of my friends have their own iPhones," my 11-year-old son argued angrily. (Technically, only one friend has a cell phone, but such is the mind of the pre-adolescent.)
He continued: "My friend O can have as much screen time as he wants as long as he gets his school work done... And I only get two and-a-half hours of video games each week. It's not fair!!!!"
He glared at me, red-faced and teary-eyed, and then got up from the couch and stormed upstairs.
I sat on the living room floor and stared at the glow of the fireplace.
Is this what the next seven years will be like? The thought landed like a pile of rocks in my gut.
Why can't we be like his friends' parents, I asked myself. Why are screen time limits so important to us?
I reflected on this for a while and the answer came to me, clear as day. I took some calming breaths and headed upstairs. When I knocked on his door and heard nothing, I let myself in. He was wrapped up in a blanket, in the semi-darkness of his room.
"Can I talk with you," I asked. He looked at me but didn't answer, so I knelt down by his bed.
"It's not that we think that video games are terrible," I started haltingly. "I don't think they're going to rot your brain or turn you into a useless zombie. But the issue with video games is that they're thieves. They rob you, and everyone who spends too much time on them, of the right to live a full life.
"The way I see it, one of the roles of a parent is to help their children experience a full life. And meanwhile, video game companies literally have entire offices full of very smart people who get paid a lot of money to keep you hooked on these games.
"Every hour you spend on a screen is one hour that you don't spend building your incredible LEGO creations. It's one hour that you don't spend reading about sword-wielding mice or boys who bike around the world. It's one hour that you're not moving your body. And most importantly, it's one hour that you're not bored. Yes, I know that it can feel uncomfortable to be bored, but boredom is where you discover your gifts. And your dad and I are not going to let anyone rob you of that."
He peered at me from his bed. "Well, I get bored of playing Among Us sometimes," he reasoned.
"And what do you do when that happens," I asked.
"I switch to a different game," he replied.
"Exactly," I said. "You'll never run out of video games to switch to, which is an easy fix for boredom but doesn't add anything to your life. And that's one way they rob you of experiencing a full life."
Suddenly, a memory of my young adult years popped into my head.
"You know... when I was 23 years old, I had a good job, a car, an apartment... I was fully independent for the first time in my life. And then September 11 happened, and I lost my job and my work visa. My whole world was flipped upside-down, so I tried to avoid reality by watching TV. I spent about two weeks just watching TV from morning til night. But something inside me eventually spoke up and said 'This is not healthy, this is not what it feels like to live a full life.' My mom and dad had given me a full life, so I knew what that felt like, and that was what saved me and helped me move on with my life.
"You're going to be a grown-up one day, and you'll go through hard times, because we all do. Experiencing a full life now will hopefully help you find your way during those hard times."
He covered his head with his blanket.
I asked him: "What could a full life look like for you right now?"
He mumbled, "I don't know."
"And that's ok," I answered. "You don't have to answer right away. But I do want you to think about it. And when you're ready to let me know, then I'll do my best to help you make your ideas a reality."
He pulled down the blanket to his nose and looked at me. I leaned over to kiss his forehead and told him I loved him. Then I went downstairs, wondering if anything I said registered with him.
Within 15 minutes, he came into the kitchen. He was happy, chatting with me and playing with his sister - visibly at ease. He spent the afternoon drawing his own superhero creations, building LEGOs, and shadow-boxing around the house.
And that's the thing about limits. If you know that they're coming from a place of love, then they actually give a child a sense of safety and reassurance. They let them know that you're on their side.
Knowing what to say becomes easier when you get clear on why you want to say it. None of us know what the future consequences will be of the limits we hold for our children, but I believe that you can't go wrong when your why comes from a place of love.
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