The Wrong Medicine?

The kids are not going back to school for the foreseeable future. If your family is smiling, laughing, physically active and relatively nutritiously fed, please pat yourself on the back. Every day is another triumph. But, if you will allow me, I diffidently would like to suggest that (some of) you might be making your life a little harder than necessary.

I’m talking to those of you who responded to news reports like this one, “Inevitably, children will be having more screen time,” with a huge, OH, YEAH! For many kids, schoolwork now demands hours online and with venues from opera houses to museums to astronauts reading stories from outer space, there are multiple educational and healthy resources available.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking. Maybe it is worth remembering that families who were quarantined during the horrific flu epidemic of the early 20th century had no recourse to digital entertainment. For most families, financial limitations ruled out large choices of games and toys as well. Paper, scissors and crayons, a bag of marbles and a homemade doll or truck somehow kept kids occupied. They had one more special ingredient—imagination.

I, too, have succumbed to the lure of easily available entertainment. After years of neither watching nor even having a TV in our home, now movies and shows are showing up on my phone and iPad! I admit that some evenings (perhaps too many) I now watch something instead of reading. As my husband teaches, the word amusement derives from a-muse, with the ‘a’ serving as the word ‘not’ as in atonal or amoral. Since the word ‘muse’ is an old synonym for ‘think,’ amuse literally means “not thinking.” Books can take me out of my world as well, but it takes more work and concentration to lose oneself in a book than in a multi-colored, fast-moving digital world.

I understand and empathize with parents whose children are going stir-crazy. If the parents are both working from home things are even more complex. But, maybe, just maybe having the kids home is an opportunity for boot camp to cut down on screen time. Life may be more miserable for a few days as children go into withdrawal, but re-learning how to play, putter, create and entertain ourselves using non-technological means is a worthwhile endeavor.

At the risk of sounding like a visitor from the 19th century, I’d like to share my experience at home a number of years back with six children who had chickenpox. They were all under the age of twelve (the baby did not get it at the same time). We were blessed with a yard so they could run around a bit, and I put other responsibilities aside to make “Mommy Camp” my focus. We did lots of arts and crafts, read hundreds of stories and played endless board games. They also created their own worlds: they were spies and parents, storekeepers and teachers. We did have a new device—a magical machine known as a VCR that could play movies. We acquired the tape of Mary Poppins, and for five days, the children watched a portion of the movie each evening while I relished making supper without help. When the twenty or thirty minutes of watching was over, no one nagged for more. They were overflowing with gratitude and excitement at what they had just experienced.

That scenario seems ludicrous today. But I would suggest that if your children constantly nag you to watch more videos and play more games online, then increasing the hours in which they do so will end up making them and you more miserable, not less. Technology, screens, TVs and other devices function in some ways like drugs do. What sufficed to give a high yesterday is no longer enough today. The more they (and we) watch, the less capable they (and we) are of keeping ourselves happy, of daydreaming, of being creative with the resources around us.

A few days ago, one of my daughters whose children have very limited screen time, received delivery of a new refrigerator. Four of her children, ranging from fourteen to four disappeared with the huge cardboard packing box. Hours later, they were still in the basement—or more accurately, they were in outer space. Just like children from a generation or two generations ago, one box and four imaginations served to provide a bonding experience that will give them happy childhood memories for years to come. I’m pretty sure those four are watching and playing online more than usual these difficult weeks. But their starting level was very low. For some children who were already spending too much time removed from the world of spontaneous creativity, perhaps this is a chance to reverse the trend rather than succumb and surrender.

4 thoughts on “The Wrong Medicine?”

  1. This time at home with our families CAN be a blessing IF we chose to see it that way, and act accordingly.

    1. Lyna, I’m hoping that many mothers find out how important they are in their children’s lives and how much they enjoy having a larger role in their children’s growth.

      1. When our daughters were young, my wife limited them to two 30-minute TV coupons per day, even in the summer. Now, she watches TV many hours a day, often recording a program as she’s watching something else. She wants me to watch with her and I do occasionally. I do some… in order to participate in her world. But I need and prefer to empty my mind rather than filling it.

        1. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

          Dear Rev. Sam,
          Your words are poignant reminders of how much we need our children. Without them, we can all too easily slide into a self-indulgent lassitude previously held at bay by our awareness of their wide-eyed gaze.
          Still, it is good to read that you occasionally join your wife in her innocent pleasure. After all, the two of you have achieved an enviable accomplishment; the raising of good daughters.

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