little girl watching TV sitting on sofa

An opinion on a particular parenting style is like a diapering horror story — everybody’s got one. And, if your opinion or technique is different from the parent next to you, things can get feisty quicker than a snackless toddler.

The truth is that, sadly, the parenting wars are a real thing. There’s the stay-at-home parent versus the working parent, breastfeeding parent versus bottle-feeding parent, cloth-diapering parent versus disposable-diapering parent — if there’s more than one way to do something, someone’s going to swear that their way is the only way. All of this finger-pointing surely comes from a place of good-intentioned, sleep-deprived moms and dads just like you and me who simply want to look out for the welfare of the younger generation. What if, though, there happened to be more than one right answer?

Take screen time, for example. Some parents let their children watch hours of television a day and give them handheld games to occupy their minds (and quiet their mouths) in restaurants and other public arenas without a second thought. After all, they’ll be exposed to it eventually. Other parents strictly forbid their kids to play video games or watch a ton of TV, afraid it will numb and/or desensitize them. Which approach is the right one?

I’m in the middle — a limiter of screen time, if you will. My kids get to watch a cartoon in order to wind down for a nap or bedtime. Generally, this amounts to just over an hour a day. We have a reward system in place in which they get a movie night when they earn enough stickers for good behavior — but movie night is always a special occasion, not the norm. They do not, and will not, have their own handheld games or gadgets for distraction. There are no personal televisions in any of our bedrooms — not even the one I share with my husband. I know myself well enough to know that I’ll put off getting them cell phones until I absolutely have to for safety concerns. Those are the rules in my household. I don’t get to make the rules most places, but I do there.

My plan, however, is not absolute, nor is it without flaws. If I have a writing assignment I really need to get done, I’ve been known to pop in a movie on a beautifully sunny afternoon clearly better spent outside and retreat to my office to work. In the midst of epic car ride meltdowns, I’ve been known to thrust my cell phone into my toddler’s flailing hands because it’s the only thing that will quell the noise. These instances, though, are rare and I don’t beat myself up when they happen. Holding myself to ridiculous parenting standards would be setting myself up for failure. I believe I do a great job as a mother most of the time, but I’m not perfect. All I can do — all any of us can do — is our best.

Why the screen time limit, though? What’s the big deal? Well, for young children, everything is new. Do you remember what it was like the first time you walked barefoot on dew-soaked grass, the sensation of the cool blades against your skin? That heightened awareness and deepened sensation is constant for them during these formative years, and I don’t want anything to dampen that. I encourage my girls to explore outside — to get muddy and catch fireflies. Instead of playing a video game, I want them to play pretend and build pillow forts. Instead of watching a movie, I want them to sit on my lap as I read them a story, their minds absorbing and learning and creating while their ears lap up the syllables.

I am not naïve to the wonder and opportunity afforded by technology, by all those screens of different sizes and functions. You’re reading this now because of technology and screens. I know that their technology requirements — and with them our household policy regarding technology use — will change with age. One day, my kids will be in school, where they’ll use screens as part of the curriculum. As adults, they’ll likely have jobs that will require hours of screen time as part of a typical workday. But not yet. Right now, my girls are three and (almost) two. Their eager, slightly sticky fingers wrap around mine as we play, read and dance.

They have a lifetime of screens ahead of them; I’m just trying to savor this exploratory time with them while I can — no filter required.

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