“Screen-time” for our kids: Is it really as bad as some fear it to be?

This article has not been written to encourage nor discourage the use of ‘screen time’ with our children. Each parent does their own, which is something I respect more than anything ! Some close to me allow their children screen time, some moderate it and some even block it from their younger ones all together. All of them are good and loving parents with smart and happy children. I’m not suggesting that all digital media is great, there are legitimate reasons that worry about the content and overuse of screens. But rather than completely closing them off, I wanted to focus on where these screens fit in with all the other things we do to develop, grow, encourage and stimulate our children? I wanted to take a closer look at the ways to a “balance in the force” if you will…

Parenting these days, consists of constantly receiving conflicting information encouraging us to do certain things, which subsequently change a year later warning us ‘not‘ to do those same things anymore.  Like how swaddling comforts our babies, but then again no it could choke them and they’ll die ; or put them in their beds on their backs, no their stomachs, I mean their sides … or they’ll die; a teething necklace how original and attachment oriented… nope… wait a second…. it could choke them and.. you guessed it… they’ll die!

When I was a new mom with baby nr. one, I spent the first 18 months worrying I’d kill my daughter if we didn’t follow advice or heaven forbid wanted to ‘trust our gut’ on certain things. With the second one we had thankfully calmed down a bit, and she pretty much plays in a sandpit of broken glass now whilst suckling on an old hairbrush …. (that, my friends, was a joke…).

1. The ‘Where and How’ of screens 

Screens are pretty much a part of life now and based on the rate at which technology is growing, it’s only going to increase. I agree that the over-use of screens are not particularly beneficial, but I also agree that screens are not necessarily the technological evil that turns our children into passive little fatties. If we threw a tablet at a 4 year old, or left them in front of the TV all day without any conversation around it nor monitoring of the content, sure.. we’d be creating consumers who would click, slide and drag their way through life. But if we moderated their screen time,  filtered out and distinguished programs that educate, motivate and teach our children about technology through play.. you could say that we would be turning those consumers into little creators themselves.

The idea of when to introduce screens to our children ofcourse seems to be widely debated with some stating it’s never too early to learn and others holding off for as long as they can.. I’ll be honest, I myself think it’s a personal choice and neither one will detrimentally screw up your child nor turn them into a gifted individual either.

2. Challenging our perception of screens 

Often we feel guilty when we’ve plopped our kids in front of the television in order to prep dinner, take a shower or heck… I’ll admit it… just to have a little peace and quiet for five minutes. We feel we need to be there to teach them everything they need to know and the idea of a screen ‘babysitting’ our child can often leave us feeling a bit anxious or stressed.

If we change our negative perception of screens we open ourselves up to the potential for good they might have. Instead of seeing it as a ‘digital babysitter’ to shut up our child, we start seeing and using it a as an occasional tool to promote emotional and intellectual growth.

Sara DeWitt (head of PBS Kids Digital) often refers to the example of Fred Rogers in her articles and conferences. In a time where television was fairly new (and even back then the anxiety around ‘screen time’ was already very real) Fred Rogers was the creator of the popular children’s tv show ‘Mr Roger’s neighborhood’ in the US. He saw television as a tool for children to learn and grow and developed a new style where he would look directly into the camera, pause and ‘wait’ for the children to interact with him. A style we often see now in children programs such as Dora the Explorer Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger. This style has given young children the perception that they are part of the program and that the characters are in fact talking to them personally. We might know that’s not the case, but a 3 year old luckily still has that sense of wonder going for them.

3. Everything in Moderation and Balance 

In our house, the television is an occasional tool used to educate, entertain and motivate our two daughters (aged 1 and 4). As they are multilingual children, the languages of the programs we choose also help us in exposing them to a certain language more when needed (for example: I speak Dutch, my husband French and although we speak English together, it’s the language our kids hear the least at this stage as we live in France). Peppa Pig, Dora the Explorer and the Australian Wiggles have contributed considerably to their English vocabulary. Such programs have also aided in teaching them about politeness, empathy, curiosity and dance at the same time.

In saying that, things like outside play, reading and writing, arts and crafts, socializing and face to face conversation/lessons/etc are still very important and key in the emotional, physical, and educational development of our children and should never be put aside no matter how much our world changes. The television in our house is merely a tool, it is not what predominantly educates our children, that’s still on us.

4. The Importance of Content 

Balance is not only important in the time we give to screens but also in its content. Games or TV shows don’t always have to be a waste of time and many have been developed to promote real learning. For example, research studies have shown that certain Math games (like Curious George, Odd Squad etc) have taught kids real math skills. PBS Kids informs us that their development partners at UCLA even believe that games can help us understand more about a child’s critical thinking skills than a standardized test can. With the increased pressure of constantly testing our children, often resulting in testing anxiety and “pigeon-holing” kids, couldn’t that be another way for teachers to have a better insight into student learning (PBS Digital, 2016).

5. Screens won’t isolate your children as long as you don’t either 

As a psychologist I can’t stress enough how important it is to really communicate with your child on a regular basis. No matter how little or how much time they spend in front of a screen. We need to talk with our children about themselves, their emotions, their questions, their theories, their fears, you name it! Although we use tools to help us parent, they need to know we’re interested in their lives, in both the big and the small, sometimes seemingly trivial stuff. This includes talking about what they see and use on screens…

In recent years, there have been various studies that show that certain programs or educational games have aided in teaching children general knowledge, language and literacy as well as social-emotional growth. However, these studies also showed that the benefit was stronger when the parents spoke with their children about what they watched. Neither just watching nor just talking about the topic was enough, the combination was key (Texas Tech University, 2016). I can see how a child could become isolated if they are planted in front of a screen, for long periods of time, with no other interactions. Nevertheless, within an age-appropriate time limit and content, we can use such programs to add into our daily interactions. For example, a child might learn through an app how birds fly, what stops us from taking them for a walk in the park afterwards to see the real deal? The other day we spoke with our daughters about sharing with each other, you can imagine their delight when ‘Peppa Pig’ had the same talk with her parents after getting into a fight with her little brother George (yes the cartoon).

If we talk with them about what they learn and see it could help us better understand their insights, show an interest in who they are and (in my case at least) they might even teach us a thing or two!

So do I have it all figured out now that I’ve done some research and written this article? Not even close! I am learning every day as they grow into little individuals within an ever changing world that, frankly, sometimes I struggle to keep up with.

I wanted (in a way) to ‘defend’ myself against those who might see parents who use screen time, as possibly lazy or distant. I wanted to encourage those who do use screens to do so in moderation but to not feel ashamed about it. But I also wanted to applaud those who avoid screens and spend all that extra time on education with their children, I truly wish I had more of it sometimes.

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7 Ways to Teach our Kids Resilience

image1We can’t change the fact that our children will face certain challenges in life, and we also can’t protect them from every little bump they’ll experience along the way (even though we might want to). With our increased sense of wanting to protect our young ones from life’s growing stressors, we are also seeing a spike in children who develop mental health issues such as generalized anxiety and depression.

(NOTE: This does not include the concerning rate of children being misdiagnosed at the first sign of ‘abnormal behavior’.. which, if you ask me, is a problem i itself and could use it’s own blog post …but later). I’m referring to how we are starting to see more and more children significantly struggling to cope when life doesn’t go their way.

Just like adults, children need an outlet to vent any frustration, anger or sadness (which often comes in the form of a lovely tantrum…. usually in the middle of a busy supermarket 😉  Of course, these are just part of the joys of parenthood, and take on various forms well into adolescence.  There’s nothing to worry about when your child ‘cracks it’ once in a while. But when significant reactions  immediately impact their lives, such as generalized anxiety, panic attacks, severe low self esteem, unrealistic expectations and in some cases even self-harming, it becomes hard to ignore.

Of course, as parents, we don’t want to create these ‘special snowflakes’ that feel like the world owes them and can’t handle negative feedback or hurdles that stand in their way. However, with the increasing urge to micro-manage children’s lives and to ‘protect’ them from common life challenges such as conflict, loss, rejection, failure and change; some parents unintentionally engineer such an outcome according to US clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel. 

She suggests that some parents coddle their children too much, which prevents them from learning from these experiences. “They need to learn from a shallow best friend, an uninspired teacher, or a bad situation. They need to learn these things without us interfering” (Mogel).

Kicking a young child out of the nest and letting them fend for themselves is not necessary, however, helping them build resilience will aid them in managing difficult situations later in life. Resilience is something they can learn and grow from as they develop a certain set of skills that help them tackle the ups and downs in life.

So instead of overprotecting them, or leaving them to fight their own battles, how do we find a balanced way to teach resiliency skills? Below are some suggestions taken from various research articles that have proven to be quite effective.

1. Let them struggle

While your help is much appreciated, it is equally important to let children feel frustrated, so they will attempt to find different solutions to the problem. This can range from your 4 year old’s irritation at her Lego blocks ,because she can’t find the piece that fits: to the university student who can’t handle living on their own because they’ve never had to manage any roadblocks in life before. Let your child find their own way to manage a difficult situation (even if you have the answer ready for them) and be there as their guide rather than doing the job for them. My mother once said ‘sometimes you need to watch your child fall down and scrape their knee so they learn to be more careful next time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be there to help you back up again’ which really stuck by me.

2. Challenge Negativity 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most of us, during our teens, have used the expression ‘this is ruining my life’ at least once. Children (and teenagers in particular) tend to amplify certain setbacks they experience, as they don’t fully understand yet what is happening to them or how to deal with it. Setbacks that might appear minor to us (such as a fight with a friend or missing out on joining a team) might feel like it’s the end of the world as they know it. It’s important not to feed into that and join the drama party, nor can we minimize or push aside what they are experiencing. Ask your child if this one event needs to effect the rest of their day/week/month. Problem solving starts with going through the options, help them take a step back and put things in perspective. Allow them to experience and feel the negativity whilst averting them from being completely swallowed up by it.

3. Take on the ‘big family mindset’ 

Today, the average family consists of one or two children and it’s affecting our parenting style, says columnist Julie Beun. In larger families, parents tend to be more of a facilitator than a micro-manager. The children get more of a chance to be independent problem solvers as they help raise their siblings, get themselves dressed in the morning and eat breakfast. In smaller families, the parents tend to ‘take care of everything’, and although this may make things run smoother, it doesn’t always work in our favor. We need to learn how to take a step back and let our children figure it out (no matter how frustrating it may be waiting around for them to zip up their jacket or put the shoe on the right foot… our time constraints should not get in the way of our child learning how to take care of the little things).

4. When at first they don’t succeed, get back up again 

Like the age old adult expression “sh*it happens” it’s ok to tell our children that mistakes happen (perhaps substitute the word “sh*t” for the time being though 😉  Hall says, we need to tell them it’s ok to make mistakes because it gives us a chance to learn from them. Together with our children, we can ask them what we learnt from our mistakes and how we would do things differently. With smaller children, an in-depth analytical approach might be a bit too much, but a simple “oops, I made a mistake, I will do this to fix it’ could work just fine in showing them how to cope with mistakes and set backs.

5. Confidence in their Competence 

A child’s confidence stems from their competence, and their competences are excelled by their confidence. Focusing on your child’s qualities as well as recognizing their mistakes and how they handled them are a great first step. Comparing them to others (siblings, peers, etc) might create unnecessary competition, rather than showing that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, the desire to protect our children might give them the (unintended) impression that we don’t think they have what it takes to tackle an issue head on, hence trying to empower them to make decisions of their own lets us be there as their guide rather than their carer. In saying that, it’s also important to not push our children to take on things they can’t realistically handle just yet.

6. Being part of a community 

Being resilient is also about knowing and understanding our place in the bigger scheme of things, and that not everything is always handed to us on a silver platter. Having our children do small chores can be a great example of developing this sense of being part of something bigger, being part of a team (and also shows that we often have to work to get things done). Children first learn their contribution counts by doing household chores (young children could feed the dog or put things in the trash , whereas older children can help clean a room or do laundry). It can help them with their problem solving and self regulation says Hall.

7. Teach them how to calm themselves 

When children get upset (especially younger children) it’s easy for a small upset to turn into a full blown epic tantrum. That’s because they don’t know how else to express their anger/sadness/frustration just yet. Reasoning with an upset, young child might not be as easy as trying to reason with an adult. Rather, teach them easy and realistic ways to calm themselves down first, before taking a closer look at what upset them. One of the more popular ways to calm ourselves down (in both children and adults alike) is taking a few deep breaths, breathing into our nose and out of our mouth. This can be easily taught to a small child and done together if they need you there to guide them. Another way to try and help a child bring themselves down from an upset is to count to twenty (or however high they can count) allowing them to shift focus to the task at hand instead of the stressor that upset them in the first place (they essentially break the cycle and engage their brain). Once they have managed to calm themselves down, they have now acquired a new skill that will also help them to reflect instead of react.

8. Discipline is about Teaching, not Controlling or Punishing

Sometimes, when I say we ‘discipline’ our children, people tend to jump to the conclusion that discipline means to control or punish them. I strongly disagree with that stereotype, as disciplining needs to be seen as teaching a child (which can be done without control or punishment). Using discipline to help your child understand that their actions result in certain consequences, could help them understand that they also have the ability to bounce back from a setback.
Dr. Ginsburg summarizes what we know for sure about the development in resilience in children, which is that our children need to know that there is an adult in their life (mother, father, stepparent, grandparent, you name it) who believes in them and loves them unconditionally.
Stress is a part of life, and an important tool in our survival. Resilience is the set of skills that develops a positive and proactive attitude towards stress, and helps us deal with stress, which greatly impact how it affects us. We can grow and encourage  resilience in our children by participating in their self development, role modeling resiliency and most importantly supporting them unconditionally. Being there for them, no matter what, gives them a solid foundation they can bounce back on when their worlds feels like it’s falling apart. Eventually, they will learn that they can create and grow such a foundation for themselves