Whether or not to let kids plug in, and for how long, is a perennial issue of debate.

It’s one I’ve wrestled from the time I became a parent up to this very morning, when both my sons are curled on the couch watching cartoons on DVD because one of them is really sick.

Should I make the healthy kid get up and go do some work on his math book or practice reading aloud?

Should I be sitting down and reading aloud to them both instead of parking them in front of How to Train Your Dragon, which was the only thing my moaning, feverish, vomiting boy wanted when he woke up this morning?

"iPotty for iPad = high tech toilet training." Photo courtesy See-ming Lee via Flickr Creative Commons.

“iPotty for iPad = high tech toilet training.” Photo courtesy See-ming Lee via Flickr Creative Commons.

Maybe it seems silly for me even to worry about these kinds of things. I am pretty sure I got to watch TV all day when I was home sick (still have a soft spot for Bob Barker and Price is Right because of those days of Jell-O, ginger ale, and chicken noodle soup…) but parenting has got a little more complicated since those days.

(Besides the questionable amount of screen time, he Jello-O has red dye #40, the ginger ale has high fructose corn syrup, the chicken noodle soup has too much sodium, plus, gluten! Oy! Obviously, my mother didn’t know that all these things were irrevocably destroying children back in 1988, since I never developed any food allergies, hyperactivity, insulin resistance, or…anything, really.)

But back to my main point (and I do have one.) Anyone who has children, or, for that matter, has been a child, which would seem to cover the majority of the population, knows that kids have an astonishing ability to soak up knowledge.

I was discussing this recently with a fellow ex-pat who is also a parent of a very young child, who, as a toddler barely out of diapers, is essentially tri-lingual. She has begun stringing words into sentences, and it is beautiful to behold.

She’s not even my kid, but watching her astonishing — and yet, typical –progress is, to me, as beautiful and remarkable as gazing through a telescope. The human mind is a vast and beautiful thing. I think we too often forget this.

“Our brains are deteriorating even as hers is expanding. Encouraging, no?” I said to the little girl’s father, and we joked about the neuronal connections and natural, non-pathological deterioration of our own mental capacities, which perhaps are not aided by the gin-and-tonics we ex-pats enjoy.

 (Hey. Tonic water contains quinine. Quinine is an anti-malarial. We’re in a malarial zone. It’s practically medicinal, okay?)

Recently I have been re-listening to (and immensely enjoying) the audiobook version of Ann Patchett’s new collection of nonfiction essays. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

Not least among the pleasures of the book is Patchett’s largely positive view of her twelve years of Catholic school and her continuing, warm, caring relationships with some of the nuns who taught her to read and write. While I’m the last person to advocate burying stories of religious abuse, I’m also a big fan of celebrated those religious folks who do so much good in this world.

In one section, Patchett, who is childless by choice, writes:

“I believe the brain is as soft and malleable as bread dough when we’re young. I am grateful for every class trip to the symphony I went on and curse any night I was allowed to watch The Brady Bunch, because all of it stuck. […] Think about this before you let your child have an iPad.”

When we think about the formation of our children’s hearts and minds, and the people we hope that they’ll grow up to be, it’s worth considering the astonishing retentive capacities of their minds.

But such debates about “screen time” and whatnot often have a quasi-religious overtone, with the ‘sinners’ being those who let their kids spend endless hours in front of the TV or iPad or smartphones, and the ‘saints’ being those who never resort to TV, not even when the kids are sick and there is 3 feet of snow on the ground for the Nth @&*$ing week in a row.

Surely, though, there is a middle way. If you’ve found one, would you share in the comments?


  1. I think we do screen time along the same lines, and I, too, have a special place in my heart for sick days spent watching Price is Right and old sitcom reruns!
    We try very hard to limit screen time to an “appropriate” amount, but it is hard to know how much is too much. I even have the worry (sometimes) that they need more screen time (ie – My 5 year old doesn’t even know how to use a mouse yet – yikes!). I do think there is a difference in active screen time (Stack the Countries app) vs. vegging out in front of tv.
    I think the thought that helps us along is – “What am I giving my kids a taste for?” Is it hungering to be outside, exploring? Is it trying new foods? Is it reading good literature? Is it good conversation around the dinner table? Is it hospitality? Is it service? Friendship? Learning? Is it turning to electronics upon the very hint of boredom? We have so much power as parents to shape our children’s tastes. I’m hoping that, as we train them to limit sweets and unhealthy food, they will learn to have a taste for good healthy food and eat sweets in moderation as adults. I’m also hoping that we will give them a taste for life with limited screen time so that they will have tools to limit themselves down the road.
    Hope your little guy is feeling better!!

  2. We’re living the middle way – but I’m not sure it’s because of our great parenting decisions or whatever, but rather because we’ve been lucky to get a son who does not care much for computer games and is just as crazy about reading books as his Dad and I. So we don’t really need to limit him, because he genuinely likes other things as much or more than screen entertainment.

    We’ve had a general guideline of max 2 hours screen time per day, but don’t worry about him getting more when he’s sick. However, I must say we have been pretty deliberate and selective about what he watches, because his imagination is so vivid that any scary, violent and suspenseful stuff affects him a lot.

    And the older he’s become (he’s almost nine now), the more we discuss those choices with him. I think that is the big point: helping him to learn how to choose for himself what’s good for him – to watch, to play, to read. Making mistakes is a part of it. That’s one way how you learn. “OK, now we’ll know to avoid this kind of stuff in the future.” Of course I want to prevent the huge, obvious mistakes :) but mostly keep on the positive side: helping him to find the things that are good for him to absorb.

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