I homeschool three “big” kids with two dogs and a toddler at home, so I’m one busy mama. The dogs are easy. But my 3-year-old son, Gianni–let’s just say he doesn’t like being on the sidelines.
I’d never been a mom who allowed much screen time. Gianni’s older siblings got to watch one movie a week at his age. But with my fourth kid, that rule was difficult to enforce.
Just like any addiction, Gianni’s screen habit started with a small fix. The big kids and I were sitting at the table working on math. My plan was to set up the older two with their assignments, answer a few questions, then sit down with my first grader to walk him through his problems.
But Gianni didn’t get that this situation called for quiet. (What toddler does, right?)
He asked me for milk. He spilled the milk. I ran to clean it up.
My daughter asked me a question. I shouted something about numerators and denominators into the dining room as I mopped the kitchen floor.
Gianni wanted more milk. I poured it for him. His big brother asked what was taking me so long.
I went back to the table. Gianni followed me.
You get the idea. It was never ending.
After many unsuccessful attempts to get him to read a book, color or chase the dogs, I had a bright idea. The answer had been in my pocket all along. My iPhone.
I pulled it out and glanced at my screensaver. A photo of me and my older son when he was Gianni’s age, unsullied by the device that now rested in my hand. Every cell in my brain screamed “Don’t do it!” But they were overruled by the migraine in my head and the knots in my shoulders.
So I opened YouTube, handed him the phone, and told him to watch it in his room with the door closed. He walked away slowly, eyes tethered to that sweet, blue glow.
I took the phone away after a half hour that day. But we had math again the next day. Reading, science and social studies, too. That iPhone was just too easy to hand over.
Within a week, he was watching videos for hours. Whenever I came to get my phone back, he’d throw quite the rager. “NO! I WANNA WATCH CLIPS OF THE PHANTOM MENACE!”
“But school’s over. Let’s go outside.”
“SHUT UP AND GIVE ME THE PHONE!”
Eventually, he started screaming for the phone the moment he woke. He hit people and threw things. I hate this cliché, but there’s no more accurate way to describe it: I’d created a monster.
That’s when I decided that screen time had to go. I called it a detox. He was an addict, and he needed to abstain from screens until he stopped craving them.
Those first few days were hell. Gianni screamed and kicked enough to get a cable news show.
But after the initial withdrawal, something magical happened. He stopped begging for the phone.
Gianni’s a kid who likes to announce things to strangers, so he would walk up to anyone who would listen and say, “I’m on a screen time detox. I can’t watch Mommy’s phone.”
Every now and then he’d ask me for it. But I’d respond, “No, bud. You’re on a detox.”
“Oh yeah. I’m on a detox,” he’d reply, then sit down with a book or go play with the puppy.
Gianni’s been “screen sober” for about a month now. He still has a few “toddler moments,” of course. He’ll cry over the sandwich that he asked me to make and he wants whichever toy his brother has at the moment.
But it’s like a screeching poltergeist has been exorcised from his body. He’s calmer. He asks me to read him books and take him outside.
He’s gotten a little bit better at understanding his role during school time as well. It seems like the experience of getting hooked on screens and then giving them up has improved his ability to cope with boredom. Or maybe it’s my parenting that’s changed. Without the screen to fall back on, I have to be more patient and flexible.
So I take the kids to the library once a week now. There are plenty of other kids for Gianni to play with while his siblings do their school work. At home, I have the kids on a rotating school schedule. Each one of them takes a shift playing with Gianni in the backyard or the basement while I teach the other two.
It’s a bit complicated, and not easy at all. But so far, it works. I only hope this lasts!