I forced my eyes open after another restless night of sleep and grinding of my teeth. It was 6am, and my four kids were already awake and arguing in the other room. Fighting a shredding headache, I was unprepared to face the madness and cacophony outside my bedroom door. It was only the second week of the 2016 summer break.
We had always enforced limitations on device time usage in our family. First it had been twenty minutes a day per kid, and eventually an hour a day per kid as they got older. “Your brains are still soft and being formed,” I would tell them, “and even though there are marvelous things to create and learn on the internet, I don’t want your heads hardwired to electronic devices. You have to trust me that I do this because I love you.” Even so, they were certain I was the most cruel and “unfair” parent in the whole wide world.
Eventually they started sneaking the iPad when no one was looking. So I began hiding it. They always seemed to find it. I upped my game and began hiding it in ridiculous places like in the basement, in the bottom of a box of Christmas tree trimmings. Still(!) it would be found. The finding of it always led to more tears. “It’s not fair! He had it an extra hour hiding in the closet! I should get it another hour too!”
At my wits end, I ended up tucking the device between the mattresses of my bed, determined it would stay there all summer. But here I was at 6am hearing the snarl in the other room over a device they couldn’t possibly have. I dragged my tired body to the living room where my jaw promptly fell to the floor. “Unbelievable.” Someone had managed to find and wrestle the iPad out from between the very mattresses my husband and I were sleeping on!
Enough was enough. My kids clearly had an electronic device addiction. They secretly snuck the iPad, easily lied about it and got ugly towards each other in their “need” of it. I should say here that with the exception of an occasional spat, my kids had always gotten along unusually well. They genuinely enjoyed being together, that is, until this device came into our lives.
I took one look at the scene in my living room and with a firm expressionless face reached out an open hand without a word. My son handed over the device. I stepped outside, dropped the device in the backseat of our car, went back in the house, unhooked the TV, dropped it in the trunk and drove them away to another location — morning hair, morning breath and in my pajamas, I didn’t care. I was a mom on a mission.
I returned home to four obviously-shocked stares. “When I was a kid,” I reminisced out loud, “I was allowed one hour of TV a day. We didn’t have iPads or computers or video games. We had to make our own fun. The greatest gift my parents gave me was the sweet gift of boredom. And because I love you all so much, I’m giving you the same marvelous gift. Merry Christmas and happy birthday.” And with that, I popped an ibuprofen and curled back in bed for another hour of sleep to hopefully ease the pounding pulse in my head.
But let’s be real, they were not so pleased with my gift. They didn’t find it so sweet. Not at first. At first there was sorrow and screeching and squirming. It was painful. Pitiful. At moments, intolerable. Punishing for all of us. Nevertheless, in my determination to see this through, I persisted through the groans, the protesting, the wailing and the whining. I barely even flinched. I wanted my family back.
After a four-day detox and when it was clear that I was dead serious about how our summer would look, the friendships between my kids began to be reestablished. If they were telling this story they would say they initially came together though their shared suffering. Slowly, contentment started to settle into their bones as they discovered they could create experiences out of nothing and that doing so smacked of satisfaction.
They created stuff. They read through piles of books. They created a village in our sandbox complete with its own currency, economy, ecosystem, government and infrastructure, and they each had responsibilities to keep it running smoothly. They wrote stories and made board games. They planted a vegetable garden; watered it, weeded it, coaxed it into growing, harvested it and prepared it for the table. Their home was outside more than in; they ran around barefoot, splashed in muddy ditches, swam in a nearby pond, caught frogs and fished for supper.
At the end of every day they smelled like dirt, sweat and sunshine. And every night they sunk their exhausted little bodies into bed, eager to start over again the next day. I slept soundly again too.
Our family had never felt more connected, more present and engaged, more together, more creative, more whole than we did during the summer of 2016. It launched a pattern of intermittent mandatory screen fasting.
We live in a world where work and communication increasingly happen electronically. It’s important for kids to learn how to use technology to be able to get on in the world, and I’m grateful they get this in school. Our capacity for virtual communication has especially proved critical during the global coronavirus pandemic. But it has also meant that our kids (and all of us really) have spent a higher than usual amount of time with our faces in screens.
There’s a part of me that fears what might be lost as this generation grows up in a tech-saturated world where friends habitually get together in living rooms and each pulls out their screen to be virtually somewhere else. I feel an unnameable discomfort about how much our being virtually connected might be taking away from our human connection and from real grounded human experiences. Something important seems easily lost amidst all the technological gains.
In the wake of the current school and work year that has relied so heavily on devices, our family is discussing how the summer of 2021 could be another summer of boredom, groundedness, balance, and wholeness — not by force but by choice and eventually, hopefully, by habit.