My husband and I got rid of our television fifteen years ago after watching a New Year’s Eve special for the millennium change that featured a tanked Bono and a spooky Liz Taylor. But these days, not having a TV means less and less. I’m as unhealthily attached to the smartphone in my pocket as anyone.
Last summer, at our daughter’s teacher’s suggestion, we gave our then seven-year-old a screen free summer.
Nora attends a Waldorf school, where one teacher takes a class of kids from first grade through eighth grade. At the last parent meeting of the school year, her teacher made a plea. She said the best way to prepare the children for the next academic year was a screen-less summer. Come September, she would have all the tools she needed if every child in the class had a good-old-fashioned summer break, the kind where crushing boredom sparks creativity and adventure.
No need to drill them in math and phonics. Just let them play. Then she asked us one of her famous rhetorical questions, “If you had a screen free summer, what would that look like and feel like by the end of August?”
I can tell you what it looked like for our family: freaking awesome.
A typical day had Nora sitting in a mud pit she’d dug in the back yard, wearing duct tape shoes she had made herself. She’d hop up, pluck some lamb’s ear from the garden and hold it to ears, then gallop around shouting, “Bah! Bah!” Then she’d pick some flowers, but suddenly stop, declaring, “The bees need them!” Maybe she’d knit under a tree for an hour, with the dog sleeping next to her.
Then she’d wander her muddy self into the house and make costumes from fabric scraps and decide to organize the rest of the family to ride bikes to the farmer’s market. Once we were home from that, she’d write and illustrate a book about biking.
I didn’t love every activity she came up with, mind you. One afternoon she used nearly every damn spice in the spice drawer to make potions before I realized what she was doing. Another time, July 5th to be exact, she covered her hair in half a bottle of lotion. When questioned, she claimed the fireworks from the night before and the resulting sleep deprivation had made her “half crazy.” Later that day she started writing a book she titled, Fireworks are Stupid, Dumb and Annoying.
Then there was the time I didn’t pay close enough attention to the dessert she’d made and she vomited three times. From what I gathered later, the concoction was mostly sugar and undercooked eggs. Mea culpa.
The best thing about all these shenanigans is not one of them was inspired by Disney or Nickelodeon. This was pure Nora. We got so many glimpses of her unique little brain, like the time she wistfully declared that her idea of relaxation was “lying on the floor, drinking a bottle of barbecue sauce.”
Typically, during the school year, the most media Nora has is an episode or two of Mythbusters on the weekend (an episode that doesn’t feature guns, which is a bit tricky to find), or old episodes of Good Eats, or Nova ScienceNow.
During her screen free summer, she asked to watch Mythbusters exactly once — likely because she was holding a roll of duct tape at the time — and I simply redirected her to the backyard.
Waldorf schools are famous for their no media policies. Some schools make you sign a contract that says you won’t allow your child to have screen time. Our school strongly encourages no screens at home, or limiting screens to a Friday night movie night, allowing the kids to detox from media influence over the weekend before they return to school.
Spend anytime at all on a playground, and you’ll likely see children re-enacting scenes from the most recent thing they watched on television. Media makes such a dramatic impact that kids spend a good chunk of time trying to process what they have seen. Think how many times you’ve seen kids standing on a mound of bark dust belting out “Let it Go” instead of riding the merry-go-round.
Waldorf believes in a concept they call the nine-year change. Basically, it’s a child’s first existential crisis. They realize they are an individual and they get to decide who they want to be based on the menu of options laid before them in the previous nine years. Our teacher merely wants us to provide the best possible menu of options. Why let your child add snotty, vain or violent television characters to the menu?
What’s more, as Waldorf puts an emphasis on the subtle wonder of nature and storytelling. Nora’s teacher pointed out that there’s no way she can compete with high-budget, multimedia video games and movies. “Your child is doing exactly what they should be doing by gravitating to the most exciting thing around. That’s what their brains are wired to do.” It’s up to parents to decide if the most exciting thing around is truly the right lesson for their age.
Guess what, if my daughter’s teacher — who is an amazingly energetic and riveting storyteller — can’t compete with media, then neither can I and neither can you.
There’s a reason it works to hand your child a device to buy yourself thirty minutes of quiet. The device and its output are far more compelling than parents. Now try getting your child’s attention back to chat with you at dinner or go clean her room.
Our house is not completely media free, Nora listens — with relish — to audio books. She went through most of the Ramona Quimby books several times over the summer. Now she wants to change her name to Beatrice. Audio books allow her to absorb stories and information while still using her own imagination. But we are still trying to find the balance with listening time. It too, can carry her away.
Just as you don’t need to become a Buddhist to reap the benefits of meditation, you don’t need to shell out tuition to a Waldorf school to try a no-screen policy in your house. (Tip: For the love of all things holy, do not tell your kid they are not allowed screen time. Simply redirect them.)
Some parents think that not allowing screen time is depriving their children of some inalienable right to consumerism. I say, you’re simply prepping them to enjoy it properly. I say, it’s media that deprives children — of their fundamental right to get bored stupid and wash their hair in a bucket in the backyard.
Let their brains develop to the point where they can successfully sort through the bullshit in the media. After the nine-year change, media can play a larger role. Thankfully, all the movies and games are digitally stored for your convenience. As Nora’s teacher likes to to say: “All of it will be there waiting for your child when the time is right.”