What Happened When I Let My Kids Have Unlimited Screen Time

This summer, I basically let my kids have as much screen time as they wanted. The three-year-old watched endless loops of Frozen and dozens upon dozens of episodes of Caillou (why doesn’t he ever grow hair?!). The middle-schooler watched two full seasons of New Girl, Divergent three times and logged a gazillion hours on Minecraft. My nine-year-old watched a lot of Dog With a Blog, which is actually kinda funny, re-watched all the Harry Potter movies and also played a lot of Minecraft.

I wish I could say I fought them tooth and nail whenever they asked for/snuck screen time, but I didn’t. I guess it was a combination of wanting to say “yes” more this summer, needing a break from my kids who should have been signed up for more camp and being curious about what, exactly, would happen if I just let them vege out on screens whenever, wherever. Would they really watch 24/7? Would their brains turn to applesauce? Would they remember to eat?

Here’s what happened when I let my kids have unlimited screen time this summer:

At first there was a whole lot of this:

screentimeluccaThis is all six cousins on their screens while vacationing in Tuscany. Go ahead, shake your heads. It’s shameful, I know. And this is after a full 14-hours of screen time on the flight from San Francisco to Italy! They were like addicts with an endless supply of their favorite drug. Go ahead kids, OD why don’t you?

We finally staged an intervention and got them out into the real world by promising them a whole lot of this:

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And guess what? They forgot about their glowing, beeping screens and they loved the real world! They did this:

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And this:

IMG_2957And this (notice Ella on her tiptoes making sure she looks taller than her younger sister):

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The big girls even got creative and designed and sewed original outfits for the Barbie dolls.

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They also made houses for the Tooth Fairy so she can rest between pick-ups (yes, everyone in my house still believes in the Tooth Fairy or at least pretends to for my sake).

IMG_3681The big girls also went away to sleep away camp where screens are not allowed and Lilah went to her preschool’s summer program (there are NO screens at preschool, people!). There were plenty of pool days and bike days and scooter days; plenty of dancing in the piazza and playing bocce ball and a good number of lazing around reading days. But I’m not gonna lie, there was still a lot of screen time in between.

Here’s the thing: my kids use screen time as a brain vacation. I get it. We all need down time and giving my kids screen time means I get to have some grown-up time. You know, time without three energetic, sometimes bickering, maybe crying, could be rowdy kids knocking around within close range. That time was well spent with a book or a glass of wine, around the table having adult conversation, writing or simply contemplating the view.

With school starting this week, it’ll be impossible for the kids to indulge in huge amounts of leisure screen time, which makes it a whole lot easier to wean them off their devices (thanks for doing my job, school! I love you!). Plus, while unlimited summer screen time was a win for me, and I’m pretty sure the kids felt is was a win for them, I did still feel a little guilty about it. Then, a week or so ago, we went to the California Academy of Sciences where Lilah said, “I wonder if this guy eats algae.”

Spotted rayAnd I said, “How do you know about algae?”

“I learned it on Caillou. Fish eat algae, mom.”

So all that screen time was actually, kinda, sorta educational and I got to drink my cocktails in peace? Brilliant.

 

In My Car

Sometimes I just sit in my car. I sit there for as long as I can filling my car with minutes of me not being a mom or a chauffeur or a wife or a stay-at-home anything. I sit thinking or not thinking. Breathing so only I can hear it.

Parked in my driveway, I wait to be ready to go into the house. Just before I open the car door, I wonder if I can eke out any more alone time. Maybe I’ve forgotten something “urgent” that requires backing out of the driveway once more before heading into the high-energy together time that awaits me in the house for the rest of the day and on into the evening. Maybe I need to pick up the dry cleaning. Is it ready today or tomorrow? What day is it anyway? Do we need more milk? We always need more milk. Do I have time to go to the vet for more flea medicine? Wait, are they even still open? What time is it? Oh, perfect, they’re already closed. Who closes at 3 p.m. on a Monday anyway?

I sit in my car and check email or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. I do this throughout the day wherever I am, but alone in my car, I take my time. I scroll through other people’s lives with their smiley, happy pictures and shared links and witty or completely mundane status updates. On a micro level, it seems everyone is “blessed” and had the “best summer ever” and is raising awareness for ALS by pouring icy cold water over their heads. On a macro level, the world is a shit storm of evil. Over a matter of minutes I feel joyous, jealous, big-hearted, anxious and depressed. A friend of mine from high school passed away from ALS some years ago. Even if no one nominates me for the ALS challenge, I decide to write a check anyway.

After I’m done being emotionally chewed up and spit out by social media, I check the digital vehicle messages. How many more miles until I’m out of gas? How many more weeks until I need an oil change? Is the traction control still on? There’s something reassuring about these clear data points. I check how many miles I’ve driven total: 43,621 in three and a half years. Some are road trip miles to Napa and Disneyland and Tahoe, but most of them are carpool miles and grocery store miles and a few girls-night-out-in-the-city miles. Those miles tell the story of my life and the way each day is a spiral that begins in my driveway and circles out and around then back around again the way it came.

IMG_3797I also sit in my car in parking lots. That’s when I eat lunch. I grab tofu spring rolls from Trader Joe’s while shopping for my family’s seemingly endless food demands. We have six to eight boxes of cereal in the pantry at all times and they are all open and in play. This is why we always need more milk. I click the key fob remote to open the door to the way back, load the groceries and gallons of milk and then sit in the front seat, eating my spring rolls. Even if someone is waiting for my parking spot. Yes, that’s me with the engine running and the car in park. Move on.

I make a lot of calls when I’m alone in my car. To friends back east and my parents just down the road in Tiburon, to the hairdresser and the dog groomer. I make orthodontist and doctor and waxing appointments. It’s a delightful thing, making it through several phone conversations without interruption. When I’m done with the calls, I turn on the radio as I’m backing out. I listen to whatever I want, even if the song has bad words in it or is about an inappropriate theme, like burning down your cheating asshole boyfriend’s house. Mostly I listen to Alt-Nation, but if I come across “Nobody Does It Better” on the 70s channel, get ready to hear me belt it out. I’m sure people can hear me. Even with the windows up. Even if I’m driving.

A friend of mine who is newly enamored with meditation told me I can even meditate in my car. Really? That’s awesome news: another just-for-me activity I can do alone in my beloved car after eating a tofu spring roll and channeling my inner Carly Simon.

We Are All Just Visitors: Remembering Robin Williams

morkI’m not sure when it was I first figured out Robin Williams wasn’t actually acting. He wasn’t pretending to be an endearing visitor from another planet or a shattered, homeless man in New York City or an energetic Genie trapped in a bottle. He wasn’t posing as a passionate, beloved poetry teacher or a grownup who could fly or a father crazy enough in love with his ex-wife that he’d waltz around as a stout, prudish nanny. Instead, he was just being himself – his nuanced, magnetic, hysterical, genius, explosive self.

I imagine it must have dizzying for him to feel such intense, raw emotions so much of the time. As someone who struggles to corral my own over-active monkey brain and small-scale bouts of extreme emotion, Robin Williams’ openness thrilled me. He was willing to be ridiculous, both physically and emotionally, to show us exhilarating joy, childish wonder, profound sadness. He took the complex business of being human to an emotional level very few of us ever contemplate.

By the time he went public with his addiction and depression, I was well into my 20s. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t just the fun and funny that were heightened for him; it was also the dark and shadows and everything in between. I know living this way wasn’t a choice for him or something he could readily control. Feeling so much so intensely is a double edged sword: it can be addictively thrilling, but also frightening and lonely.

The only time I have ever experienced intense, overwhelming depression was in the months following the birth of my first daughter. New motherhood shocked me. Nursing was a disaster and Ella lost weight. She cried all the time. I barely left the house for two months because I was so strung out. I’d imagine myself tripping down the stairs and dropping her. I’d be in the kitchen cutting vegetables with Ella asleep in her bouncy chair 8 feet away and visualize the knife slipping out of my hands, flying across the room and stabbing her. These open-eyed nightmares left me breathless and consumed by sadness and failure. Wrapped in desperation, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling better and it terrified me. I didn’t know how long I could endure it.

I know now that I suffered from postpartum depression. My housecleaner saw me struggling and offered to babysit two afternoons a week. My husband gave me all his love and support. My friends came to me, eventually coaxing me out of the house. The nursing got better. Ella began to thrive. A few months later, I felt better. My depression had been temporary and I did what I needed to do to keep that demon away after having my second child and then a third. I know this doesn’t happen for everyone.

Sometimes our souls go to the deepest, darkest places. Sometimes we recover. Sometimes we don’t. I cannot imagine how utterly desperate and completely out of options Robin Williams must have been to voluntarily leave this world. But I do know how it feels to arrive at a point where you know, for sure, that you won’t survive another stint in those painful, emotional hinterlands.

We are all just visiting this earth, learning the customs, mastering the language, trying to be human. Robin Williams made me laugh until I ached, but even more than that, he showed me that being human is a layered emotional experience unique to every one of us. He gave us all of himself in the most honest and unselfish of ways. For that I will always remember him. May his light forever shine, on good days and bad, in the darkest corners and on the clearest moonlit nights.

Lost and Found Among the Van Goghs

We did not go to Israel. We went to Rome. Instead of playing on the beach in Tel Aviv, we circled the Coliseum, spectators among the ruins. We did not go to Israel. We traveled on to Amsterdam. Instead of resting our heads in reflection against the warm stone at the Kotel in Jerusalem, we toured the canals, took in the windmills.

After making the decision not to go to Israel from Florence as planned, we tried to make the best of our muddled vacation. Like us, at first the kids were sad and confused at this change of plans. The endless gelato in Italy followed by Dutch chocolate and pancakes for dinner seemed a respectable and happy-making substitute for them.

I, on the other, felt as though I were walking around in a fog. Yes, Rome and Amsterdam are wonderful cities, with so much to see, do, eat and drink. None of it filled the hollowness in my heart, that nagging feeling of missing something you’re not sure you can ever replace. I know canceling our trip to Israel during a war was the right decision for our family, but that doesn’t mean it felt good.

IMG_3531We are in the Van Gogh Museum stepping off the elevator into the lobby. I am pushing a cranky three-year-old in her stroller; the big girls straggle behind me as we make our way to the museum shop. A mom and her young daughter are walking and talking just in front of us. That’s when I hear it: Hebrew. At first I think my ears are playing tricks on me because Dutch is guttural, like Hebrew and who would be speaking Hebrew in Holland? Then I realize, no, it really is Hebrew. I can’t help myself:

“Are you Israeil?” I blurt out. The moment I ask, I realize this might be a question that makes them wary: a stranger asking if they’re Israeli? In Europe where anti-semitism is rearing its ugly head once again, who knows what the asker’s intentions might be? But the woman doesn’t hesitate.

“Yes,” she answers, smiling lightly. I feel as though the world has stopped spinning and that if I don’t hold tight to this woman, I might just float away. I put my hand on her arm and start gushing about how we were supposed to be in Israel right now for a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah but we changed our plans because of the rockets coming from Gaza and the ground operation and we’re so sad not to be there, so heartbroken. I can feel the flush in my cheeks as tears well in my eyes. She covers my hand with hers.

“It’s not the time to bring your family,” she says in her accented English. “We are here taking a break from it.” “It” being the stress and trauma of living in a war zone with sirens going off throughout the day and night and rockets arcing overheard and young soldiers putting their lives on the line to ferret out terrorists while the casualties mount.

In her eyes I see pure sympathy and understanding. I feel the tension of the last 10 days melt away and then I feel something amazing: connection. I’d been wandering around Europe feeling isolated, not just from Israel, but from my Jewish self. I shushed the kids whenever they used a Hebrew word or sang a Hebrew song or wondered out loud if a certain food was kosher (no, bacon salami is definitely not kosher). I’d been nervous to visit the Jewish quarter in Rome, not wanting to broadcast that we were Jews, worried we’d end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. I wondered if there’d be extra security at the Anne Frank House. My fear and anxiety about the world made me feel small and dark, on edge and alone.

Talking to this Israeli mom while my girls shoved each other impatiently and the little one demanded a snack, I felt my heart surge. She was like a lightening rod to home – my Jewish home. I’d been feeling as though I’d somehow forsaken Israel by not going, but there, in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam I knew my love for Israel was more passionate than ever. I knew we would do everything we could to be there soon.

I never could have imagined my summer would turn out the way it did. I didn’t swim at the beach in Tel Aviv or watch my friend’s son become a bar mitzvah at the Kotel. I didn’t shop for dried fruit and spices at Machane Yehuda or hang out with my BFF in Neve Tzedek. I didn’t get to taste the sweet, gooey rugelach at Marzipan or have a drink with my friends at the rooftop bar at the Mamilla hotel in Jerusalem.

No, I didn’t go to Israel this summer, but my connection to the aretz is stronger and fiercer than ever before. No matter where I am in the world.