9 O’Clock Rocks: What Do You Mean “Screen-Free” Parenting?

Dear Friends and Readers:

Welcome to my new day and topic! I’ll be posting content on Tuesdays instead of Thursdays from now on, including “9 O’Clock Rocks”, a monthly section devoted to parenting and family topics, named for that magical hour known as bedtime!

This early attempt at African-style baby wearing struck fear in both of our hearts! Do you see his death grip on my shirt?

Ever since I came out of college, I envisioned being the kind of mommy who would thumb my nose at the establishment and return to more traditional, more humane ways of raising my offspring. Over the past 20 months though, I’ve come to realize that consistent cloth diapering, exclusive breastfeeding, baby wearing, homemade baby food, baby-led weaning and all the other crunchy, anti-mainstream mothering practices trending these days are part of an overall way of life. That lifestyle requires a lot of knowledge, preparation, and committed effort that I was totally unprepared to invest.

No screen time is just one of the many sacred cows I’ve burned on the altar of actual, factual (and for all practical purposes, single) parenthood. I’m not boasting; if I could muster up the energy, I’d probably feel ashamed. I know it’s gotten out of hand because my 1½ year-old (I’m training myself to stop counting by months) wakes up demanding to watch Elmo, “Akili and Me“, “Arthur”, and “Harry the Bunny”.

Although I get endless kicks out of his attempts to pronounce these and other new words every day, I don’t enjoy wrestling my phone away from him. (Side note: isn’t it crazy how you can understand your kid’s Babynese but it sounds like mush to the outside world?)

I hear myself echoing time-treasured black momma-isms like, “Boy, do you pay this bill?” as he tries to pull up his favorite video by force while I’m in the middle of a call. I am equally amazed and horrified by his growing ability to sing along with the “Daniel Tiger” and “Caillou” theme songs, even if they do come on public television. One time, he came with me to an appointment and their WiFi wasn’t working … Oh, the drama! The pint-sized nuclear meltdown!

Now, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with TV for decades. As a kid, I loved it. Watched way too much of it. I’d skip school and sit in front of it all day, watching reruns, talk shows, judge shows, game shows, soap operas, cartoons, sitcoms – any and everything the network leaders decided to beam out of their towers and satellites.

In college, I started learning about television’s negative effects, but I didn’t stop watching until my 30s, when I declared it to be a form of mass propaganda and decided I didn’t want to let them shape my point of view any longer. Streaming internet was really popping off by then, and I enjoyed feeling more in control of the information and messages my eyes and ears passed on to my brain, my heart and my soul. (This was before Netflix and YouTube officially started pushing predictive programming – and ads, unless you cough up that premium money.)

I was living in Africa for most of the time that I carried my son, but after watching a bunch of Spanish and Indian telenovelas during my first few months there, I was down to seeing TV only when I walked up the road to my Jamaican girlfriend’s house. Otherwise, I would watch a few movies here and there as our spotty internet connection permitted.

Then I unexpectedly came back to America, eight months pregnant in the dead of winter, and I binge-watched everything Netflix and cable had to offer. Stuff about babies. Stuff for babies. Scary stuff I probably had no business watching while expecting.

Once I brought my son home from the hospital, we listened to a lot of music – lullabies, nursery rhymes, and a podcast of cultural songs for black children on a website called I Am WEE Nation. But the TV also joined us for the countless nighttime feedings and marathon nursing sessions. Once I began the slow ascent out of postpartum fog, I started doing a little contract work from home. Very quickly, I realized it was nearly impossible to get anything done unless I found a way to keep my then-infant occupied.

Several years ago, while babysitting a friend’s toddler, I noticed the absence of black characters in a full day of children’s shows on Qubo, the only kids station on the digital converter box; there was only a handful on the other kids’ stations. I started ranting about how that pattern programmed our kids to see whiteness as central from a very early age when their minds were so impressionable.

So when my son came along, I took time to find programs that prominently feature black characters and culture, and even show Africa in a positive light. Sometimes it was an episode, like the time on “Arthur” when D.W. said a bunch of stupid stuff about Africa after Brain’s cousin immigrated from Senegal. The other kids clowned her so bad that she ended up singing a whole song shouting out facts about Africa. “Happily Ever After” gave the world five whole seasons of melanin-powered fairy tales.

My favorite is definitely “Akili and Me”, the East African pre-school show on YouTube. They put out new content all the time, and their Afrobeat tunes are fun for dancing and learning letters, numbers, colors, shapes, and even emotions. I don’t hold the basic animation against them; they’re one of a few children’s cartoons being produced on the continent, and during my ranting, I found out that animation is very expensive to do.

One time, a close friend scolded me gently about letting my son watch TV, claiming he would be smarter without it. My already-overwhelmed-mom response was something like, “Well, whenever you’re ready to babysit so I can get some work done, let me know.”

I had read in a few places that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents keep kids screen-free until 18 months or older, and limit it to an hour or less during preschool years. Tech gurus like Steve Jobs had been quoted admitting that they wouldn’t let their own kids zone out on the devices that made then rich and famous. (The research suggests that kids learn language best from interacting with real people, and whenever a screen is on, it is often taking the place of conversations. Screens also take the place of more imaginative play and exploration, which are two other big, and arguably better, ways that kids develop.) I didn’t treat their press releases as scripture, though. Plus, sometimes I had to get stuff done.

After the endless kid- and mom-focused values messages disguised as commercials drove me away from Nickelodeon and the Disney channel, we started watching HBO Family and Baby First TV. After downsizing our cable package, we’ve settled on PBS Kids with a sprinkle of family-friendly YouTube and Hulu. At least it’s educational, right? And they only advertise their shows.

One retailer even sells Elmo sheets, in case your kid needs to be prompted upon waking.

It’s not totally innocent, though. Take Elmo, for example. I remember people fighting in the stores one Christmas season over Tickle Me Elmos, but I had no idea how much that little furry red monster is selling. Children’s Television Workshop must be making a killing on licensing and merchandising.

If we pass the cookies or juices with his face on them, my son will treat the whole store to a spontaneous round of “Elmo’s Song” (he loves the music… he loves the words…) If he feels particularly demanding that day, there might even be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I grew up on Sesame Street, too, but I find myself wondering what those trips to the grocery store would be like if I hadn’t exposed him to it so young and so often.

A few months back, his mobility increased to the point where I needed to move the TV off the dresser. It took such a long time for someone to mount it on the wall that I finally took it out of the room altogether. It was such a relief and reminded me of my own screen-free 30’s. But my phone screen quickly replaced the big screen, which comes with its own challenges.

Chances are, you already know how quickly these children learn to use cell phones – so fast that I sometimes wonder if the manufacturers test them on kids to see what works. What I don’t like is how fast he flips from one show to the next. Now a remote control lets fully grown people do the same, annoying thing. But I worry about the effect on his attention span if he gets into the habit of not paying attention to one thing. Ironic, right, since a lot of these shows are beyond his comprehension anyway. They’re literally just moving images and sounds to him, which makes me worry whether he’s being overstimulated as well. Then there’s the issue of eyesight – the cell phone is not only a lot closer to his face than the TV, but it is known to flood the eyes with harsh blue light. Speaking of radiation…

I caught myself getting lazier about monitoring his viewing and co-viewing, too. Then one day I discovered he could jump from app to app even if I used Android’s screen pinning feature, and he could find all sorts of mindless crap in YouTube – the predictive programming would actually feed them dancing toys and kids crying for candy – stuff I’d never choose if I were paying more attention. After he found the video of the “Dame Tu Cosita” (Spanish for “give me your little thing”) alien gyrating between Spider-Man and The Hulk, I downloaded YT Kids, a YouTube app that gives parents more control over what their kids watch, including the ability to block entire channels or limit viewing to a few specific channels.

I get it: my little guy was born into a digital world, and this kind of technology will be around him for life (or until the grid goes belly up). I’m going to spend the rest of his childhood teaching him to filter and frame the endless messages being beamed through the molecules around us. And he’ll probably teach me just as much because screen time notwithstanding, he is incredibly smart if I do say so myself.

Even still, I don’t like how he zones out in front of a screen. I know that his little brain is absorbing so much, and mass media is putting a lot out there to be absorbed beyond the superficial characters, songs and storylines. What do I want to feed his magnificent, absorbent brain?

Last week, my crunchy side took matters into her own hands and “Googled” (ha! on my phone!) some age-appropriate activities that didn’t revolve around electronic devices. I settled on throwing his felt veggies (and a toy crab) into a bucket along with some empty spice jars and a wooden spoon. He loved it and sat in the kitchen without wrecking shop while I cooked. Another activity involving pasta and play dough kept his attention focused far longer than any single cartoon has to-date.

I recently completed a learning kit on the HelloJoey parenting app called “Screens without Screams” that made an important point about reshaping our kids relationship to screens. As an excellent imitator of mommy, my son’s fascination with screens and my phone is driven in large part by how much he sees me holding it and making him wait until I’m done with it.

As a creative person and entrepreneur, I’ve become super-dependent on my phone to stay connected and get work done without whipping out the laptop and abandoning my stay-at-home parenting responsibilities entirely. That’s what I tell myself, but the line separating my screen use from addiction is actually very blurry. I’ve tried to put myself on a cell phone diet and turn it off for hours at a time. I deactivated my Facebook page for the entire summer. Social media has so many personal payoffs for me, though – I can interact with other people and express my numerous opinions with hardly any effort – that I keep letting myself overindulge, instead of getting out and socializing or putting in the work to craft publishable and impactful commentary. Need I mention procrastination?

Ultimately, limiting screen time for both of us goes back to knowledge, preparation and committed effort. As these “9 O’Clock Rocks” posts unfold, you’ll notice me striving to improve in all three areas, for the sake of my son, my sanity, and the many parenting-lifestyle choices I dream of implementing. The struggle continues!

Deidre R. Gantt is the former Associate Editor of Face2Face Africa. Prior to that, she served the Greater New Orleans community as a Program Associate with Foundation for Louisiana, where she managed leadership programs, grant opportunities and communications support to drive civic engagement and policy change. Her communications background includes a lengthy freelance career as a writer and editor, grant writer, and college writing instructor. Between 2007 and 2010, Deidre covered the rebirth of the cultural arts community in her hometown, Washington, DC, for the Ward 7 Arts Collaborative. Her professional writing career began in the 1990s as a contributing editor for Rolling Out urban style weekly. Deidre is also an accomplished poet and performer who has appeared on stages throughout the United States as well as in Tanzania and Ghana. Deidre holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Emerson College and a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California.

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