How Screen Time Brought Me and My 7-Year Old Closer Together
Leah Koenig shares how screen time stopped being a source of conflict and started bringing her closer together with her kids–one hyperrealistic cake video or round of Spelling Bee at a time.
- Written By
- Leah Koenig
- Angelo Dolojan
If you had told me before I became a parent that I would spend a considerable chunk of my waking hours negotiating screen time boundaries with my two kids - well, I would have absolutely believed you. What I might not have believed, however, is that there would come a day when a screen would stop simply being a source of conflict, and would actually bring me and my children closer together.
Like so many other expectant parents, I had big opinions about screen time before my first kid arrived. Sure, I had grown up watching hours of Saved by the Bell and Full House, and had turned into a reasonably well-functioning grownup. But I had also read all the articles about the potentially harmful impact screens can have on young, developing brains, and decided that my kiddo was going to grow up screen free. Okay, maybe he could watch an occasional vintage Sesame Street clip, but that was it.
Then Max was born and, no surprise, my pre-baby convictions smacked up against the reality of actually being a parent. The introduction of screens happened gradually - an episode of Daniel Tiger or Paw Patrol while I got dinner on the table, or a few Singing Walrus videos (IYKYK) while stuck in traffic on the way to the dentist. By the time my daughter Beatrice came along 4 1/2 years later, I had the Octonauts theme song running in a constant loop in my head. But here’s the biggest surprise: I’m totally okay with that. Because in ways I could have never imagined, screen time has become a source of bonding for my family.
When Max was a toddler, he and I were great playmates. We cooked fantastic imaginary meals in his play kitchen, zoomed his trucks all around the apartment, and read every book on his bookshelf until the spines wore out. But as he has gotten older, he has developed passions for baseball, Beatles trivia, and Minecraft that I don’t have much to contribute to. And aside from the occasional chapter of Harry Potter, now that he’s a proficient reader, he has decided that he is officially too old to have me or my husband read to him. (Fortunately Beatrice is still in her prime read-to-me stage!)
On the whole these changes are good things. At almost 8 years old, Max should be developing his own friends and interests, and carving out his own, independent place in the world. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the easy connection we had when he was a toddler.
Enter Spelling Bee, the popular daily spelling game put out by the New York Times. One place where my son’s interests and mine do overlap is words and language. He has become obsessed with playing the Spelling Bee game (and honestly so have I), so it has become part of our nightly tradition to sit down and try to reach the genius level. Yes, we are staring at a screen and getting all the blue light into our eyes. But we are staring together and working towards a common goal - and that feels like a definite parenting win.
My husband, a professional musician, found his own screen-based connection with Max when he recently introduced him to The Beatles’ Get Back documentary. The two of them are slowly making their way through the series, one lengthy episode at a time. And while I could get upset to see Max lounging in front of the computer screen after dinner, it is so clear that the show has helped him tune in - both to his favorite band, and to his relationship with his dad.
Beatrice also gets into the mix when she, Max, and I watch YouTube videos of hyperrealistic cake artist, Natalie Sideserf, making cakes that look exactly like shoes, or a hairbrush, or a bag of peanuts. They live for the moment at the end of every video when Natalie cuts into the cake to expose the layers of buttercream hiding under an utterly convincing stack of red Solo cups or a bunch of asparagus, And I live for the way those videos have inspired them to get creative away from the screen.
Despite my continued efforts, neither of my kids has ever shown much interest in joining their professional food writer mom in the kitchen. But after watching several weeks of cake videos, Max recently suggested that we buy modeling chocolate (Natalie’s favorite cake-sculpting medium) to make my husband a guitar-shaped cake for his birthday. The result arguably looked more like some kind of mutated toadstool than a guitar, but that hardly mattered. It was delicious, and the kids were so happy to get to reenact their favorite cake cutting moment.
In recent years, the science around kids and screen time has evolved - and so has my own thinking about it. I made the mistake of equating all forms of screen time, and labeling them all as harmful. But life has proven that assumption wrong - at least in the context of my own family.
My husband and I continue to set limits around what the kids watch and how much time in front of the computer, phone, or iPad they get. We are determined to never let screens dominate their free time. Those limits often lead to negotiations (“just 5 more minutes, please mom?”), arguments (“all my friends get to watch that show, how come I can’t?”) and tears of frustration. But in those moments when screens become a tool of shared experience, rather than a tool of distraction, they offer moments of connection that rival anything found in real life.