What do you do when your partner goes behind your back and gives the kids looser summer screen time rules? That’s what one dad is wrestling with in this week’s Fatherly Advice. But, as our resident parenting expert suggests, setting house rules is complicated, and he shouldn’t be so quick to pin it all on his partner. In fact, he might want to start doing more to give her a chance to get the kids out in the world.
My kids are home for the summer and so is my wife. My son and daughter are in elementary school and my wife is a teacher so she gets summer off, too. They’ve been out of school for a few weeks now, but when I come home from work I usually find my kids playing video games or on their iPad. When I ask them what they did during the day they just shrug.
I don’t like confronting my wife, but I asked her what was going on and she said there was a lot of housework she had to do and it was just better if the kids were occupied. I asked her why she didn’t send them outside and she said she doesn’t trust them or the neighborhood. We live in a suburb of Chicago. It’s not like we’re in the city.
I’m worried that my kids are going to stay inside all summer, and when I told my wife she wasn’t worried about it. I’d really like them to go outside more, but I don’t know how to make that happen when I work every day. Am I too worried over nothing or is it bad for my kids to be glued to a screen all day? How do I get my wife to get them out from in front of the TV and outside?
Buffalo Grove, Illinois
I totally understand why you might be worried, but keep in mind that you’re just two weeks in. Summer is still young. Your kids have not lost all their brain cells yet. And with a little communication and a bit of effort on your part, I think you can be successful in making your kids get some sun during these sunny months. But I will tell you right now that this is not going to be accomplished by asking your wife to do more.
I get that your wife has summers off, but let’s not confuse that with vacation. She’s trading one type of work for another and that’s going to take some adjustment. I don’t know about your house but with my family, the end of the school year and the start of summer results in a shit show. Schedules are messed up, clutter explodes as school gear is swapped out for summer gear, and emotional turmoil increases as my kids unleash their pent-up frustrations from the school year. When your wife suggests it helps to have the children occupied while she pulls the house together, you should probably take her at her word. So, maybe give her some time to adjust.
Which isn’t to say you’re wrong about your kids getting outside. The fact is that that your kids should be getting outside for all sorts of reasons. First, it’s just good for their health. Outdoor play helps their mental and physical development. It helps fight obesity. And studies also show that more exposure to nature decreases the likelihood of depression and anxiety. Not to mention that getting outside every day helps build imagination, coordination, and cooperation. There are very few reasons not to get a kid outside.
On the other hand, there are plenty of reasons not to allow kids to be glued to the screen for hours on end every day. Kids aren’t learning anything from media. It doesn’t make them smarter or better communicators. A rise in screen time has been associated with a rise in poor health outcomes. That’s not to say all screen time is bad. But lots of screen time isn’t great. Moderation in all things.
As an educator, your wife is likely aware of all of this, so she must have a good reason for what she’s doing. Except for, maybe, the lack of trust in your kids and neighborhood. I just looked up Buffalo Grove. Nice place! It seems to be pretty safe, too. It could be that your wife has internalized media’s constant message that kids aren’t safe in the world. It’s an easy conclusion to draw when newsfeeds are filled with horrific stories of child abduction and murder. But rest assured, child abduction is relatively rare. And most child abductors aren’t strangers, they’re people kids know, like estranged parents or relatives. If your kids played in the yard, it’s likely the biggest danger would be a skinned knee. It might help to look up crime statistics for your area and talk them over with your wife. It may help her understand that the kids are going to be fine for a while in the yard.
It might also help your wife to understand that kids need to develop a sense of autonomy too. Kids have a tendency to thrive when they feel trusted and are given the chance to make their own decisions, unsupervised by parents. This kind of autonomy has been shown to increase self-confidence and a sense of well-being. Trusting a kid outdoors is a good way to help them develop into healthy happy adults.
Of course, none of this solves the immediate problem at hand. Your wife is clearly feeling overwhelmed right now. At least too overwhelmed with household duties to get your children outside. So, my suggestion is that you offer to pick up some extra work at home. I’m not sure what the division of labor looks like now, but clearly, something is out of whack. Could you take on a cleaning task you don’t normally do? Make dinner a couple of times a week? Wash and fold some laundry? Ask your wife. Make a suggestion. I’m sure she’s not going to turn you down.
I know you may be tempted to get sore about doing extra housework. Don’t be. If it helps your wife find time to get your kids out into the world during the summer days you should be happy to do it for their sake, right?
But maybe that doesn’t work for you for whatever reason. Then really, that means you will have to take the reins and get your kids out on your own time. That might mean playing outside with them after work or taking them for a hike or two on the weekend. Either way, if you’re that concerned about your kids becoming indoor types, you need to facilitate their outdoor adventures.
The best news about all of this is that whether you choose to help out more or get your kids outside more on your own time, it will only serve to improve your kids’ outcomes and maybe even your relationship. Here’s to you, summertime, and the great outdoors.