It was Wednesday and a strange din was coming from the family room. It was an odd noise, most notably because of what it was not. For the first time in about four days, the sound was not DinoTrux on Netflix. Not exactly. Sure, DinoTrux was on. I could hear hints of the heroic soundtrack and earnest dialogue between truck/dinosaur hybrids. But it had become the sonic background to a bigger and livelier noise of brothers at play.
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I expected my 5- and 7-year-old boys to be slumped beneath blankets with buttery bemusement spread across their faces. After all, that’s pretty much the way they had been since Sunday when their mother and I had removed all screen time restrictions. Save for juice and food runs to the kitchen, they’d barely shifted from their television-induced hypnotic repose. They’d been essentially lost to this world, subsumed in the apocalyptic future of sentient Jurassic machinery. But it was Wednesday and things apparently a corner had been turned. My boys had forcefully pulled themselves back into the world and built a fort around the coffee table.
As I entered, they ran around the room, ducking into their shelter and yelling at each other about the pressing need to hide from enemies. They’d gone from watching DinoTrux to being DinoTrux. I flipped off the television. No reaction. They continued playing unaware that anything had changed. I left the room. They played for hours.
When we allowed our kids a week-long binge of screen-based media, my wife and I had predicted more-or-less instant zombification. We weren’t particularly concerned about it. It was going to be spring break. The weather in Northeastern Ohio was lousy. My wife was deep in a good book. I had work. We’d explained that they would have to go outside once a day and that my older son would have to read, then given them the clicker and their freedom.
What happened next wasn’t surprising, but it was a reminder that television is a powerful drug for kids. On Monday night, at bedtime, we gave the boys little warning before pushing the power button on the tube. (Screen time restrictions aside, kids do have to sleep.) My older son lost his damn mind. He screamed as though we’d caused him blinding physical pain. Then he burst into tears and beat the crap out of an innocent pillow.
That was almost enough for us to rethink our little experiment. But it also piqued our interest. It had become clear that there was a version of our little experiment that ended with me throwing a television out a window. We proceeded cautiously.
The next few days were fine but disheartening. The boys zonked. Whether or not they were metabolizing television, they were consuming it in incredible quantities. I would have been impressed if I wasn’t so guilty and worried. Still, I had work to do so we let it ride. You can’t learn without risk. You can’t learn about your kids without letting them make awful decisions.
Then they built that fort and everything changed. After their DinoTrux game started on Wednesday, the boys seemed to be immune to the television’s spell. They didn’t turn it off themselves, but they began to ignore it in favor of building Legos, driving Hot Wheels around the carpet, and role-playing any number of other favorite shows. It informed their play but didn’t define it. They had been inspired in a weird way.
Their games began to spill out of the family room and into the rest of the house, much to my wife’s chagrin. Toys found their way up the stairs to litter the kitchen, dining room, and living room. The boys chased each other around, making odd mechanical noises. The TV flickered in the empty family room without a purpose. At one point, without our encouragement, the 7-year-old began heading out into the chilly overcast front yard on his own. He would dress in a coat and boots and without much more than a brief status update would slip out the front door to swing sticks at the wind, or drape himself over the hammock I neglected to take down for winter.
By Sunday, my wife and I were more interested in watching TV — we’d avoided it all week on account of the children’s fare — than the boys. We put on some superhero action and they were reluctant to chill. They insisted on ignoring the television and playing together with their own superhero figures. We found ourselves in the bizarre position of begging them to be quiet and just watch the TV.
As frustrating as the moment was, it was also terribly enlightening. My boys had discovered their own balance. Yes, the devil television had arrested their momentum for a while, but the inexhaustible energy of their bodies and minds proved too much to hold fast. Even with the vast resources of scriptwriters, animators, producers, and directors, my boys had ultimately decided that they could do it better in their imaginations. And while the programs did provide inspiration, the shows could not possibly compare to their own creativity which compelled them to build and run and play.
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That makes me incredibly proud. And it’s a pride I would not have found if I hadn’t lifted the restrictions on screen time. I look at it now like a stress-test for my children’s minds. One in which their minds won out.
That said, the screen restrictions have returned with school: no television until the weekends. Interestingly, there are fewer complaints now. The boys seem to have learned that TV has limits. They seem to have also learned — at least on some level — that their minds do not.