The Screen-Free-Week, or, How To Grow Your Childs Brain in One Easy Step

Minecraft, you will find if it happens to you, swallows kid’s brains.  Since Minecraft entered our household ten days ago, we’ve heard about little else from our six year old.  Withers, Creepers, Spiders and the Netherworld are all conversational topics in our house at the moment.

We are strict about screen time in our house.   We have a Screen-Free-Week for the kids every second week, which means no shows, no games, no YouTube, no laptop, no iPad, no phones.

We’ve done it this way for two or three years now.   We noticed early on with our first child that screens seem to supercharge frustration.  We strongly limited the amount of screen time our kids had from the first moments they watched them, but as any parent will know, scope creep happens easily.  We noticed that play was becoming less imaginative and more structured around shows.  That was ok with us, because kids will get inspiration from the whole world around them.  Then “I’m bored!” became a common catch-cry while they waited for their screen time.  Arguments became more commonplace, and team work became almost non-existent.

So after the usual banning of screens as punishment we tried regular Screen-Free-Days.  That didn’t give the kids enough time to get used to having no screens, and they would ask repeatedly all of that day.  We then tried whole weeks occasionally, and immediately noticed the behavioural difference.

After a year or so of doing a week off screens every month or more, we committed to every second week.  The boys now know it’s coming, and they emotionally prepare themselves.

The hardest part of Screen-Free-Week is the lack of babysitting.  It’s harder for me and my wife than the kids.  We have to be much more available to coach and provide options if they need it.  This is absolutely a good thing, but its harder than plopping the two of them down with an iPad.

We find that the boys play much better together during these weeks off, however they need more coaching around learning to relax after a big day or understanding when they are tired.  Screens provide much needed chill-out time, and finding alternatives has been challenging.  Getting an eight-year-old and a six-year-old to just sit around when they are exhausted is surprisingly difficult!  Drawing and colouring has been an effective replacement, but it depends on the level of fatigue.

Screen-Free-Weeks make an effective consequence.  As much as I dislike consequences and punishments in general (I would prefer my kids to behave themselves because its the right thing to do rather than being coerced through bribes or threats), when one is required, the SFW cuts to the quick.  Bad behaviour is sorted out rapidly.

What has been remarkable is the behavioural change we’ve seen in our boys.  They are almost like different people in the SFW.  The change was most noticeable when they were younger and more emotionally charged.

In a screen week we often see arguments during play, and the boys tend to organise play around the times they get screens.  They are often bored and listless while waiting to watch (we usually set hard times around screen consumption).  They are sometimes so emotionally caught up in their shows and games that they can barely play.  The six-year-old often argues with us about screen times and almost everything else that doesn’t go his way.

During a SFW all that changes.  Their play is super-imaginative, dynamic and exciting.  The boundaries they set around games are broader and more inclusive.  They work together as a team and help each other much more.  They tend to be more empathetic.  They are more receptive to their own body signs like hunger, thirst and toileting.

My wife and I enjoy those weeks too, because we interact much more with the boys.  They help us with cooking, or we play card games.  We watch them read or colour or draw, and we listen to their conversations, which are invariably bright and beautiful.

During a Screen-Free-Week we don’t have to fight with media for attention.  With my long-term view towards loving and communicative relationships with my sons, this is a major hurdle that we have overcome.