“I thought you said plastic was bad, Mom,” my eight-year-old son said as I handed him cereal in the green plastic bowl.
I proceeded to acknowledge that yes, I have mentioned that and explained that we don’t want to put hot things in plastic because the heat leaches icky chemicals into our food, and the more we can avoid that, the better for our bodies. “But your cereal is cold, and I don’t have time to wash any dishes right now,” I said as we scurried to get out the door and to school on time.
I took a moment to silently celebrate that he does indeed listen, because sometimes when his dirty socks are still sitting on the living room floor despite my asking him three times to take care of them, I really wonder if “I didn’t hear you, Mom” is true.
Recently, we watched a video of him as a two-year old. In it, he scolded me for walking on the road instead of the sidewalk at a park. “You know the rules,” he sternly told me with a vehemence reminiscent of an adult, not a toddler. That road, in this case, was a parking lot, but to his mind, it made sense to use what he knew as a path for human feet, not car wheels, to keep us safe. And he knew this because he’d been told this.
Then there’s the tone and language. Not only is he listening, he’s emulating what he’s hearing from the adults in his life. And what he’s noticing provides a model to him to what it means to be human.
More recently, one morning before I pulled myself out of bed, I did the usual—I checked into my email, text messages and Facebook. As my son watched this time, he pointed out the hypocrisy in my rules: a rule which says he can’t have screen time first thing in the morning.
I’ve noticed that, for my son, screen time first-thing sets us up for a pretty negative tone that follows us around throughout the day. It seems to trigger the addiction that begs for more all day long to satisfy the craving.
I tried to reason his observation away, saying that people are trying to communicate with me, so I’m checking to see whether I need to check in…
And then I stopped. I put my phone away. The words coming out of my mouth were a load of crap. While it may start with that truth, it certainly doesn’t end with that truth. It’s too easy to scroll, just one more swipe to feed the addiction. Oooh, but this article looks so good…one more click to be smarter and wiser. And time fades away, lost.
“You’re right,” I said to him, tossing my phone away and pulling out a book to read together instead.
Since then, I’ve had discussions with him about how sometimes my work requires me to be on my computer. I’ve been cognizant of my own screen time in his presence. I’ve also pondered what it would be like to be confined to the amount of time I give him myself. He’s told me he thinks listening to podcasts should count as screen time.
At first, I thought that suggestion preposterous. A mere way to get back at me and my rules. A way to assert power at an age where he often feels power-less. I mean, I’m being productive as I listen to podcasts or audio books. New perspectives seep in while I cook and clean…There’s nothing zombifying about this…I have lived a full childhood device-free. The excuses in favor of me could keep going, really.
But, I allowed myself to think bigger about what his view might be. While he hasn’t fully articulated it, I’m certain it’s something along the lines of this. Although he may be playing on his own 10 feet away from me, I’m still present for him. When I choose to engage with a digital speaker, however, it closes me from being open to an opportunity to be present with him. When something funny enters his mind or a thought he wants to share about his day or the crazy thing his StikBots just did, there’s a delay while I hit pause, or even a dismissal if I imply “Not right now.”
When I spend time in the kitchen, I do enjoy him as the background music. The language he uses in solo play, the songs I’m not sure he’s even aware he’s singing as he colors or builds as if in meditation, even the fighting sounds that accompany his Lego mini figure wars: these are the brilliant and creative sounds of a life lived up to this very moment. It ignites joy in my heart in a way that a podcast voice never will.
Despite their small size, they’re every bit as human as those our age. Like our adult-sized friends and partners, kids listen fully with all their senses—the things we say and don’t say, the things we do and don’t do, the things we feel and don’t feel—and where those things match up or don’t. They’re not inferior beings; in fact, their senses and ability to tune in to what’s really going on is often far superior than those our own age. When we adults see children as simply human instead of simply kid, a relationship of mutual respect is born.
Once I’m able to empathize instead of throwing out an adult version of whining, sulking and pouting, our relationship seems to magically change. When we treat each other like humans—in other words, when I treat him like a person with valid opinions and feelings who appreciates choice instead of a child subject to parental authority—we have a lot fewer problems. And when there is a problem, it’s a whole heck of a lot easier to solve.
When you’re feeling constantly at battle with your kids, ask yourself the following things:
Examining yourself isn’t easy, but with practice, it brings transformation. Whether it’s green-plastic-bowl type questions or I-got-lost-in-screen-time excuses, take these as opportunities to dive deeper into you.
Kara McNabb is a naturopathic practitioner who helps infants, children, teens and adults find better health naturally through herbalism, food, lifestyle suggestions, mind-body connections, energy work and other modalities.
Photo: Kid by Lotus Caroll, Creative Commons