Managing the Household Electronics

I try not to let the kids spend too much time, but there are moments when I feel Amish.

Neighborhood Mother, 2002

Through the years, I’ve tried to rein in the household electronics so that the kids don’t spend all – or even most – of their time staring at a screen.  Having grown up with a TV and the early cable, I firmly believe that the majority of stuff on any kind of screens is simply a waste of pixels.  There are good programs and also good websites, but most is dreck.  But the past year has forced us to reconsider what is an acceptable accomodation.

As a practical guy, I never put much faith in psychology/self-help literature and I’ve rarely found one that actually made me change how I operate.  One of the few exceptions is The Shelter of Each Other by Mary Pipher, an experienced family therapist.  This book is based upon observations drawn from a long career as a therapist; her premise is that the modern American family is harmed by a combination of factors.  The first is the consumerist belief that bigger is better, especially when it comes to housing.  The typical house’s square footage grew so much over the decades from the 1950s that a parent could be in the kitchen – where I practically live – while never being able to hear what was going on in the far corners of the house where the offspring would spend their time.  A second factor is the rising ubiquity of consumer electronics, to the point that many children have computers and television sets in their own rooms.  Consequently, there is no appreciable reason for them to gather with the rest of the family; especially during the teen years when they might consider the ‘rents as trainable idiot savants.  The third reason is the attention of the ‘rents to those things in the outer world, like work and outside activities.  That isn’t meant to denigrate parents who have to work, but the first two factors make connecting with the kids all the more difficult.

The book made such an impact on both of us that several things occurred.

  • We moved our sole computer from the guest room/office to the family room so that the screen would be in a common area.  This was pre-emptive in order to avoid any possible hurt feelings when moving it after she started using it. 
  • We decided to assure that the size of our house would never be larger than it was at that moment.  We’ve since moved into a smaller house, willingly giving up the space to assure more intimacy.  To clarify, we moved from a home of about 2600 square feet to 2200 square feet so it’s not as if we moved into the storage shed.
  • We agreed to not allow the kids to have computers or televisions in their rooms.  We’ve compromised on personal music devices – CD player/radio and mp3 – when they reached a specific age.
  • Cell phones would not happen until we were very comfortable that there was a real need, i.e. obtaining a driver’s license.

And here is where the situation rests.  Over the years, both my wife and I have acquired laptops for use in work.  Hers is purely work while I use mine for this website and financial matters.  My laptop has aged along with my eldest child, to the point that mine is frankly clunky and she requires more time on the computer for classwork.  If and when I replace this, is giving her this particular device violating what we agreed upon?  And if not, what restrictions do we place on it’s use?

My mate is more comfortable with this than I am.  From my perspective, questions to be answered would include:

  • About how much would it be used in her bedroom versus the common areas?
  • Since she is still a minor – not even driving – do we have access to her passwords? 
  • Do we reserve the right to inspect the contents?
  • What are the consequences of not meeting the guidelines?
  • Indeed, am I setting a better example by just using this until it dies and making her continue to use the family PC?

The situation will play out in the next several weeks as my wife and I discuss our concerns.  And while I refer to myself as an electronic Nazi, I’d hate to be referred to as Amish.

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