A couple of weeks ago, a friend challenged me to a screen free parenting day. We agreed that for a single Sunday, we’d focus on our young kids and have dedicated family time all day long—without a single screen to entertain any of us. Nothing to “pass the time” while someone else was unavailable for company; no screens even in the bathroom (yep, I wrote that). We’d have to conjure up things to do as if it were 1985 all over again.
To be clear, we’re not a tech heavy family. However, we’re much more reliant on technology than we’d even realized we were. Sure, we don’t use it to entertain our child when we go out to a restaurant, and we don’t choose cartoons or video games over playground time. But does our kid watch the iPad while I’m showering in the morning? Yep. And do I check my phone three times per day? It feels more like 300 some days, even if it’s usually for “just a minute.” Someone is almost always logged into something.
There’s a lot of compelling research that demonstrates that the best parenting is parenting where young kids, or kids of any age, don’t rely on screens as a major source of entertainment. And while we’re not in the “major source” category by a long shot, we’d felt, well, a bit disconnected recently. Not from technology, but from each other as a family. We wondered if unplugging from ALL the technology for awhile would set us back on the right path.
What happened during our day of screen free parenting?
For us, this meant no TV, no iPad or tablet, no phones, and no computers. At first, it was no big deal. My husband played with our daughter while I showered that morning. I made breakfast. We chatted. Life felt normal.
Shortly thereafter, however, we (the adults) felt a bit of a void. Slight discomfort, even. Where was that thing we usually hold for a moment or two when there’s a gap in conversation or activity?
Had our phones become our security blankets?
Maybe they had. We wondered. However, once we got past those awkward few moments, this is what happened on our screen free parenting day.
Physical and emotional benefits of our screen free parenting day
- We got stuff done. A lot of things that we’d been putting off got accomplished easily that day. Little things that had been bugging me for awhile, like that pile of papers that had been on the kitchen counter, disappeared. It was surprisingly easy to declutter the “stuff” when my phone wasn’t filling up my hand. I
hadn’t realized how easy it would be to check so much off my to-do list.
- We played outside. Did you know it’s generally much more interesting than playing inside, and much better for our minds and bodies? Yes, me too—we all know that. And we also know how easy it is to get sucked into “one more thing” online and delay going outside. Having screens off made it easier not only to seek the outdoors, but also to crave it. To my surprise, the step counter on my watch got to my “magic number” much more easily than it does most days. It was a bit humbling but also very encouraging.
- We had dinner on time–without rushing. Every other day in memorable history, I’ve always felt pressured to get dinner on the table on time. Typically I can count on feeling some anxiety during this time of day. This screen free parenting day, however, I started making dinner at the same time I begin every other night. I didn’t stop to check my phone for anything. I simply cooked and talked to my family. Somehow, magically, dinner ended up on the table at promptly the time I strive for every night. I felt no anxiety whatsoever.
- We detoxed emotionally. At first, we were a bit snippy towards each other; we irked each other. However,
rather than distracting our “irks” by burying ourselves in “something we had to do” on our phones, we simply worked through whatever little issue was on the proverbial table. We got past these things much more easily without a screen to hide behind. How had I not even realized we’d been doing this? Once we cleared some stress and anxiety “the old fashioned way” by working through it, it was gone. Not suppressed, but gone.
- When my husband “cheated” for a minute and looked at his phone, I felt really annoyed. After apologizing, he put it away and it helped me realize how much I value his presence and full engagement. It deepened my appreciation of him.
- We talked more. Not only my husband and I, but also our child—we all opened up to each other more than we do when my husband and I are “checking in” online at semi-predictable intervals. We were more emotionally present.
- We played together as a family. Sometimes, my husband and I fall into a pattern of trading off who’s taking care of our child. He’ll play with her while I work on something; I’ll play with her while it’s his turn to be productive. Here, however, we all played together, knowing that we were going to stay together that day. No one, including our daughter, had to wonder whose “shift” it was to take care of her. We’d never intended for “shift-taking” to happen, but apparently it had become our default. I didn’t realize it until this screen-free parenting day. That’s not the kind of parent I want to be, so this was an important takeaway.
- We relaxed. As a result of feeling more relaxed, we felt better overall, physically and mentally. We were kinder to each other.
As a bonus, with both physical and emotional benefits, I got the best night’s sleep I’ve had in seven years. That alone was worth it.
Was it a fluke?
Scientists know that when you’re running experiments, you change just one variable in each of the tests to see if that single change is the factor that affects the results. Although I hadn’t considered this day a screen free parenting experiment, it essentially became that. All the other factors were the same for the day we chose. The result? All of us agreed that these are the kind of days we all want in our lives.
Screen free parenting increased our quantity and quality time.
Not only did we enjoy some good quality time, we also got more quality time that day than we’d have had if we’d stayed connected to technology. Now, at least once per week, we’re committing a full day to screen free parenting. We’ll work up from there. My husband and I both work online so we can’t cut screens entirely, but we can take one small step at a time.
Further, when I’m one on one with my kid, I’m designating blocks of hours per day where I stick my phone in a drawer and forget about it. As my child said, “The best part of it all was that we got to play more.”
This is precisely the connection we’d been missing. Ironically, all we needed to do to connect to each other was to disconnect from the things that matter so much less.