So, How Do I Actually Keep My Kid Off Screens This Summer?

So, How Do I Actually Keep My Kid Off Screens This Summer?

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Welcome to Ask Dr. Harvey Karp, our new fatherhood advice column at Esquire, where the author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and creator of the SNOO answers your burning questions about parenting. Got a query? Drop us a line in the comments!

Your kids, and their entire generation, are swimming in a never-ending stream of digital distractions. Every click is designed to grab their attention like metal to a magnet, and as the grownup in charge, you have the Herculean task of luring them away!

The problem isn’t just with the pull of the Internet. Today’s parents struggle with juggling all of life’s priorities and responsibilities (work, home life, and maybe too much time going down their own digital rabbit hole, etc.) without the help of grandparents in the duplex downstairs or aunts and uncles around the corner.

Here are some ways to steer kids away TVs and tablets…and toward IRL fun:

Build a bridge.

When screen time is about to end, take a moment to sit with your child and watch the last bit of their show or admire their gaming skills. Kids love a question or compliment that shows we’re interested in their world. A brief chat also gently pulls them back to the “real world,” which helps their brain chemistry adjust. That means fewer arguments!

Allow for boredom.

Once screens go dark, there’s no guarantee your kid will head outside to play or curl up with a book. They may pout and complain that there’s nothing to do. That’s okay! Unstructured time is good for kids, and boredom is temporary.

Plan regular playdates.

Kids are more apt to engage in screen-free activities when a friend is involved. While boredom isn’t bad, having playdates to look forward to helps. Plus, playing in the park and green spaces gives kids a brain balancing experience.

Offer Incentives.

I like to give older kids over the age of three or four stickers or poker chips as a reward for doing special tasks or cooperation (more about that in The Happiest Toddler on the Block). The rewards can then be exchanged for a treat like going for an ice cream, getting a gift, or a little extra screen time.

“Gossip” about screen-free activities.

All of us appreciate sincere praise. “Gossiping” is a sideways delivery of praise that can multiply the benefit of praise many times over. Here’s what you do: Say to your partner in a loud whisper, “Emily read a whoooole chapter of her book this afternoon. I said, “You are getting to be such a good reader!”” Pretend that you don’t want to be overheard, and it works best if you don’t look at your child when you do it. We all tend to believe more what we overhear than what is said directly to us.

Be the change you want to see.

Kids do as we do, not as we say. If you’re spending hours looking at your phone, you know what you can expect. Model what healthy screen use looks like. When you get that itch to scroll around your kids, grab a book or magazine to read with your child, or lace up your shoes for a quick walk (and bring your child along!).

Set a loose routine.

A flexible daily schedule can help spell out when it’s time for screens and when it’s time to hit the backyard, pick up a book, etc., but don’t be too rigid about it. You can set the big picture parameters, but your child gets to pick the activity or reading material. Outside time could be a game of hopscotch or simply rolling in the grass or blowing dandelion seeds.

Of course, your child will spend more time with screens, these days it’s inevitable, so try to make it programming that you’re proud of. When it happens, please don’t judge yourself for leaning on a “digital babysitter.” Modern parents deserve a huge round of applause for doing this hard job without the help of a village of friends and family. Summer is long, and tomorrow is another day.

Keep the parenting questions coming! I’ve already received so many good ones, on everything from “Can I let my kid drink non-alcoholic cocktails?” to “Should my newborn sleep in total darkness?” Drop yours in the comments below, or reach out to Esquire on social media—and stay tuned for answers.

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