Q: What advice do you have for when kids (ages 10, 13 and 13) return home from sleepaway camp where they’ve had no devices for weeks (or months)? This seems like a great opportunity to reset the house rules for media use, as I cringe at the idea of falling back into old habits of watching and playing at home, however I also dread the revolt that usually follows when I tell my kids that ‘we are going to try something new.’ I don’t want them to feel like they are being punished, but I’d like to take advantage of the fact they have been living device-free while at camp. Media contracts with each of my kids have worked fairly well in years past, is that something you would advise?
~ Happy Camper, Westchester, NY
A: Dear Happy,
As a parent of two boys who are at a device-free sleep away camp for the first time this summer, your question hits home. What my wife and I plan to do with our sons when they return (and I recommend you do with your children) is sit down with the kids individually and talk about what they liked about camp; what activities they enjoyed, games they played, how they communicated with their friends, and how they spent their downtime. From there, you can shift the conversation to brainstorming together about how they can maintain some of those activities, ways of communicating, and relaxing throughout the school year.
At camp, your children were able to remove the electronic interface between themselves and the world. Without a phone, tablet, laptop or other device, their communications and experiences became more direct, and the experiences more profoundly felt. What you want to help them capture at home is the vividness of experience and joy they felt without the media and technology filter at camp, so that they continue to experience life and communicate with peers directly, as opposed to primarily through social media or text.
In your conversations with your children, ask them to assess their 24 hour day, visualizing it as an empty glass. Then, start to fill the glass from the bottom up with the essentials; enough sleep, school, homework, activities, family time, playing outside, etc. This way, you are not restricting their media time but expanding their experience time, working with them to understand and control how they are spending their day. Frame the conversation so that it is about maintaining and preserving the more challenging, satisfying, and direct way of living that they experienced at summer camp, rather than cutting them off from the virtual world
Finally, media use contracts developed in collaboration with your child can be useful, since they are a written document that can be referred to in the future. Because they have been helpful in the past, I would recommend creating them with your children right after they return from camp and before they go to school. When children create the contracts with you (mutually deciding on and clearly spelling out family expectations and consequences), when those expectations are not met, they have “skin in the game”. Their sense of ownership over the contract will increase their motivation to adhere to the plan and build their self-discipline and time management skills. Beyond preventing arguments with parents, contracts remind children of their commitments to themselves and how they want spend their time.
Enjoy your media, and use them wisely,