How to Reduce Screen Time (without Losing Your Sanity)

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Poor sleep. Obesity. Aggression. ADHD. Poor school performance.

And negative effects on language and cognitive development.

I love technology, but with correlations like these (and all these reasons for limiting screen time), I have become very, very careful about how much screen time my children get.

When my son was a toddler I was less careful. If I needed a few minutes to get some things done, I’d put on YouTube.

I’d always look for a longer video so that I didn’t have to come back right away.

I’d never intended for the screen to be a babysitter, but let’s be honest. That’s what was happening.

Sure, there are benefits that come with carefully chosen media. So I’m not an anti-screen-time mom at all.

But I noticed something that maybe you’ve noticed too–when my son had a lot of screen time, he’d get cranky. Later, when he’d ask for a video again and I’d say no, he’d go into full meltdown mode.

My husband noticed and put his foot down. “No more videos until you can have a good attitude about not watching videos.”

So that was it. We had to figure out how to stay occupied without screens.

I’m very much a doer. I like to always be accomplishing something.

But when you have a young child to look after, it can be hard to get anything done.

Thanks to my husband’s ultimatum, though, I’ve learned that it is possible to raise a low-media child and still knock out my to-do list.

Here’s how.

Need help to reduce screen time? Does raising a low-media child sound like an unreachable ideal? Wonder how you'll stay productive if you turn off the screens? Here are 5 proven strategies for staying productive and sane while reducing screen time.

1. Reduce screen time by encouraging independent play

This is my secret weapon for staying sane when I reduce screen time.

Our job as parents is ultimately to teach our children independence, and benefits come of it for both parents and children.

It benefits them: as sad as it is, we won’t be there for them forever, after all.

Eventually they’ll have families of their own and jobs of their own and things that they’ll need to have the confidence to take care of themselves.

And independent play develops that confidence. They’ll also learn problem-solving skills, self-discipline, and become healthier socially and emotionally.

So teaching our kids independence is one of the best things we can do for them.

It benefits us as moms too.

When my kids are playing happily together, I can take the time I need to get things done… like making supper without having a child hanging on to my legs at every step. (I love you, kid, but please let go!)

And without having to stick a screen in front of them.

Our modern society places huge, unmeetable demands on parents.

Have you felt this too? This pressure to be constantly with your children and monitoring their every move? Feeling you must be their ultimate source of entertainment and instruction?

It’s like they’re supposed to be constantly attached to us and we must do everything we possibly can to make life smooth for them.

It’s no wonder so many of us struggle to reduce screen time. When our kids are watching videos, we know where they are.

I don’t believe this is the way parenting is supposed to be.

When I was a brand-new mom, I thought that if I wasn’t hands-on with my son every single time he was awake, that I was a terrible mother who was going to make her child feel unloved.

I’d had trouble bonding with him at birth, so I overcompensated in the way I interacted with him.

And it completely wore me out. As he got older, he was very clingy and whiny. (We’re still working through the repercussions.) He got used to me meeting his every whim.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t bond with our children or take care of them or ever entertain them.

What I am saying is that we shouldn’t believe that their needs always trump our own.

While reading the book The Art of Screen Time by Anya Kamenetz recently, I learned of a philosophy of parenting called RIE (pronounced “rye,” it stands for Resources for Infant Educarers) that pretty closely resembles my own philosophy of parenting.

At its core, RIE involves viewing your child as a separate person with their own wants and needs, not just as a “blob” that you have to take care of.

You are in a relationship with your child, which involves both give and take.

Adopting this approach to parenting removes a lot of the guilt attached to modern parenting.

Some of the basic principles of RIE include

  • Communicating with children like real people—using real words about real events and talking to them about what’s happening. Also, crying is a form of communication and doesn’t always have to be “shushed.” Let your baby “talk” to you.
  • Setting firm boundaries. Let children know what you expect and then stick to it.
  • Encouraging independence. Give your child plenty of opportunities to direct their own play and problem solve. This is one of the best ways for them to learn about the world around them.

Letting your child play independently is one of the best things you can do for them, for your relationship, and for yourself.

But how do you get your child to play independently?

You may think that your children don’t know how to be independent without screens—and that may be true if that’s all they’ve known.

But they can learn.

It may take some practice and trial and error. It might be painful at first. But children are very adaptable and are wired for learning.

For starters, you may want to consider downsizing their toy collection.

Children with too many noisy, distracting toys have a harder time playing by themselves. These kinds of toys discourage creativity and focus.

A few simple, multi-use toys are best.

Create a safe, defined space where they can play by themselves. It may be a play yard or their bedroom, for example.

Set clear boundaries and work up

Tell your child you expect them to play by themselves for a few minutes—maybe 10 minutes while you shower. Tell them just once that you’re leaving, and then leave the room.

The idea is not to leave them forever and always playing all by themselves. We don’t want to neglect them after all.

Be fully present and engaged when you’re together with them, but don’t be afraid to teach them to play independently for controlled periods of time.

As you find they are content to play by themselves for a few minutes, you can gradually expand the amount of time they play by themselves. You will find that you’re able to get much more accomplished when your children learn to enjoy playing independently.

This article at Mama Natural includes some great tips to help you reduce screen time and get your kids to play independently.

Independent play activities

Here are some ideas for activities you can make available to your child to encourage independent play.

Use toy rotation—putting toys out of sight for a while and then swapping them out with other toys can make their playthings feel new and interesting again.

You can also try having a special toy for specific times only. If there’s a certain task that you need to be sure they won’t interrupt, saving a special toy for those occasions can be very helpful.

Play music—and not just children’s music. Music can be calming to encourage focus or invigorating for a “dance party.”

Use audiobooks. See if your library gives you access to Libby (free audiobooks and ebooks). YouTube also has some audiobooks; just be aware of ads. Scribd is a good service for unlimited audiobooks at a low monthly cost.

Read “real” books. We have a huge collection of children’s books that our kids can look at anytime they want to. We have bookcases all over the house, with most of the children’s books in their bedroom.

Playdough and coloring books or paints. These may require a little more supervision but are good activities for tasks where you don’t mind having your child in the same room. Try painting with yogurt if you’re worried about your child eating the paint.

Sensory bins with something like cornmeal or colored rice or Cheerios. Busy Toddler has some fun sensory bin ideas, including a post on teaching your child how to use them.

Outdoor play. If you have a backyard or another safe place for your child to play, this is a great option. Being outside is good for everyone.

2. Let them help

This one might sound a little crazy… but if the task you’re doing isn’t especially precise or time sensitive, find a way to let your little one be a part of it.

Working to reduce screen time is a much easier task when kids feel involved with the regular running of the household.

Young children look up to their parents and want to do what the grownups are doing. So whenever I can, I let my kids (even the toddler) “help.”

When you’re working in the kitchen:

  • Let them “cook” with the pots and pans you’re not using.
  • Let them “wash” the potatoes or veggies.
  • Give them a small bowl of rice to find things in.
  • Let them “wash dishes”–fill the sink with some water and let them splash around while you cook.
  • Hold your child’s hand on measuring spoons so they can measure ingredients.
  • Let them pour the pre-measured ingredients and stir them.
  • Give them trash to throw away.
  • Ask them to bring you utensils or ingredients you need while you cook.
  • Give them dishes and silverware one at a time to carry to the table and set where they go.

If you’re folding laundry, try giving your child a specific, easy task. I will often tell my son to find all of his underwear and stack it.

Or he’ll help me divide the clothes into piles for each person. He’s also learning to fold his socks.

If you’re cleaning, maybe give your child a wet rag and let him “scrub” with you.

Doing paperwork? Give your child their own notebook and paper to do their own “work.”

You can also give your child a different task to work on. For example, if you’re baking and don’t want your child in the kitchen with you, you could try sending him into the living room to “fold” laundry.

If they want to be near you but can’t be involved, let them sit on the table or counter or on your back in a baby carrier and watch you at work.

The key is to be creative and think of different ways your children can be involved without getting into too much trouble.

They’ll be learning valuable skills, you’ll get done the work you need to do, and they’ll be happy you involved them. It’s an all-around win.

3. Give them age-appropriate chores

I’ll say it again. Kids love to feel a sense of responsibility.

If they have their own chores to do, they will feel like they are important contributors and members of the family–and your efforts to reduce screen time will be less of a battle.

Having their own work to do can help kids understand that you have your own work to do too and they need to give you space to do it.

And even young kids can do chores. WebMD has a good list to help you get started with age-appropriate chores.

I also like this suggestion from a mom in a Facebook group I’m in:

She says once her kids get to be 2 or 3 years old, she makes a daily to-do list with them. First she writes down what she needs to get done. Then her kids get to choose two things they “need to do” as well, such as playing outdoors or playing with playdough.

When those things go on the list, they feel like their tasks are just as important. When they know their tasks will get done, they have more patience for her to get her work done.

4. Change your schedule

If you absolutely must have some uninterrupted time to get things done, consider changing your routine so that you can do it when the kids aren’t around.

I am not and early bird. But to grow my online business, I’ve been cultivating the habit of getting up early so I can write.

I’m far from perfect–sometimes I ignore the alarm and go back to sleep.

But my day goes so much better when I can have an hour or two of uninterrupted work time before the kids get up for the day.

I also work in the afternoon while my daughter naps and my son has quiet time. If my husband has other things going on in the evening, then after the kids are in bed can also be a great time to get my deep-thought work done.

If you have a partner who’s involved with the kids, you can also try doing some of your work while they are spending time with the kids.

We’ve gone through periods where I get most of my work done on Saturdays at a coffee shop in the morning while my husband stays home with the kids.

And I usually do the evening kitchen cleanup while he plays with them.

After spending an entire day with the kids, washing dishes while I watch the kids play with Daddy is surprisingly relaxing.

5. Create a list of activities you can do together

One of the best ways to encourage children to be independent is by making sure you’re “filling their cup” often.

If your children know that you will spend uninterrupted time with them, they will be happier to spend the rest of the time playing by themselves.

But when your brain is tired, it’s easy to resort to screens as the easiest thing. So I like having a list to fall back on of activities you can do together.

Probably my favorite activity to do with my kids is reading. If possible, read from a paper book rather than an e-book.

Studies show that parents are often more actively involved when reading physical books than e-books, especially if the e-book has interactive features.

If you do use an e-book, try not to read it in the evening when a backlit screen at bedtime may affect nighttime sleep quality and quantity.

If you’re coming up dry for screen-free activity ideas, check out Screen Free Parenting for an enormous list. They are in the process of compiling 1 million screen free activities and send out biweekly ideas so you’ll never run out of things to do.

The reddit nosurf wiki is also an excellent resource.

You can also take a look at this list of fall activities and this one of Thanksgiving activities for kids.

Looking for more to help you reduce screen time and increase independence?

Sign up for my free e-course and get a screen-time printable to go along with it!

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