‘To be honest, the worst situation we have is dealing with our own family.”
That’s Abby, a mother of two in the suburbs of Washington. She and her husband have decided to seriously restrict the screen time of their 6- and 8-year-old daughters.
But when the girls spend time with their extended family in New York, as they will be for the Thanksgiving holiday, things get much more complicated, Abby tells me. Not only does the television seem to be on all the time, but a lot of the fare, she says, isn’t age appropriate.
While her kids are still watching PBS Kids on occasion, their cousins are streaming Taylor Swift and Katy Perry videos on YouTube.
Gatherings with extended family often present a challenge for parents — and now that challenge includes the divisive issue of kids’ screen time. We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our families.
Parents who curtail the amount of time their kids spend on iPads, phones, computers and in front of the TV can usually find a few other families in the neighborhood or at school who share their views.
But when it comes to family, they’re stuck.
Even if parents relax their rules during holidays and summer vacations with the cousins, these occasions can still prompt a lot of uncomfortable questions. Like “Why can’t I have my own iPad?” And “How come he gets to watch that and I don’t?”
Sheila, a mother of two daughters in Hoboken, doesn’t mind saying, “We make different decisions.” Her children have nine cousins on just one side of the family, and many of them have “unfettered use of iPads.”
Her daughter wants to know, “If they have them, why can’t I have them?” The answer can’t be too judgmental or it’ll get back to the aunts and uncles, not to mention the grandparents. Some parents choose the more diplomatic answer: That’s not part of “our family culture.”
Danielle, a mother of four in the Boston suburbs, tries to bite her tongue when she’s around her sister-in-law, whose TV is “on all the time” — even when her kids aren’t paying attention to it. “She’s on one end of the spectrum, and I’m on the other,” she tells me.
Some people who grew up with a lot of screen time (or with the TV on constantly) and have decided to raise their kids with much less are seen as rejecting their parents’ way of life. Jamie, a father in Pittsburgh, says that he and his wife both grew up with “a ton of TV,” including during dinnertime every night.
Now that they’re raising their children without much screen time, they have to plead with grandparents not to have television on all the time if they are with the kids.
Another mother told me that her in-laws were “appalled we didn’t have a television.” They can’t figure out what they’re supposed to do when they’re visiting.
Some parents decide that it’s a losing battle to try to keep their own rules when they’re with extended family.
What bothers Danielle, though, is not so much the constant exposure that her kids have to screens when they visit their cousins. It’s the effect that this has on familial relationships. “When we’re all in a room together, I don’t want us all doing our own individual stuff.”
In the past, family holidays were occasions for cousins to get to know one another, times for relatives scattered across the country to spend a few days together without the pressures of work or school.
Sure, not everyone got along: There will always be crazy uncles and obnoxious in-laws. And not all cousins are perfectly suited to play together.
But now the holidays are times for everyone to be on their phones.
And the grown-ups are just as guilty as the kids. It’s hard to unplug from work, even at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Plenty of kids feel the same kind of pressure to keep up their Instagram accounts for the benefit of friends at home.
But there’s nothing so urgent in the lives of our children that they should have to be on their phones instead of playing football in the yard — or even helping in the kitchen.
Powering down the devices for the day may seem old-fashioned, like the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. A little nostalgia won’t kill us, though.
And looking up from our phones might help remind us of all we have to be thankful for.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.