This summer I was shocked by what I read in To Kill A Mockingbird. It wasn’t that Atticus Finch was the greatest father/hero/human-being of all time, or by the way Maycomb treated Boo Radley. I was reading the novel for the umpteenth time in preparation for Lee’s controversial prequel, Go Set A Watchman. A few pages in I was floored by a scene where Jem and Scout played outside and became friends with a kid visiting for the summer named Dill.
Clearly this is a work of fiction, I thought. This just doesn’t happen anymore. Harper Lee acts like playing outside and meeting and befriending a neighbor kid is natural. But it isn’t anymore because a lot has changed in the 55 years between her two novels. More on this is a moment, but let me get to my main point.
I’m really struggling about what to do with my kids and screens. We now have a two tablets, two flat screens, and a junkyard of old smartphones in our house. Enough for everyone to double fist a device. Sometimes we give our kids screens. They play games for fun and then educational games. We set timers because we are aware of the studies about the dangers of screens and addiction. Then those timers go off and my kids say, “What are we supposed to do now?” I play with them, give them chores, and say lame dad stuff like, “You don’t know what it really means to be bored.”
Finally, I proclaim, “When I was a kid we played outside. Go play.” This lasts for five minutes and then my kids come back in saying once again saying, “We’re bored.” Their little voices sound like a garden rake dragged down a chalkboard. Bored is now a four-letter word. So Sarah finds crafts on Pinterest. I build forts. It feels like I’m running a daycare center. I love my kids, I want to and think parents should play daily with their kids, but finding age appropriate activities for four ages on a daily basis is nearly impossible. I’m going to need to hire part time help if I’m going to keep up at this pace. Sometimes Sarah and I give in and give the kids screens. Sometimes we don’t and suffer.
Now let me get back to Mockingbird. It was so amazing that these kids just made friends with another neighbor kid on their own. No playdate. No long conversation with other parents about how our kids would really get a long. The kids did it on without prodding while Atticus did the lawyer work to free Boo Radley. That’s because making friends with neighbor kids was common in the 60s.
It was also pretty common in the 80s. Some of my best childhood memories were squirt gun wars with all the kids on the block or when we played football in the street. This didn’t seem weird or special, it was just called being kid. I’ve heard grandparents and parents say things like, “When I was a kid we didn’t play so much on screens.” But we have to understand there were two reasons:
1) iPhones were not made in the 60’s or 80’s or whenever you were a kid
2) There were other kids outside
Kids like Dill from To Kill A Mockingbird. Being outside was so common that they could spot a new kid on the block, meet him, and befriend him instantly.
When I tell my kids to go outside, no else is there. The streets feel barren and creepy like the zombie apocalypse came and went and nobody told me about it. I know there are other kids that live on the block. I see them at the bus stop. They come to my house in hordes begging for candy every Halloween. And that’s when it hits me.
They are all playing on their screen too.
So what do we do? How do we fix this? I know I can’t do this alone. The only way my kids will play outside is if your kids play outside too. So, I’m asking you do something. No, I’m on my hands and knees groveling and begging you to do something. Not because it’s just good for your kid, but because it’s good for mine too. Send your kids outside. Let them play in the front yard. Make them play out there long enough that other kids see them.
I cannot stop my kids screen use on my own. You have to help. We have to rise up as parents and let our kids play outside. Do it often. Do it over and over again until one magical day they stop asking for that screen and start asking to join the party going on in the street. We can do this America. I believe we can overcome. But it starts with me and whoever it is reading my words right now. Let’s save our kids from boredom while they still have some childhood left.