Screen time, live to fight another day

stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent
stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent

Yesterday I spent about ten hours in front of a screen – eight in the office, one on my laptop at home and one watching television. More if you count the hypnotic hour of windscreen time I spent on the motorway. If this is the world we live in, why am I engaged in such an exhausting and long-running battle to keep my kids away from screens?

It’s almost as if (weird music) I’m trying to replicate the conditions my own childhood. The difference is that back then there was no such thing as games consoles, mobile phones, DVDs, internet, ipads, children’s channels and the rest. How easy it must have been for parents to limit screen time when the only thing on offer was a two-channel television.

In this house another Christmas has come and gone with Santa ignoring all the requests for screen devices that dominated my children’s lists. There is no television allowed during the school week and the children sometimes complain bitterly about the screen desert they are forced to live in. I’m starting to wonder if this puritanical approach will backfire one day. What if they spend the rest of their childhood seeking out contraband screen time? What if they become air traffic controllers?

I’ve tut tutted with other likeminded parents about kids staring at ipads in restaurants or watching films on car journeys. The prospect of a generation of people growing up unable to entertain themselves or practice the art of conversation is not very appealing. But I wonder if my resistance to the norm is becoming a little self-righteous? Not to mention a little hypocritical, considering that blogging and writing involve a fair amount of screen time.

So, while I will continue to worry about how much fruit and veg they are eating, whether they are dressed warmly enough and looking properly before they cross the road, I think the time has come to ease up a little on the screen restrictions.

By the way, if you can’t read what’s in the speech bubble in the cartoon above, the mother is saying: ‘Isn’t it great to have some quality time with the family’. I came across this back in the Irish Independent last September and it now lives on our fridge.

What do you think? Am I throwing in the towel too easily? Anyone else managing to keep the screens at bay?

Twin babies, the mobile drop-in centre

© baby-trend-expedition-jogging-twin-stroller
© baby-trend-expedition-jogging-twin-stroller

The day you push your twins outside for the first test drive in their new buggy, you embark on a new role in society – mobile drop-in centre. You may think you are the same person as before, just going about your business in town but your double bundles of joy have changed the stakes completely. Barriers come down, people open up. Whether you are ready for it or not you are wheeling around the conversation starter of the century.

Memory lane: Other twin parents have an inbuilt twin radar that never goes away. Seven years on I still stop in my tracks every time I see twin babies. Where once I was on the receiving end, now I’m the one who has to grin foolishly and stare, carried back in an instant to those golden days of babyhood, times two.

If there’s an opportunity I strike up conversation. ‘Congratulations, how old are they? I have twins myself.’ Some of these conversations are short. Others get long and involved. The oldest twin mother I ever chatted to had sons in their fifties. Another time I remember talking to a security guard in an art gallery about his twin girls, as if we’d known each other for years. The best stories older twin parents will tell is the surprise they had at the birth when a second head appeared.

Hands full: A standard comment you will hear as a twin parent is some version of “you’ve got your hands full there”. There’s some truth in that but it’s tempting to point out that, more importantly, your heart is full. If your babies are premature, you might want to lie about their age to keep the reactions down. If you happen to have different sized twins, this will also be a talking point.

There will be shop assistants who confess they always wanted twins and you are bound to come across the occasional person curious about the conception details. This conversation begins with the question – “are they natural?”

Sad stories: Twin pregnancy is by definition high risk and was more often seen as a burden than a blessing in the past. One thing I didn’t expect was the number of sad stories people told me about twins. A woman we once rented a holiday home from told the story of her twins’ birth 40 years before. They were too small to live and were left in a room in the hospital to die.

Another woman who stopped me in the street one day in Fribourg started out by saying she too was a twin but then revealed she didn’t grow up with her siblings. She was given away to a children’s home because her mother couldn’t manage. She never understood why they chose her, and the rejection hurt her still. Another lady at a garage told me her mother had given birth to three sets of twins but only one child had survived.

Kindness of strangers: One of the lovelier sides of having twins is the kindness it brings out in people – from the people who reach out to take a baby onto their laps in the bus, to the other Mums at the playground who will run to pick up your fallen toddler, when you are struck trying to get the other one down from the climbing frame.

One incident stands out for me. There was an old lady I used to see around town, always dressed in the same shabby coat and old shoes. One day, waiting at the lights to cross the road, she pressed a ten-franc note into my hand and urged me to buy something for the twins. Before I could protest she was gone.

If your twins are brand new and you’re getting up the courage to take them out into the world for the first time, don’t be afraid. There is a big welcome waiting for you.

Strange and terrible stories

Around the age of two and a half my twins discovered stories. At the same time I discovered the power stories had over them. It started with Goldilocks. The naughty little girl, the bear family, the repetition, the danger – I could not retell it often enough for them, always with the same cadence and gestures. They were hooked and stories like these got me over plenty of sticky moments, especially while travelling, when they were restless or bored.

By the age of four the girls were regularly demanding made-up stories. These they preferred to books, because they could be made to order and they lasted longer! The request was always the same. It should be about a little girl or animal, or both. One twin would demand that something “strange” and “terrible” had to happen, while her sister would modify this with “but not too terrible”.

So began a series of strange and terrible stories, usually involving the diminutive protagonist getting into some kind of danger herself, or rescuing an animal from danger. I got tired of this formula long before the children did. One story I told them about a Neanderthal family made a big impression. What really got them was that the people had not developed language yet and communicated by grunts, tone and sign language. Language truly is the greatest gift of our species.

This craving for stories stays with us for life. We meet friends and family to swap stories; we read books, watch films, follow television series. The news media are also part of the great storytelling tradition. These sources are all feeding the same need, which goes far beyond entertainment. We seek out stories to make sense of the world, to understand ourselves and others, to explore our worst fears and greatest hopes. Long live strange and terrible stories!

Spare the rod?

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about disciplining children. I was telling her what a troublesome weekend we had with bad behaviour and imposing punishments and she informed me that she and her husband didn’t punish their children. Well I nearly fell off my chair.

My friend is a psychologist who works with children and I have to admit her kids seem less rowdy than mine. Have I been going wrong all this time?

Obviously the norms of childrearing change over time and one thing I am sure about is that I don’t want to have to use force to get through to my children. So what weapons are at our disposal today? The most common one for small children is probably time out. Will future child development experts say this was a horrible form of child cruelty? I hope not. If so the producers of the Supernanny programmes will have to stand trial first.

The whole issue brings to mind a recent article I wrote about the relatively soft sentencing practices in Switzerland.

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Weighing_up_the_unusual_Swiss_justice_system_.html?cid=33999476

One criminology professor I spoke to pointed out that harsher sentences did not reduce crime rate – on the contrary. In other words there is no deterrent effect. During my research I also came across the work of the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite and his method of restorative justice. He believes that shaming is part of administering justice but that there is good shaming and bad shaming. According to Braithwaite shaming which stigmatises and alienates the person, like prison (or time out?), is much less effective than shaming which involves recognising what you did wrong and trying to atone for it. Here’s the link.

http://www.restorativejustice.org/leading/braithwaitej