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The ups and downs of disconnecting to stay connected

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I’ve read countless articles dispensing all kinds of advice on limiting kids’ screen time. All these articles do is make me feel guilty. I have yet to read a parenting article that takes an honest look at how difficult it is to get your kids off their devices.

When I was growing up, I used to have lots of downtime to hang out with my friends after school. But my kids are different — they are so busy with homework, after-school activities and weekend obligations. They don’t get a lot of hang-out time. So, I give them leeway with texting, Instagram and Snapchat. I understand that it’s an important way for them to connect with their friends.

I love the idea of unplugging on Shabbat. But more often than not, Friday nights have become that one evening each week when we enjoy media together — a movie cuddled up on the couch, Samuel sharing some YouTube video he liked that we finally have the time to watch together, Sophie showing me some funny memes on Instagram.

It’s the other days of the week that have me frustrated. That empty space when everyone is reaching for their phones is where I have the most trouble, before dinner and homework, between waiting for one of us to find their shoes in the house while we are all in the car ready to go somewhere, between the pauses in our daily lives and during the times when we really have nothing to do at all, and we all find ourselves at home connected to our devices and disconnected from each other.

Whenever I feel bad because the screen-free “rules” I keep reading about just don’t seem to be working in our house, I need to remember a lot is happening offline at home to feel good about.

Since the no-phone rule is an easy one to adhere to at mealtimes, family meals have become even more precious. I like to stretch dinner out for as long as I can — linger a little longer at the table even after we’ve eaten. I think the kids enjoy family meals free of devices as much as we do.

When we have friends over, the kids know how to shake hands, make eye contact and engage in brief yet cordial conversation. Sometimes they need a reminder, but most of the time they have this covered without me nudging them. Their heads aren’t down looking at their screens all the time!

And thankfully, we all still enjoy reading books at home. I let the kids buy books and take out books from the library even if they haven’t finished what they are reading and on all sorts of topics they find interesting, from mysteries to cookbooks to travel books with pretty pictures.

There are a lot of newspapers and magazines hanging around our house too, and the kids enjoy flipping through them all, from National Geographic to Popular Science to Time and Bon Appétit. I buy our magazines from one of those cheap magazine sites and let the kids choose what they like. I don’t nag them if they haven’t read the current issues. Every so often, they’ll find something to get excited about within the pages. Sophie was thrilled to discover a recent article in National Geographic on a subject she just learned about in science class.

We also get three newspapers delivered to the house every morning. Sophie grabs the front page, and Samuel wants the science and cooking sections, and even if they can only scan a headline or two, I’m OK with that. More often than not, a headline or a front page photo will spark a discussion. And when the kids are chatting and forget where their phones are because they are engaged in a conversation about what’s happening in the world, I’m thrilled.

In many ways, it’s me who needs to do better at home. The kids seem to manage their onscreen/offscreen lives just fine. Their brains are stretched plenty at school, and their bodies get plenty of exercise. I’ve promised myself that I won’t read any more articles offering “expert” advice on reducing kids’ screen time because they just make me feel lousy. Instead, I’m going to focus on reducing my own screen time when I’m home with the kids. I’m always more successful as a parent when I stop nagging and model the behavior I want them to emulate.

Julie Levine

Julie Levine is a writer who lives in San Francisco.