Obviously, by “stuff” I don’t mean “necessities.” For the record, I strongly advocate feeding, clothing and educating your children by any (or almost any) means.
But do not try to convince me that a smart phone, private computer, private television, game console, 4,826 toys, $200 kicks, designer purse, netflix subscription, and birthday parties a la MTV’s My Super Sweet Sixteen are necessities for your nine-year-old (plus or minus nine years). They are not.
Have you ever noticed that the things that are actually good for our kids don’t actually cost that much? It’s the proverbial cardboard box, which all young kids like more than the toy that came inside. More and more studies are backing up what more and more parents are experiencing: all this time in front of electronic devices is not good for us, as adults, and it is downright detrimental to the physical, psychological, emotional, social and intellectual health of our children.
Yes, I know children of all ages have an unfathomable capacity for whining. Yes, I know they don’t always agree with you about what is good for them, and their reaction to such disagreements makes plain and clear the depths of their capacity for whining. Yes, I know that sometimes all you want to do is turn on your favorite TV show while posting facebook updates about what you’re watching and simultaneously maintaining a texting conversation with your friend who is also watching. But you’re the adult.
You = Parent.
Your Children = Children.
The two groups have different roles, and yours is to set the boundaries, and, perhaps even more importantly, to set the example.
What do kids actually need?
1. Books, and lots of them. Libraries? Still free. (When is the last time your children witnessed you quietly reading a book?)
2. Time outside, and lots of it. If you can afford a sun hat, some sunscreen, an umbrella, maybe some rain boots, and some winter gear, they’re good to go, year-round. You could throw in some bikes or balls or shovels or sprinklers, but honestly, they will find plenty to do with sticks and rocks and grass and bugs and their incredible little brains. If you’re able to splurge, add a camera. You will not be disappointed. (When is the last time you played outside with your kids?)
3. Opportunities to help others, and lots of them. This is obviously free. Whether it’s tutoring a sibling, baking a treat for a neighbor, visiting a grandparent or nursing home, writing cards and notes to friends or family or service men and women, or serving an organized charity, kids of all ages thrive when their help and service is needed and appreciated. Try it and watch what happens in your kids – they have a capacity for generosity and responsibility that you will not see until you give them the opportunity to use it. (When is the last time you worked with your children to help someone else?)
4. Time with you, and lots of it. And I’m not talking about movie night. (Ok, sure, there are some good movies and sometimes it’s great and fun and relaxing to sit around as a family and watch a movie, but that’s not the main point.) Whether your kids want to admit it or not, you are their biggest role model, or, at least, you can be if you want. If you have to commute out to another job in addition to taking care of your family, spending quality time with your kids can really require some planning but it is absolutely worht the effort. Invite them to help you cook dinner when you get home instead of sitting them down in front of the TV so you can cook in peace and get it on the table five minutes earlier. And if you do nothing else, require that all members of the family sit down for dinner with no electronic devices. Conversate.
Ok, yes, I know there is more to raising children than four bullet points, but the fact remains: cutting back on the amount of time your children spend letting something else think for them cannot possibly be bad.
I’m obviously not technophobic – I am writing on a blog, ahem – but having all these things vying for our time requires moderation and discipline in their use, two ideas we have largely eschewed as a society (to our discredit, I might add).
And with all the money you would be saving on video games (which are seriously about $50 each?!?) you could easily start a college fund, or a travel-to-far-off-places fund, or a learn-a-musical-instrument fund, or a support-yourself-for-a-year-while-you-help-others fund for your children. Do you really need me to keep going?
My kids and their grandma and grandpa and I spent most of the day today at our (free) zoo. We talked about opposable thumbs while watching the orangutans. We talked about how animals (and people) adapt to different climates while putting on our sweaters in the penguin house. We might have made a little progress toward potty training after witnessing first-hand the elimination habits of a goat, an ostrich, and a monkey sitting in the tip-top of a tree. My 4-year-old expounded (loudly) on the importance of taking care of the places we visit when she saw someone toss a piece of garbage in the general direction of a trash can, miss, and keep walking. I was quietly very proud of her.
We allowed ourselves to be amazed by these creatures of all shapes and sizes and colors and temperaments.
We had fun together.
Granted, I lost a day of work and now have to catch up, but we don’t do big zoo trips every day, and when we do, the catch-up frenzy is worth it. Our day today? Both free and priceless, and it’s not that hard to do.