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  • One family’s venture into digital detox

    It’s the last thing I look at at night and the first thing I check in the morning. It helps me to feel connected to the world in the long hours I spend winding the bobbin up and recounting Insy Winsey’s perilous trip up the drainpipe. It’s there when I’m cutting grapes into quarters, rocking the baby to sleep under the kitchen fan and trying to sound super enthusiastic about the request to dress up and play ‘sparkle unicorns’ on 5 hours broken sleep. It gives me news, opinions that reinforce or challenge my own and it delivers reassuring advice in a world where most of us are winging this parenting thing. It’s a camera, map, timetable, encyclopaedia, alarm, my whole music collection and a marketplace. It educates me, entertains me and helps me socialise with loved ones many miles away. In short, I love my phone, my iPad, my laptop. But the realisation of the centrality of screens in our family life made me nervous. It was the effect of my eldest turning four and receiving an iPad that made me think we might need a bit of a detox.

    Think back to your best memory of play from your first seven years on the planet. I’d put good money on the fact that for most of you it was outside and required no adult intervention. When you have kids you can’t help but compare your own childhood to theirs. For better or worse, most of us want to replicate the good bits and improve on the bad bits. I remember being bored A LOT but at the end of a long day, if I could prise the hallowed remote from my brother’s claws, Andy Crane/Peters in the broom cupboard and a bit of Pat Sharp’s funhouse sorted that right out. I don’t remember learning much from TV, and I would have chosen the garden and surrounding fields over it most days. I’d watch my favourite program when it was on, and then wait a week until the next instalment. If I missed it or wanted to watch it again, well that would mean having to work out how to program the video player, which in our household nobody ever did. Conversely nowadays, thanks to iPlayer, my daughter can watch as many episodes of Octonauts as she wants, and better still, each episode runs gloriously into the next episode into wee sea-creature laden perpetuity. Because we only let her watch catch-up there’s no sitting through the adverts (small blessing) but there’s no novelty either. It’s a preschool version of the echo chamber. You know you’re having a bad mummy day when Netflix asks your toddler if they’re still watching (and they are). Our four year old can tell me what an sea anemone is but she can’t yet ride a bike or climb a tree and this doesn’t sit well with me.

    The arrival of little brother last year gave screens a special sort of status they’d never held before. Now they were a holding activity, a huge help in the newborn days. “Mummy, can we play sparkle unicorns?” “Yep, just let me feed/change/get the baby to sleep and I’ll be right there.” And out of guilt I’d suggest she watch an episode of her favourite program or play a game because quite honestly I couldn’t think of anything else a lot of the time. Because we’d been gifted a horrendous sleeper, I was a zombie. Before we knew it 45 minutes had elapsed and she was still going. It was an easy cycle to fall into. I just needed to keep everyone happy and I wasn’t too discerning about how. A typical morning in our household pre-ban: The alarm goes, someone goes and gets the teas, the four year old comes bounding in with iPad and the baby has a boob. Mum and dad gaze at their phones in the precious half hour before anyone has to shower and the four year old deftly swipes away at her tablet, being taught how to count to 100 by an animated caterpillar called Jerry. It wasn’t like this every morning (it was)…but it increasingly became the way things were. Once the kids had gone to bed we’d catch up on replying to emails and messages; both of us putting connecting with the other to the bottom of our lists. One of us would watch a program, the other would be on their phone. All of a sudden I realised the screens weren’t filling time, but taking it from us. Giving us more to do, not less. Add to that the sudden tantrums, moodiness and night wakings from four year old and we’d reached crisis point. Being whimsical all-or-nothing sort of people, over a few beers we decided to lock up the screens for a week. And of course the rules applied to us too. Phones only for phone calls. No TV, no computers. Would we survive? Better than that.

    Day 1 my husband wakes up and decides that if we are going to do this, we’re going full on ‘Waltons’. Breakfast round the table with Radio 4 on to keep us updated with anything interesting. Four year old and baby look groggy and bemused as we enthusiastically pass the toast round and begin to explain the rules. It strikes me how it’s not often both kids see both us parents united as opposed to swapping over so the other gets a rest. “So no phones or tablets or TV for a week and…” I think on my feet “and when I’m feeding the baby, you can ask me to tell you a sparkle unicorn story”. Her eyes light up. I feel a stab of guilt as I realise how awesome that simple thing is for her. We walk to nursery (instead of bus), we talk and I really try hard to listen properly despite being disgustingly tired. I realise suddenly that I need to up my game. The little organising voice in my head suggests a few things I need to google, check and buy and I ignore it. At home I do some serious tidying to the radio and become an expert in the challenges facing care homes in the UK and listen to a play about a robot babysitter that goes rogue. Later on there are several requests to ‘watch something’ post 3pm because she is tired. I discover some old story CDs. The effect is the same but calmer. “It’s ok mum. I made the pictures in my head”. I’ve underestimated my kid. I’m super proud. I begin to feel better about the whole thing.

    Three days in, after a lovely breakfast, I’m feeling pretty chuffed with myself. I excitedly tell a dad on the nursery run about our experiment. He seems really interested and tells me quietly that they use the iPad to get their two year old to eat his breakfast. We all seem calmer. Life seems less rushed. I’m feeling like there is less to do. The four year old though is positively glowing. It’s so striking that I begin to realise that the moodiness and tantrums were less about her spending too much time on her tablet, and more about me thinking that a game or CBeebies storytime was more exciting that just sitting and chatting to her mum. This screen ban is becoming more profound as I realise that it’s helping us repair and rebuild a relationship that has taken a few hits since the arrival of her little brother a few months previously. I also realise that getting a bit bored makes you creative. In those first few days we do more drawing, tell more stories and just hang out more than we have in ages. On my part it was a sort of experiment in mindfulness, I chose my words carefully, forgot the clock, looked around myself and dug deep when all I wanted to do was switch something on and switch off. The 4 year old didn’t ask for the iPad. Not even once.

    Like a detox, in the quiet moments it felt like I had an itch I couldn’t scratch, or like I’d forgotten something. The fact I couldn’t instantly publish my thoughts and photos also made me consider how much we’ve come to rely on outside approval of our private lives. Does my baby stop being gorgeous because his photo doesn’t get any ‘likes’? Did I miss it? A little bit. I think sometimes being the stay-at-home parent can be a bit isolating, so for me it’s a community as well. Saying that though, social media has also been accused of creating loneliness because it gives the illusion of community minus the real contact, meaning people don’t seek out ‘real’ social encounters. In my case, with no WhatsApp or Facebook, I picked up the phone to chat, stayed a bit longer talking to other parents after drop offs and arranged to see old friends I’d put off for weeks. I stuck to appointments - it’s harder to say ‘can we rain check because the baby is napping/the four year old is tired and whiny?’ in person than in text. Is technology turning us into social quitters? Without our screens to distract us, at the end of the week Mr Sykes and I are also on form, with talking not only reserved for a post mortem of our respective days but the new ideas and experiences we had when not scrolling.

    So did we stick to it? The tablet is still in the cupboard. She doesn’t miss it or Jerry the caterpillar and nowadays we do our counting together. CBeebies is back but seriously time limited with a good few days without it. I still love my phone but I also really enjoy leaving it behind on purpose when I’m out with the sprogs. I still love Radio 4 and we still have family breakfast together every morning. Most importantly four year old and me are best mates again and I’m getting really good at sparkle unicorn stories. 

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    Andrea Zanin wonders whether chores for children are relevant or redundant in a modern world.

    One of 2016’s top songs was Rihanna’s Work, which not only proved that repeating the same word one-hundred-and-three times can make a number one single and loads of cash but that we have to work for what we want – even if it’s love, as RiRi reminds the dude in her tune. It’s a principle that most of us growing up in the 80s and 90s were taught by our parents, who had us washing dishes and laying the dinner table (extreme, I know) to make sure that we did not grow up with an attitude of entitlement. We did chores and we damn well liked it. But times have changed, or have they?

    Experts in the news talk about the rise of the “Me Generation” – children, our children, who feel entitled to jobs, cars, houses, Jimmy Choos…basically anything to sustain their own happiness. One theory is that the acceleration of this so-called “me, me, me epidemic” is the result of a culture of children born as an emotional asset whose primary purpose is to be loved and to be happy. In the old days, children were required for the practical functionality of a family – to work the farm, fetch the water and look after their parents in old age. They were born because they were needed. Even today, poorer countries need children to help their families not only thrive but survive.

    In the UK, we have children because we want to; because we like the idea of family, which is awesome but also…complicated. Love for its own sake raises some questions, like this one: if loving our children is the primary focus of a father or mother parenting a millennial child, how do chores fit in? Especially when we have dishwashers and washing machines to do all the dirty work for us? As a mum of four children (7, 5, 3 and 6-months) currently negotiating the challenges of raising a rabble to be contributing, empathetic members of society, I thought it’d be a good idea to find out what other parents are doing; are chores a thing of a by-gone era or are children still fetching the water, so to speak?

    As part of my research I asked more than 30 mums and dads whether their children did chores and what they thought was an appropriate age to get little ones started on the road to an un-entitled attitude. Overwhelmingly, ‘chores’ is not a popular word – so I found out; ‘jobs’ is the preferred term for the routine household tasks that make up the humdrum of everyday life. One mum said: “Annabelle [4] tidies her room and helps make breakfast and put things on the table. She sees the former as a ‘chore’ and latter as fun. She doesn’t know what a chore is. I guess it has negative connotations whereas she usually still sees helping us as fun, mostly!” Modern rhetoric prefers the notion of ‘contribution’; children doing their part for the family unit, rather than being forced into a chore, or unpleasant task. Six-year-old Joshua articulates chores as doing things his mum asks him to do (like get the macaroni cheese from the fridge), also observing that chores are good for adults but boring for children. Ha. Call it ‘helping’ and perhaps Joshua would think differently, right?

    Name aside, all of the parents who took part in my research do give their little ones jobs around the house, with 3 being the most common age to start children helping at home – in what’s more than just tidying up their own mess. The kinds of jobs children aged 3 to 7 do are: put away the shopping, take dirty dishes to the kitchen (sink or dishwasher), tidy bedrooms, make beds, put clothes in the washing basket/machine, fold laundry, set the table, take out the recycling, feed pets and clean cages/fish tanks. Some 7-year-olds are tasked with making sandwiches and drinks for their younger siblings, washing dishes and even hoovering!

    Controversially, there are parents who pay their children to do chores! But before you don your judgment wig, these are usually things like washing the car or weeding the garden – so, less chore-like chores, if you will. According to 7-year-old Cameron. “I do chores; I get my clothes for school, help sort washing, empty the dishwasher. A chore is something I do around the house to get money.” (His mum facepalms at this point.)

    Also interesting is the concept of reward charts; mums and dads often use these to motivate their children to help around the house. Author Bret Easton Ellis is famous not only for penning American Psycho but for speaking out about the effects of Generation X parenting, which has coddled its children in praise – awarding gold stars and medals just for showing up, the author told Vanity Fair; producing a bunch of whiney, overly sensitive affirmation seekers. Yikes! As a Gen X parent myself, the balance between rewarding my children (with praise, charts or other) for good choices and hard work, and expecting them to do things (like show-up), because it’s what life presupposes, is part of the complexity of modern-day parenting. And I haven’t figured out an answer other than trying to balance positive affirmation with reasonable expectation – my version thereof – and hope that my children will cotton on to the fact that life doesn’t offer handouts.

    Adding to the mental fatigue involved with figuring out the whos, whats, whens and wheres of chores is taking cognizance of the connotations of the jobs we allocate our children. UNICEF has just released a new report saying that young girls across the globe (aged 5-14) spend 40 per cent more time on household chores daily than boys. Feminist-me rears its dragonish head at this point although in my home, the difficulty is that as a freelancer, I am home more and so naturally, end up doing more of the chores. One mum I interviewed said, “My husband and I make an effort to do a bit of all the tasks so neither our daughter or son grow up thinking one thing is a particular person’s work. [My daughter] has asked questions about the cleaner mind you, to which I have yet to come up with a satisfactory response.”

    When Dakota was asked if she knew what a chore was, she flatly replied “yes”. When asked if she does any chores, she said “nope”. And when asked what she thinks about chores, she said “she doesn’t”. Who knew 5-year-olds could be facetious? Yet there is a truth inherent in her answer; whether we call it helping, contributing, working – chores or jobs – ultimately ‘it’ is the same thing; what is important to us, is how our children perceive the tasks we ask them to complete, and in turn how this will affect their character and behaviour in later life. Then again, perhaps we’ve complicated a simple thing with philosophy and psychology? Make your bed. Why? Because I said so. 

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