Opinion | Parents, It’s Going to Be a Very Long January

As I interview parents for next week’s newsletter about how everyone is doing during the Omicron wave of the pandemic, there is a recurring theme: the renewed concern about screen time. Families around the world are dealing with quarantine due to exposure to the coronavirus or infection. After the Chicago teachers’ union voted Tuesday not to inform school buildings due to concerns about the city’s school district’s readiness for Omicron, classes have been canceled for the past three days. Friday, for the second time this week, many school districts in the Washington, D.C. area were closed or had their openings delayed due to snow. But with the start of the new year, fewer parents seem to be flexible about taking time off from work, so any previous restrictions they placed around their children watching TV or playing video games are sort of for nothing.

This definitely happens in my house. My kids watched what seemed like millions of hours of TV over the Christmas holidays, and when school resumed this week, we first managed to get back to the typical rules of school time: No TV until after dinner and homework done, then unlimited TV until bedtime, Which is usually one to two hours later.

But my little girl came home early from school yesterday claiming she was nauseous, and proceeded to (a) eat two pieces of toast and (b) play Nintendo for three hours straight. Either it’s a transient illness or she tricked us (her rapid coronavirus test was negative). But regardless of her reason for coming home, there was really no alternative way to spend that time since her dad and I had work that could wait, and she’s not old enough to read or entertain herself without a lot of parental involvement.

I went to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) website to see how poorly we understand the rules of family media, and there is at least some flexibility in what they recommend. There is an interactive section of the site where you can create your own family media plan, and we do it well in some parts: we keep phones, tablets, etc. out of the kids room and away from the dining table. They are not allowed to chat with anyone they don’t know.

But we don’t always do “joint viewing,” which is a term the AAP uses to watch TV with your kids. It’s partly because we’re busy at work, but also because the frivolous shows they love can’t be watched. Sometimes we convince our kids to watch movies we loved as kids (getting them to watch Winona Ryder’s version of Little Women was a recent coup), but that’s rare.

I admit that I do not feel who – which Guilty about the state of screen time in our house right now. (And my fellow Times Opinion newsletter fellow Jay Caspian Kang, who wrote a great article this week for The Times Magazine about a 10-year-old YouTube star making millions of dollars playing games.) After all, there are plenty of recommendations from medical doctors. Children and other experts do not take epidemics into account. Case in point: An excellent story by Anya Kamentz published by The Times in the summer of 2020 titled “I was a screen time expert. Then the coronavirus happened.”

She acknowledges that much of the old advice she’s given now falls somewhere between impractical and unworkable, and advises parents to focus on their children’s feelings rather than obsessing over the exact number of hours they spend on screens. As it becomes clear that one of the byproducts of the pandemic is a children’s mental health crisis, Kamintz’s advice is more relevant.

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What will work and life look like after the pandemic?

This part, in particular, resonates in my mind when I practice this month, which I feel is already endless in just one week:

You may fail to set screen time. Or you may choose not to limit it, because you have to work or do something else. In this case, you need plan B: prepare and overcome the tantrum or the feeling of “splitting” that follows, with some physical activity, reassurances, a snack, or all of the above. Talking to your child in advance about screen hangovers can help anticipate them, especially as they grow and become more self-aware.

As I head off to another cold weekend to try and avoid Omicron, I’m stocking up on craft supplies and kid-friendly recipes that we can whip up together (the J. Book pizza recipe is a family favourite). But I also accept that my kids might get really good at Mario Kart this winter.

Parenting can be difficult. Let’s celebrate the small victories.

Our toddler didn’t like noisy appliances like the vacuum cleaner and blender. We taught him to say hi to them, and now he walks around all day waving hello to every device in the house.

– Megan Margino, Long Island, New York

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