Ask Maxwell: Advice on Alternatives to Screen Time?

published Jul 21, 2021
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I’ve been finding that I use television as a rescue tool too often for my 5-year-old daughter. Do you have any easy alternatives to cure boredom and/or exhaustion that don’t involve screens?

Jo Anna

Dear Jo Anna,

This is probably the TOUGHEST problem vexing us parents in this day and age. It was far easier when a house had only ONE television and it was LARGE and lived in a room by ITSELF — and it didn’t have much that was good on it for kids except a few hours each day. My favorites were the shows that were on right after school, and my brother and I watched so many episodes of “The Munsters” and “Gilligan’s Island” that I can see them with my eyes closed. Those were the days.

But the shows only lasted a few hours and then there was nothing to watch but the news, so we played, did our homework, and had dinner. We used to make up games, draw a lot, hammer stuff at the workbench in our basement and throw the baseball in the yard for hours. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Cable began to change all of that and then, of course, the internet with phones and iPads blew it all out of the water. We are now growing new generations of children that will have more screen time than we’ve ever had in history, and the downside of this is not that screen time itself is BAD, it’s that it’s so easy that it becomes excessive and it cuts off the growth of other imaginative and will organs that would normally be growing if they had the room. Which is sort of to say that screen time is like a weed that will force out the flowers and vegetables if not carefully controlled.


The only way to get kids truly interested in spending their time doing other things is to remove the screen, allow them to get truly bored, and even grumpy, and then watch them punch through as their native childlike energies start to look for other things to do. Screen time is like processed food, mac and cheese, soda pop, and chips … all processed and so easy to consume that they take away the desire to do anything that requires willpower at all — which, of course, is what you want from your children — to grow and nurture their will power to take on the world and not be passive and only want to lay about on the sofa.

Side note: want an inspiring story about how boredom truly transforms in a child’s brain? Listen to this wonderful story by Garrison Keillor from around 2010. It’s called The Dog Days of August.

If your children are used to screen time, this is going to be tough at first and a lot like “crying it out” when you have to put them to bed at seven months and get them to sleep through the night. THEY WILL CRY at first. That’s what kids do when they’re uncomfortable, but they always pop through because all their childlike energies will ALWAYS WIN and they are deeply creative, willful humans at heart.

All of this said, it is crazy to assume that your kids couldn’t watch a carefully controlled hour of shows each evening while you cook? Or have a movie on the weekend while you have dinner? NOT AT ALL. While I would recommend NO screen time for small children, elementary-aged children can bear minimal amounts without disruption. If you can get your kids to stay within the boundaries, that is totally great, but if you find that it makes them grumpy and complain a lot so it seems worse, then I would back them up, take them off, and let them chill out, find new things to do before you give them back some controlled watching.

And what to do with all this new time? All children are different, but they all share a vibrant imagination and a desire to do things, so pictures books, story reading, capes, swords, dolls, simple tools, building games, and anything that allows them to enter in and make stuff up is GREAT.

Good luck! And do let me know how it goes.

Best, M

Some Smart Resources:
1. Screentime Is Making Kids Moody, Crazy and Lazy: Six Ways electronic screen time makes kids angry, depressed and unmotivated
2. Media & Screen Time: What’s the Waldorf Approach

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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