A while back, my mother made a collection of aphorisms that my grandmother knew, or had heard from her mother. There were around two hundred of them. They are wonderfully old-fashioned and marvelously saccharine. I don’t know if it’s the times, or what, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know that many. Among them, one has stuck out for me: “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.” This feels true, but I don’t know if it is always true. Some losses feel so potent, we’d wish them away in a heartbeat.
What I can say is that I am a very, very lucky parent. I know this deep in my bones. Like any family, ours has challenges and we face frustrations every day. And like everyone, I face a great many challenges in my own life. I acknowledge that not every problem is a “first-world problem,” and that many which get griped about on social media truly are. Again, I’m not here to judge.
The following essay is an examination of one kind of frustration, and is not intended to judge, or compare other people’s challenges, or even to compare among my own challenges. It is not my intention to indict what other families do. It is simply something I’m thinking about right now. Okay, disclaimer over. Here’s the essay.
One of the things we spend the most time and energy on in my household is: The Rules. It was many years ago that the invocation of the “Fair Police” came to be. To the great consternation of those in charge, when the Fair Police showed up, suddenly everything had to be fair. The Fair Police spawned much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, terrible puns, and general discord because, of course, life isn’t fair, and no parent can dole out justice in a completely fair manner. The Fair Police are a plague upon this house and are swatted away wherever practicable. Yet, the specter of unfairness swirls in the hallways and corridors of this gentle domicile like the unwanted several-day-old after-smell of a dispatched skunk.
Fairness, as an idea, seeps into every corner of our lives. My youngest typically goes straight to pointing out things that aren’t fair. My oldest has adopted a hyper-stoic posture about fairness in which he will routinely say with blithe matter-of-fact teenage sarcasm that, “It just doesn’t matter, it’s not fair and that’s the way it is. We just have to accept it.” He doesn’t yet grasp the subtlety that by saying things like this, he is in fact still invoking the Fair Police – perhaps more so than if he was just out and out whining.
Nowhere is there more invocation of the Fair Police than around the dreaded ScreenTime. As the kids have gotten older, ScreenTime has become an ever more urgent topic for the Fair Police to consider. Other kids get unlimited ScreenTime, don’t you know? It’s not fair, we got ScreenTime yesterday, but not today. Can we pleeeeeease have more ScreenTime. My favorite is when they offer the “carrot” that if I relent, I won’t have to deal with whining any more. Sooooo problematic. Recently it got so bad that my youngest, in response to a school assignment in which he was tasked with writing a short persuasive essay, wrote a whole paper on why they should be allowed 20 minutes of ScreenTime each and every day. It was his best writing to date, and he clearly put his whole heart and soul into it.
Which isn’t to say that we’re Luddites here at Casa Cummings. We watch movies and TV together all the time. The microwave popcorn spawning undiscovered ecosystems in the corners of my couch are testament to the amount of time we spend watching screens. But, in my humble estimation, there’s a difference between watching the latest Marvel movie together as a family in the living room with seltzers and popcorn and my child up in a room somewhere playing endless iterations of Balloon Tower Defense. Call me old fashioned.
What to do?
On the one hand, 20 minutes of unfettered (though parentally monitored) personal ScreenTime seems more than reasonable. On the other, I think beating your head against the wall would be a better use of time than Balloon Tower Defense. Still. I’m no stranger to wasting time on video games. Far from it. When I was 14, I could beat the whole game of Metroid on the original NES in 45 minutes flat. Is Balloon Tower Defense any worse than defeating King Hippo on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out? Something in me says that it is, but I can’t seem to find any logical explanation as to why…
One of the things that came with the Fair Police was a proclivity to strictly and literally interpret the Rules. This seems to be an inherent attribute that children develop – especially eldest children. My mother recounts that when we were kids, she asked my brother to please stop banging on the table, his reply was to immediately start banging the table from the underside. Hilarious, I’m sure.
So the problem is two-fold. First, do I allow the requested ScreenTime? Okay, okay, I relent. To my dear children, if you must waste life’s minutes defending your tower, so be it. The bigger problem, however, is how do I implement The Rules in such a way as to avoid a visit from the Fair Police? It occurred to me that there is a profession for which a kind of language exists to prevent just such abuses. Why, that would be the legal profession.
My father was an attorney, and by all accounts a very skilled one. He was a master of language which precluded misinterpretation and accounted for all variables. As a younger person, it was impossible not to notice the detritus of his life, surrounded as he was by briefs, discoveries, memos, injunctions, depositions, not to mention the volumes and volumes of Montana Code Annotated my brother and I moved in the days before the internet when his office changed locations. Since I was small I have always been amazed at the language lawyers used. It’s so . . . weird. But also kind of marvelous.
I’m not an attorney, and as far as I know I don’t need to be a member of the bar to attempt to use some of this language to outline the rules around ScreenTime in my house. I just thought it would be fun to try. Also, my inner draconian loves this.
All residents not yet of the age of majority as outlined by the laws of the State of Montana and who reside at the domicile whose physical location is: __(my house)__ shall be entitled to twenty (20) minutes of ScreenTime per calendar day.
Definitions: ScreenTime shall be defined as time spent with a personal digital device such as, but not limited to, tablets, smart phones, desktop computers, laptops, or televisions, and will pertain to any activity which engages the visual senses.
- Homework & Studying: Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of homework and studying for exams, quizzes, or other scholastic tests of knowledge.
- Family Events: Overriding preference shall be given to the attendance of family events.
- Chores: Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of any and all assigned chores whether such chores are assigned verbally or in written list form.
- Privilege: Article II is designated as a privilege and may be revoked at any time for cause by, and only by, the head of household.
- Screen mirroring: Screen mirroring or otherwise projecting ScreenTime shall be allowed at the discretion of the head of household.
- Educational Activities: Time spent on screens utilized for the purposes of participating in educational activities such as, but not limited to, remote learning activities, typing practice or Math 180, shall not apply to the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
- Shared Family ScreenTime: ScreenTime as part of family time shall not infringe on the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
- Time keeping: Residents of this household shall use a timer or other reasonable method for keeping track of their ScreenTime. Time shall be kept on the “honor system.” Abuse of the “honor system” shall result in the revocation of Article II.
- Transferability: ScreenTime is available upon the day it is issued, and shall not roll over to subsequent days. ScreenTime is issued to individuals only and may not be shared, traded, bought, sold, or otherwise transferred between individuals.
- Auditory use: Auditory applications such as, but not limited to, music or podcasts will not carry time limitations.
- Head of Household: Final jurisdiction for arbitration of any and all disputes regarding the applicability and implementation of any and all provisions contained within Article II shall lie with, and only with, the head of household.