How could I make our home the "fun" one in the neighborhood without sacrificing the parenting rules that are important to me?
I always knew that I would be a cool mom. I wouldn't care if my kids ran around in the dirt. I'd let them build a fort in the living room. I'd be easygoing, tell jokes, serve great snacks, and play awesome music.
"Evan wants a playdate, but he wants me to go over there," Murphy, my younger son, announces.
"Why can't he come here?" I ask. "You guys can make freezer pops."
"Evan doesn't like it here. He says it's boring."
Boring? Murphy explains: "Evan says you're mean because you don't let us go on the computer."
When your kid has friends like that, who needs adult enemies? My mind veers toward some unflattering things I could say about little Evan, the whiner and finger licker, when I catch myself—and Murphy's concerned expression. I can see he's worried that I'm going to give my "screen speech," which goes something like this: Why on earth would he invite a friend over to zone out in front of a screen? It's a playdate, which means running around, gluing stuff together, or pretending to be spies and capturing each other. Clearly, Murphy would rather I fix his problem by letting him go to Evan's instead or by relaxing my rules.
"Look," I say, "tell Evan that you guys can go on the computer at the end of the playdate, after you've played like normal kids for a while."
I know that I probably shouldn't use the word normal this way, and in this particular context it isn't even apt. Going on the computer and watching TV during a playdate is the norm among my sons' friends. I don't complain when my boys spend time in front of screens in their friends' homes; it would be rude for me to impose my values on other parents, especially those who are hosting my children. But at home, our philosophy is simple: Murphy and Spencer, my older son, get free time on the computer two or three days a week for half an hour to an hour. They occasionally watch a TV show, usually with the whole family. On Sundays there are no screens, even for parents, except for football, which we all enjoy—my husband grandfathered that in.
In short, I'm not a zealot. When Evan comes over and I issue my "Let's play first, then later we can have some screen time" edict, the boys bug me every ten minutes until I cave. At that point, I don't get any kudos for being cool, just a begrudging "thanks" from both of them and a collective eye roll that says, "We could have jumped to this part an hour ago, and everyone would have been happier."
Later, I wonder if it was worth imposing limits at all. So I consult Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness and teacher of online parenting classes under the same name.
First, Dr. Carter reassures me that laying off the screens during playdates at our home does not make me the black angel of anti-fun. Nor does it mean that I am killing my children's social life. In fact, removing screens actually helps build social skills. (I can already see the skeptical look on my sons' faces when I tell them this.) "Those skills will serve them in a gazillion ways," says Dr. Carter. "They will be more socially and emotionally intelligent, and have more success in life." Communicating directly through play and conversation is not simply an optional skill, she explains; it is the most important skill for a child to have. "But this begs the question," she continues. "Is it your obligation to build those skills in other children?"
As far as I'm concerned, the answer to that rhetorical question is no. Not only would I run from that obligation, I'm reticent to weigh in on anyone's parenting. Frankly, I like to be liked. Establishing my home as the place where kids learn social skills that they might otherwise be lacking is a sure way to get myself kicked off every guest list in town. Dr. Carter concurs: I should focus on what benefits my own children. I'm sold. Now I just need to sell my children.
First, Dr. Carter recommends that I make a plan for the playdates with my kids. This way, I will preempt the moment when they default to screens; I should ask them to think of other fun activities they can enjoy with their friends. Here is where we get to be the cool household in the neighborhood. Dr. Carter says that the activities should be ones that are novel, that fall outside the normal board-game and toss-a-ball suggestions. Like: filling balloons with water for a spirited water-balloon fight, or prepping buckets of warm, soapy water and sponges to wash the car, or taking kids to the local humane society to cuddle kittens and help walk the dogs.
Encouraged by Dr. Carter—I can already feel my "cool mom" cred soaring—I eagerly engage my sons. Getting them to think of no-screen activities for a playdate proves challenging, especially when I remove the possibility of jousting. But with some prompting, they come up with viable ideas: an organized sporting event, carving a pumpkin, shooting a movie, and writing and performing a radio play. They also request ice cream.
When Spencer and Murphy's two friends come over for their next playdate, I greet them at the door wearing a tie-dye T-shirt. Thinking "novel," I point out a box of fake noses we happen to have—but they show little interest. Our vertical magnetic chessboard that hangs on the wall goes over a bit better. Then I show them a couple of radio plays online. (Yes, the irony does not escape me.) The kids adapt the idea quickly and spend the next half hour in their room, eating ice-cream sandwiches and writing a script about two warring clans of cats. Then they add sound effects, including Spencer strumming a banjo as background music. When they've gotten the whole thing together, we record it. The boys have a ball doing realistic cat meows and creating the sound of snapping branches (breaking to-go chopsticks in half). The playdate is a success. Surprisingly, no one even asks to watch TV or play computer games. But I am exhausted.
After the kids disperse, I hole up in my bedroom. My body is loose from industry and satisfaction. I break out an ice-cream sandwich and turn on a favorite television show.
It's hard work being cool.
Mom Confessions: If I Could Spend a Day Without My Kids I Would...
Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.