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How to unplug for 40 days and 40 nights

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A clever 7-step guide to putting your family on a screen diet, for Lent or anytime.

This year, prompted by some behavioral challenges with my oldest and some screen challenges myself (um, phone addict, much?), I made the executive matriarch decision to unplug for Lent. That’s 40 days and 40 nights, four kids, two adults … and no TV.

Gulp.

Although I was dreading it a bit, I have to say that the no-TV movement has gone much better than I expected so far (roughly two weeks in). Of course, because even Jesus was tempted, my kids fell all fell ill, practically on the very first day of Lent, leading me to wish I could just pop a cartoon on and let their fevers burn, but we have stayed the course. And honestly, even I am amazed at how much more calm and happy everyone is without TV.

I mean, I was never one to have the TV on all day or anything, but it’s almost embarrassing to realize how differently my kids act with no TV in their lives—they are like completely different children. It makes me wonder what the screens are really doing to our kids’ brains, but the point is, life on the other side of the boob tube is not so bad, you guys. And if you’re thinking about making the leap yourself, temporarily or for more than 40 days, here are some tips for you to get started:

1. Ditch the “background noise”

If you’re looking to start reducing your screen time, a good place to start is by simply turning off the TV as background noise. Many moms, especially those who stay home with young kids all day, turn the TV just for background noise.

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And trust me, I get that. It’s so lonely being an at-home parent sometimes that even that noise feels like a connection to the outside world. But it may be worth exploring what kind of environment your home will be without it, too. As Allie Casazza, a minimalist expert who works out of an RV with her husband and four young kids, points out, ditching the TV can make your house feel a lot more peaceful.

My kids weren’t even watching it,” she admitted in her blog. “I found myself constantly irritable and frustrated because the house was never peaceful. Once I decided to shut it off, it was an adjustment for all of us, but things got better.”

2. One size does not fit all

Like anything, too much of screen time can be harmful, so it may not be realistic for your family to completely give up all screens all the time. But while some children may be able to tolerate a little more screen time, other children may be especially sensitive. I’ve noticed that my oldest, for example, seems to have negative behavior that is directly correlated to even the smallest amount of screen time.

So how much screen time is too much? According to Common Sense Media, there is no magic number you should aim for. Instead, you should observe how your children are acting before, during, and after screen time. If you sense there’s a problem or suspect their behavioral challenges may be tied to screen time, it’s time to cut back. You get to make the rules, so consider cutting back before you cut TV out completely and see how it goes.

3. Make family-wide rules

Okay, parents, it’s time for us to be accountable too, because how likely are your kids to listen to you when you say that the screens must go off if the kids know that you’re sneaking in screen time 24/7 too? Common Sense Media suggests that families draw up a family media plan that everyone (you, too!) sticks to.

4. Use an app

If you’re having trouble keeping up with your kids’ screen time (considering that TV is a lot different than it used to be and not just limited to the living room anymore), it might be helpful to install an app that can set the controls for you. For example, I use the Disney Circle device and app for my family, which lets me set age filters for each device in the house. Our kids’ tablet, for example, has a different filter than my laptop. But the app also tells you exactly how long each family member is using the device and what they are browsing/watching.

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My favorite part of the service is that it lets you set wake-up and bedtimes for each device, including your own phone. (Yes, you have to play by the rules, too.) So if you want to stop watching Netflix and actually go to bed at 9 p.m. every night, the app will block internet access and give you that gentle nudge to stick to your work and go to sleep. You can also freeze the entire internet with a touch of a button on the app from your phone, which is kind of cool if you forget and your kids make a beeline for the TV while you’re still in the shower.

5. Rethink how you approach reducing TV

Although older kids may not be fooled, present your family’s decision to reduce the TV in terms of what you will gain instead of what you are taking away. For example, in our family, we reinforced that instead of switching on the boring ol’ TV after dinner, we would be doing more fun activities as a family—puzzles on the floor, board games, dance parties, and the kids’ favorite, the occasional surprise trip for fro-yo. After a week, even my stubborn 8-year-old admitted that she was having more fun without the TV.

6. Redirect, redirect, redirect

The initial time after reducing TV will be a transition time for your family, so be prepped with a plan for kids who will inevitably whine that they are bored or there’s nothing to do.

Maggie Whitley, a blogger at Gussy Sews, recently went on a TV detox with her three young kids and found that the key was having a ready-made list of creative activities she could redirect her kids to whenever they asked to watch a show.

I took Whitley’s advice myself and I let my kids move their Legos up to the living room, we made up a huge batch of homemade playdough, and I scooped up some clearance arts and crafts projects. My 4-year-old was delighted to paint some pumpkin and scarecrow projects in the spring and I was delighted they only cost 50 cents. Win-win!

7. Consider your season of life

This one’s important: TV is not evil or inherently bad and forcing your family to give up TV does not automatically make you a better parent or give you some extra sanctifying grace or something. There are times and seasons in life when I am convinced that TV can be a God-send. For example: you happen to have a lot of little kids, it’s the “witching hour” before dinner, your partner is out of town for a week, you’re not feeling good, and you just need a minute to breathe. Turn the darn TV on. Also, any time a kid is sick and needs to be parked on the couch.

Popular Catholic blogger and currently-pregnant-mom-of-eight ex-utero children Kendra Tierney described how in her life, even as a mom of that many little kids, there was a season when TV was important to her. Namely, when she had only very young kids and was an isolated, lonely stay-at-home mom.

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“I had kids aged 3, 2, and 2 months and a very tiny house,” she explained on her blog. “And, for me, it just wasn’t the time to give it up. I needed the kids to be able to stop making messes and watch a show so I could make dinner.” Later, as her kids grew and she added more siblings to the family, the “big” kids provided plenty of built-in entertainment and companionship, so relying on TV was less important.   

The morale of the story? Don’t feel guilty or beat yourself up if you’re relying on TV to make it through a certain season of motherhood. Sometimes, we do what we need to do. But if you suspect, like I did, that too much screen time may be negatively affecting you or your kids, don’t be afraid to give a detox a try—I guarantee it will be a lot easier than you think and the positive effects of having more calm, creative kids will definitely be worth it.

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