Kids

Less screen time with older kids and preteens

After our excessive screen time over winter break, I knew we needed a change. So I’ve put some new routines in place. I didn’t “announce” it to the kids so they wouldn’t feel like something was being taken away. Instead I tried to make it fun and implement new ideas little by little.

Then something unexpected happened pretty quickly. We all began looking forward to our new evening routine! That sounds crazy and I can’t believe I’m saying that, but it’s true.

Real quick though. This is a judgement-free zone. It’s ok if we do things differently. I’m hoping we can learn with and from each other! I’d love to hear your ideas too.

Ok, this is what we’re working on with one girl and two boys, ages 7, 10 and 11.

Scheduled computer time

First of all, I am not a natural routine person. Left to my own devices, no day looks the same as another. But kids really do thrive on flexible routine. I use the word “flexible” because a rigid schedule with no room for impromptu friend visits or walks during a pretty sunset isn’t any fun! It’s more of an outline to get the necessary things done and enjoy our evenings.

I also don’t enjoy making rules about everything. However, without them, and along with excessive screen time, the kids end up fussy, unable to entertain themselves and with a boatload of pent up energy from sitting in chair for hours on end.

So I started with the computer times. I have been such a pushover! They’d say the classic “15 more minutes!” and I would relent and of course it would turn into 45 and another argument. I set myself up for that. It has taken us a year to reach a schedule that works. It saves time, hurt feelings and angry words if you just stick to what you have said. Trust me.

I did this by using the Microsoft Family program with the boys’ laptops (the 7-year-old does not have one). There is a kid side and an adult side to the computer and they do not have my code to the adult side. That means they have to get permission for each website they visit or game they download. I control their time limits and even schedule from the computer or my phone. This limits the arguing because it just shuts off itself.

The kids have Amazon Fire Tablets as well from several years ago. The boys don’t use theirs very often, except road trips, but those also are operating as a kid profile. They have no internet access and apps can only be put on by me. They can only be turned on by the schedule that I set them to. Some of their favorite apps are:

  • PBS kids
  • Minecraft
  • Crossy Road
  • Floof – My Pet House
  • Wildcraft
  • Wolf Tales – Home & Heart
  • My Talking Tom Friends
  • Girls Hair Salon
  • My Baby Unicorn
  • Duolingo

I’ll keep this brief, but maybe you can learn from me. I got tired of adding and taking away apps on their tablets and I gave them my pin. So they added and subtracted tons of games without me really knowing what they were doing. It’s scary how many disturbing things there are in cartoon form to lure them in.

I finally figured out I could access everything on my desktop computer through Amazon Parent Dashboard, which was much more convenient. So when I told them they were going back to the kid side and can no longer have access to anything, one argued with me. I dug in my heels this time and I’m not going back. When a parent flip flops it really creates more drama than necessary.

So yes, it takes time up front to set all these schedules and pins and get all their school websites added to their “side.” But it’s worth it in the end. I had to tell the kids it would take time and asked them to be patient with me. I would get it all on there in time. And now I hardly touch those settings.

Expectations are everything. They can only play on the weekends. Their minds really need a break!

I’m picky about their games too. They were into Minecraft forever, which was great and they were not allowed to use any chats. Now they are into Roblox, which is more of a gray area in my opinion. I know what they are playing (and no gun games are allowed), but this is the point where I need to teach them to monitor what they are watching and playing for themselves. Of course, I supervise, but as they get older, Mom won’t be there to say yes or no to everything. It becomes a matter of the heart. Could God bless you playing this game or seeing that video? How do you feel afterward? Aggressive? Angry? Or creative and happy?

The 7-year-old, on the other hand, only plays on her tablet about an hour in total all weekend. She has much better things to do like tea parties and riding her bike through puddles in unicorn rain boots.

No phones

We are going to put off giving the kids phones for as long as possible. We’re thinking 16, when they are driving — and even then limiting internet and apps. We want to give them the freedom to enjoy their childhood.

I have a few hundred thousand followers across social media apps and when things have gone viral, weird and cruel people come out of the woodwork. I can hardly stomach these comments in my 40s. Imagine what those words do to a preteen with a forming brain. Read more about my social media growth and haters here.

Aside from the research forever demonstrating how damaging phones are to kids, I also think about what they are missing while they’re on them — face to face friendships, conversations, admiration of nature, time to process thoughts and experiences, creativity, time to hear the quiet, reassuring voice of God.

So those are the screen expectations that I try to stick to. I’d be lying if I said we don’t deviate. At the end of long breaks I definitely get lax with off computer days! But during routine weeks, we stick to this.

Now, what to do instead of screen time?!

Play invitation 

I don’t feel that I am in charge of entertaining my kids. I even believe boredom can be very good for them. It rests their over-stimulated minds and oftentimes leads to creativity. With that prefaced, I see that I can come up with ways to get them started in their screen-free time, give them direction that they can take on in their own creative way.

I learned about art and play invitations where you just set out materials or play items for them to discover and play with. This is instead of saying “what do you want to play?” or listing all their options (which usually ends with “no” after each suggestion). This works especially well with younger kids.

I’ve even made a list on my phone of sets we have in our house to make it easy for me to remember.

  • Calico critters
  • Learn how to draw
  • Word search or color sheet
  • Play doh
  • Lego
  • Train with tiles/blocks
  • Guess who
  • Pop it beads
  • Puzzle
  • Train
  • Fiddle sticks
  • Animal figurines
  • Dolls and accessories
  • Cooking/tea set

Family games

Honestly this is the first year that all the kids are old enough to understand the games and not have a meltdown or thrown game boards on the floor. And it has been a huge game changer for us!

We’ve started playing family games after dinner almost every night there are no sports. Before we would have sat down and started watching tv. I gradually shifted to family game time instead by shutting off the tv when they were talking and wrestling. I used to even tell them to stop and watch tv because they were wild and distracting everyone! I realized what I was doing and began to shut off the tv instead. To my surprise no one balked when I followed it by yelling “game time”!

The game doesn’t have to be anything formal or overly complicated. You can even adapt games and make them your own. Last night my daughter pulled out Apples to Apples, but it’s a little over her head, so we adapted it by reading the word and seeing if they knew what it meant or could even spell it. It’s pretty funny with a second grader and an Italian!

Family game night ideas with kids

Family game ideas to play with kids

I also think it would be really fun to do a family talent show. They can make and sell tickets and then each person could do their routine!

Again, I did not “announce” that I’m trying to reduce screen time, I’m just slowing transitioning into a routine of playing a little game at the coffee table after dinner. It’s something they really look forward to now! These will create fun memories of their childhood that tv just can’t.

Books

I have one kid that reads every morning unprompted because he loves loves loves the Warrior Cat series. Another kid avoids reading at all cost these days. And one that will read on her own, but loves stories read to her as well. I used to read to all the kids before bed for a period of time, but now the boys want to read their own things. My husband has started reading a story from the Jesus Storybook to our daughter each night that he is home. That really helps a lot.

Just a word about this. I kindly asked him to do this and now he loves making it part of their routine. If you are married, kindly ask for specific ways your spouse can help. It’s up to them to do it or not, but we can’t expect mind reading in marriage.

And now that I’m typing this out, I think I’m going to try reading a novel aloud to them again. It’s tricky to find the right book — all suggestions welcome — but that was a truly sweet time together. Again, I’ll have to start slowly with expectations. I’ll just say “anyone who wants to hear the story, we’ll be in here.” A lot of times if something is optional, they’ll opt in!

Routine

I don’t think you need to plan out every minute of you weekend. There’s something special about unplanned time, especially with how over-scheduled our kids tend to be these days. The problem for us comes when there is no rhythm or structure at all. I’ve also had to learn that the hard way.

This is the loose routine that is working for us right now on a typical school day. The boys have soccer and Clara has gymnastics once a week about eight months the year. They’re asking me to do secondary sports already. Yikes!

They are always in bed by 8:30 pm. These crazy boys wake up at 6 am about every day no matter what time they go to sleep (didn’t get that from me!), so the is a must for us. You can watch my morning routine here.

After school routine

  • 3: Elementary home from school, snack, homework, art and play invitations
  • 4: Middle schooler home, snack, outside time or at Nonni’s house
  • 5: Kids daily chore, cook dinner and eat at the table
  • 6: Middle school homework, outside time (usually soccer or a walk)
  • 6:30: family game
  • 7:30: tv
  • 8:30: bedtime

It’s more difficult now that the kids have different school schedules. When they were all three in elementary, they’d just do their homework right after school, but now my middle schooler is exhausted from the day and understandable wants to just relax right after school. “Nonni’s house” listed there is their grandparents’ house, our guest house down the driveway.

I’m still working on the Saturday routine, but Sunday usually looks like this:

Table setting outside - Outdoor dining in hot pink and purple- tropical florida

Sunday routine

  • Morning: a little computer time optional
  • 10-1: church
  • 1: family lunch at Nonni’s house
  • 1:30: computer time optional
  • 3:30: outside time
  • 5: cook a simple dinner together, eat outside if possible, recite weekly verse and Italian phrase together, talk about week ahead, learn Italian verse of the coming week
  • 6:30: family game
  • 7:30: tv
  • 8:30: bedtime

One of the best things to happen on Sundays in a long time is the kids’ neighbor friend comes along with us to church and lunch and all the afternoon shenanigans! I think she’s finally getting used to our loud crazy after these several months. At least a little.

Role modeling

The other important component to reducing screen time is to model it ourselves. Kids model what they see. Little kids want play iPhones so badly because they see the grown ups using them. They must be pretty great if we’re always looking at them. I saw a tragically true meme once of a mother and daughter sitting on a couch together with a giant phone in between them. When you’re talking to someone who is looking at their phone instead of at you clearly does not give the impression that they care what you’re saying. 

What I’m learning is that if I pay attention to the little things my kids say when they are young, they will tell me the the little and big things when they are older. I’ve messed up a lot of things in my 11 years of parenting, but one success has been the open dialogue I have with my middle schooler. I want him to know I care about what he cares about, his friends, his experiences.

This is his first year of middle school and, wow, we have had some experiences. I had to tell him I know all the bad words, I know about the graphic things boys want to look at. He doesn’t need to feel embarrassed to talk to me or ask me questions about them. He’s not going to shock me. I also told him people would try to share those images and videos with him, but once he sees something he cannot unsee it. And that at some point he would be offered drugs … that might not even look like drugs.

Sure enough within the first month I began picking him up at school because of things he saw on phones and heard from kids on the bus. So now he has a car ride with his dad in the morning and at car ride with his mom in the afternoon with opportunities to talk and share and process.

I’m getting to the point, I promise. Because I had listened to him when he was little, because he doesn’t have a phone and because I have started to put down my own phone in the last year, he told me what was happening on the bus. He asked me questions and I was able to sooth him and offer some solutions. A hug from a mom still goes a long way for these boys.

My husband and I both work from our phones, but we have gotten much better about putting them down. No phones during meals. No phones or tablets at restaurants. A lot of times phones are put down for the entire Sunday afternoon. I’ve severely cut the time I spend on Instagram and TikTok. Goodness, for three years I worked diligently and spent hours to create content, and for what? I won’t go to into detail, but I will say the effort was not worth the return. Or the present moments I missed out on.

It was a learning experience. I’m enjoying making these YouTube videos instead because I can make them while the kids are at school and don’t feel like I need to hop on all the time to respond to DMs or comments, which I think are expected essentially in real time from the creator. That might just be the most time-consuming part. There’s a guilt on top of it too, because someone took the time to write me. Of course I want to give them a response and comment on their content as well.

Anyway, I hope that wasn’t too off topic. There’s just a lot to process as the kids get older. It’s not just as simple as a rule for this, and a routine for that. It’s growing and learning and adapting to their needs, while guiding them toward a godly life and the ability to make wise decisions for themselves.

Prayer

Pray to God (who knows your child best) for wisdom on how the family should spend their time. He will answer through his Word or with resources or advice from a friend. I felt this burning in my heart for awhile, but wasn’t sure what to do about it. I read and read about ideas from other moms and then became actually became excited to implement some things into our life — a routine, a play invitation, outdoor ideas.

If you’ve read this far, I feel safe enough to tell you that I’ve seen some real time responses to prayer. Just a few, but very powerful.

One night my son woke us up because he was having a nightmare. He said there was “a battle.” I tucked him back in and prayed over him. When I said, “I pray your mind is filled with Jesus and the Holy Spirit…” the electricity turned off and came back on. The LED lights behind the desks glowed blue. It was WEIRD. I knew something was going on.

During the night I was whisper singing “Jesus, Jesus. You make the darkness tremble.” Only remembering the song from the one time I heard it. The next day I saw that my best friend texted me the video to that very song that night! It could only be God. We’ve never even talked about that song. It was an incredible feeling. I was covered in goosebumps and crying. And the boys got to see it all.

Prayer is powerful.

Planning

This is getting long, but planning goes a long way to avoid screens. The routines help with this because  you don’t have to think about habits, you just do them. But I’ve started planning a family Saturday adventure to get out of the house. All of us except party girl Clara are homebodies! The adventures aren’t anything big. They’re taking a walk somewhere new, going to the beach, getting breakfast. But it makes it more difficult if I don’t do a little planning in advance.

I have another list on my phone with things to do around town and staycation ideas. I add to it when a mom friend mentions something. Free event calendars for your city are great to check out too.

For example, the kids have a 4 and a half day weekend this week. So what will our days look like? I’m determined not to fall into the “fine, you can play video games!” this time! And I don’t want to hear “I’m bored” on repeat either. This is my loose plan:

  • Thursday (half day): school, outside time, play invitation, normal dinner routine, gymnastics lesson
  • Friday (off): screen time, outside, visit grandparents, normal evening routine
  • Saturday: screen time, outside, lunch, friends’ party
  • Sunday: normal routine, friends over for dinner
  • Monday (off): park bike ride, picnic, normal evening routine

Clearly I don’t have this figured all out. I mess up daily and it’s a messy world, but maybe this will inspire someone in some way or offer an idea or two to implement in their own family. I would be grateful for any ideas or experiences you have had with limiting (or even eliminating) screen time as well.

2 thoughts on “Less screen time with older kids and preteens

  1. Thank you for sharing all the small details of planning your routines, how you monitor and execute your technology strategy for the kids, and I especially loved your words about prayer. I try to keep our days full of adventure and learning as well. ❤️🫶🏽🙏🏼

  2. Hi Stephanie! Thank you so much for your encouragement. It sure is a battle for us mamas! I love how you phrased it — “adventure and learning” — that sounds much more fun than “screen-free.” Haha!

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