Ed Power's family summer survival guide: 'Distracting kids with my own weird hobbies keeps them off the screens'
Summer: The Family Survival Guide: Ever wonder how working parents cope with the stresses of the school holidays? In this weekly series, we’re asking our writers to tell us how they balance work and child-care during the hectic summer break.
It's one of those weird Irish summers where the sun is shining and you can venture out in a T-shirt without risking hypothermia (yes, I'm afraid too). But it's also school holidays. Across Ireland, kids are gazing out at sun-kissed gardens and yards, at aching blue skies and a world of possibilities, and declaring… "I'm boooored!"
Screen-time is a constant minefield for modern families. At this time of year, with no more school-runs or homework, the topic becomes even more fraught. When skies are blue and there's a football waiting to be kicked, how much screen-time is too much screen-time? Even if you already ration your kid's use of tablets, phones etc, should you take an even firmer stand when, for perhaps the only prolonged stretch in the Irish calendar, it's possible to play outside without fear of a drenching?
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We've all struggled with this question. One problem is technology is so much better nowadays at catering to children's whims. Back in the day, kids' TV could be hit or miss. In this era of Netflix and Amazon Prime, though, there's always something they will want to watch.
Add their Generation Alpha - apparently what they will be known as when they grow up - tech nativism and you have a complicated scenario. In our family, the children have instituted their own rule whereby each in turn gets dibs on what they watch on Netflix.
This works in so far as it prevents a breakdown of law and order and a descent into Lord of the Flies-style wrangling over control of the remote. It also creates an expectation that when one of the children is done with their favourite show that the next will get their turn.
The upshot is that when you, the evil parent, walk in and tell them they've had enough TV and to go out and play in the garden, you risk a mini revolution. Only one has had their go; the others feel short-changed. This is a good life lesson in many ways - you don't always get what you may feel you are owed - but nobody wants to scar their children by denying them their Yu-Gi-Oh! privileges on a random Tuesday in July.
Luckily, my kids generally aren't all that taken with TV anyway. They'll watch for a while, then lose interest and go off and do something else. Maybe that's because television hasn't been engineered for maximum addictiveness (or if it has, someone has dropped the cathode ray tube).
How very different phones, tablets and video games are. As anyone who has gone to a rock concert or other occasion only to spend 50pc of the time gazing at their iPhone or Samsung will attest, our devices can sink their hooks in deeply indeed. With children it's even worse, what with YouTube and all those video game playthroughs or videos in which deafening Americans "review" the latest toys.
Here, and after some early, naive missteps, we've become rather hardcore. Our kids are kept away from phones altogether and only allowed watch YouTube, on a tablet or laptop, with supervision. Fortnite is completely out.
Does summer raise the ante? Of course it does. Your children are knocking around, claiming there is nothing to do. Which presents bonus opportunities for nagging you about your phone or their Nintendo DS (which they're allowed for 30 minutes per day).
One loophole I've found is to try to distract kids with your own weird hobbies. As a tragic nerd I've a massive collection of tabletop games. I'd call them board games only you will think I'm talking about Monopoly or Cluedo and then I would be offended and might try to zap you with a fireball (provided I make my critical hit rolls - I might not!).
Our eldest can get his head around these reasonably complicated boxes of dorkiness quite easily. His younger sister has, sad to say, not inherited the geek gene and so would rather draw unicorns than play Space Hulk (she's only six - let's give her time). But her twin loves to muddle about with the little plastic miniatures. This has led to the happy situation where, instead of wanting to watch TV or look at my phone, he's always asking to play a board game.
What he really means is that he wishes to muck about with my plastic goblin and elf armies. Before having children, I'd have been aghast at the thought of a six-year-old getting their mitts on my Warhammer minis or all those precious 20-sided dice. But it's summer and, if the alternative is three under-10s banging on about iPads or Netflix, I'm happy to throw open the kitchen doors, encourage the cool(ish) air to waft in and line up my collection of plastic man-toys.