How We Survived and Thrived (and failed a little) During a Screen Free Week

I like to think that the reason my family didn’t notice that Screen-Free Week had arrived was because we don’t watch enough TV or media to hear it announced. But that’s not true. There’s plenty of screen time in our house. My media savvy seven-year-old is great at tricking his parents into extended TV sessions by mining our favorite shows of the past using Netflix. We’ve been through seven seasons of MacGyver, much of The Dukes of Hazards, Gilligan’s Island, Leave it to Beaver, and now he just got me re-hooked on Family Ties. That’s not screen time, that’s history (right?), watching Alex P. Keaton learn valuable life lessons that always end with a family hug. We do track screen time, but over a long winter things have eroded a bit. This was why my wife and I were so ready to jump on board when we heard about Screen-Free Week, which is an “international celebration” led by “where children, families, schools, and communities spend seven days turning OFF digital entertainment and turning ON life!” Yes! Awesome! We’re in. Wait? Did they say seven days?

I thought I was a radical for proposing we take one Sunday a month off from screens (my Sign Out Sunday Campaign is in the works). But they want me to do seven days in a row!? That’s nuts. This event was clearly started by someone still living in 1960, when screens weren’t embedded into everything I own. A screen-free week today involves gouging out my eyeballs and cutting off my hand.

But we did it, almost. And we survived. And it was great. Our proudest moment was on day four of Screen Free Week when we spent our first Friday in probably a decade not watching a movie and eating pizza. That’s our family tradition. Friday Family Pizza Movie Night. It’s a ritual, a celebration, practically a religion in our house.

Or is it an addiction? So last Friday, we tried to break it. We planned ahead. We got pizza and went to a park. We called it a Pizza Park Party, and we played baseball, tennis, skateboards, tag, and chase. Thank God it wasn’t fifty below outside. We even went to Menards later for a garden hose (and to kill time playing on the escalator). Nobody was in a rush to get home, because nobody was going to get to light up the Roku.

There have been hard moments in the week. My son has cried a few times at the sight of our Idiot Box not coming to life at about 7:45 pm when homework was done and we were all sick and tired of each other. I then cried (in the blackest part of my greedy heart), when I realized I was about to be asked to play a board game just when I really wanted to finally sit in that neglected armchair I bought ten years ago for the purposes of sitting in (it’s mostly a trampoline).

But there have been remarkable things afoot during all this. Boredom truly breeds a kind of brilliant busyness in children, a brilliance we don’t often see in our over-scheduled constantly wired world. My oldest son has completed a Lego stop-motion animation movie. It took him half a day. It’s fifteen seconds long. (And, he, of course, pointed out the irony to me that during screen free week he worked on something for the screen). My middle son invented a board game. My daughter decorated the house in her Salvador Daliesque sketches of rainbow-Zebra-monster birds.

The best part was that we eventually settled in. We got used to life without a TV. In the past, we’ve taken a day off from media, and it has been great. But the next day we went right back like nothing every happened. Taking a week off has been harder and better. I feel a shift in the house. Yes, it’s loud and busy, but it’s also more creative, more interactive; and yet, strangely, it’s been less stressful. There’s no rush to get the homework done so a show can be watched. Shower and bath time is not a race to the couch. There’s no reason to come inside when it’s nice out.

Of course, we failed, too. One night my wife and I had an important rehearsal for which we needed uninterrupted time. That’s when the best and worst thing about TV reared its ugly head: it can be a darn good babysitter in a pinch.

(Uhm, since I’m on the subject of rehearsal, I should plug my band: if you’re in the Twin Cities region, our urban-folk band The Falderals is releasing a new CD at The Aster on May 30 and then heading out on a tour, perhaps to your city. Details here).

But it was a remarkable week. I encourage everyone to check out Screen-Free’s website and give it a try with their family. A few pointers:

  • Plan ahead and, of course, warn the kids. Get them excited about a chance to explore new and creative ways to have fun.
  • Make sure you model the behavior. No sneaking in late shows. The kids will catch you.
  • Plan ahead for yourself so that it’s not the week when a lot is on the line at work; you’ll want to be more available and patient and ready to play.
  • Schedule alternative activities to replace typical TV viewing times, like a Friday Family Pizza Park Night.
  • Schedule a family project! We moved kids rooms around during the week.

When the week ended, I was sad. I was afraid of what would happen when we turned the TV back on. Alex P. Keaton was waiting. Would all the magic end?

We even joked about chucking the boob-tube altogether.

But we didn’t. That would be unAmerican. Now slowly, the screen rituals are creeping back in, and my daughter’s obsession with Dragon Tales continues.

So where do we go from here? What’s the point of Screen-Free Week if we just go back to the same old behaviors? Have we changed? Learned moderation? We’ll see.


If you’re into green things: a good friend of mine is part of the upcoming Midwest Solar Expo in Minneapolis on May 16. If you’re thinking about going solar, you should check it out.


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