How to Make Bonding Time Out of Screen Time

We don’t reward our children with television time or take away these privileges for non-compliance with house rules. I have nothing against a reward/punishment system, but taking away screen time feels like punishment for the parents, not the kids. When my kids watch TV, I get much needed downtime to check my own phone without the kids usurping it to take photos, ask Siri to tell them jokes, or chastising me for my lack of visually impressive games. Or at least that’s what I thought, until recently.   

The illusion of the phone as downtime is a dangerous one for introverts because the assumption is that it really is just you and your phone. The reality is there are a lot of voices entering the scene: emails from work, the black hole of Internet searches, a scroll through political posts on social media, memes, celebrity news, pictures of life events… I hadn’t realized just how much noise I was letting into my head until my daughter became very irritated with my lack of engagement while watching one of her shows, The Legend of Korra. ( I’ll be honest though, I didn’t give it much of a chance past the first episode, featuring a love triangle and Amon, the diabolical anti-bending villain.)

It was a Saturday evening, and all three of us—me, my toddler son, and my daughter—were under the blanket on the sofa. I was off to the side, uploading vitally important photos to Instagram while the kids watched their show. Suddenly, Kavya burst out laughing, and so did Shaiyar even though I don’t think he fully understood the joke. Kavya elbowed me in the ribs and said, “Wasn’t that so funny?” When she realized I’d missed the moment, her face fell. A few moments later:

“How come you’re always on your phone?”

“I am not,” I protested, even though I know it’s totally true.

“Well, then how come you don’t like watching TV? Or is it just that you don’t like watching it with me?”

I swear, this kid needs to go into politics. She has mastered the art of manipulation and guilting. We exchanged looks, and I gave her a cuddle as I put my phone away to immerse myself in the world of LOK, as professional watchers refer to it.

Instead of passively watching TV, she wanted to use this time to bond. And it’s something I’ve encouraged at home, so me using my phone in the midst of that was seen as the worst thing ever. The irony? Her idea of screen time—with the television and her family—beats my version of screen time—diving into the time-wasters on my phone—by miles.

I grew up on Saturday morning cartoons, and I saw them as a huge bonding activity I did with my sister and my parents. While it’s very important to keep kids active, Kavya reminded me that I used to see screen time as a wonderful way to grow closer to one another rather than viewing it solely in terms of privilege or punishment.

But screen time is more than just bonding; it’s also a window to a world. When my daughter was about 4, she was very upset she didn’t look like the white princesses she was watching in shows, movies, and commercials. There was no Tiana, Moanna, or Elena of Avalor then, just outdated Mulan from the 90s and largely irrelevant (not to mention incredibly historically inaccurate) Pocahontas. The diversity was only in hair color. That was when our bonding over screen time became crucial. Papa and daughter sat around watching shows such as Burkha Avenger, about a Pakistani teacher who fights against misogyny and environmental degradation using pens and books as her weapons, or Ponyo, a beautiful adaptation of A Little Mermaid.

By the time I introduced her to Star Wars, Episode IV and Pippi Longstocking, she could already see herself as these characters, living in diverse worlds rather than the limiting worlds she’d thought existed, given her cultural education at daycare. We would often dress up as we sat down to watch these shows. Her favorite Pippi Longstocking movie is one where she rescues her father who has been kidnapped by pirates: enter Kavya Longstocking. My only role is to sit around and cry, trapped in the tower, waiting for my brave and strong daughter to rescue me.

One of the most endearing things about the times we watch these shows is that Kavya has introduced her little brother to active TV watching. That entails her choosing the main character—male or female, human, superhuman, or animal—declaring that’s who she is, and reciting lines or reenacting action or comedic sequences during the movie/TV show. And she has no trouble changing things to suit the narrative in her mind. When we watched Harry Potter for the second time, she declared, “I’m Hermione and Harry in one.”

A wonderful side effect that has occurred due to our bonding over screen time is that my son doesn’t see narratives as either boy-driven or girl-driven. He just sees them the way we all should: as exciting stories. He will declare he is Burkha Avenger or he is Korra with the same enthusiasm as he will declare he is Spider-Man, because they are the ones doing awesome things in their respective shows—gender is irrelevant.  

So what’s an introvert parent to do if even screen time is no longer a refuge for silence and solitude from one’s beloved kids? Downtime for introverts, especially introverted parents, is necessary. Because of my daughter’s irritation with me for not fully bonding with her over her TV show, I’ve started finding outlets—other than my phone—for me time. I’m trying to carve out time for myself to try something new and have just bought a notebook to attempt to keep a journal.

In France, kids are exposed to wine from a young age, so there is no binge drinking rite of passage associated with turning 21 as is common in the United States. Perhaps the same ideology can be applied to screen time. If it’s integrated into kids’ lives as a healthy activity that introduces critical thinking and conversation, perhaps the idea of binge watching will be less appealing to them when they become adults.