Screen-free evenings are a great summer tradition

4 mins read
family game night
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This is the time of year when I make a list of things I definitely want to do this summer.

Some of it is just for fun, and I consult with all the kids to make sure nobody’s idea of fun gets overlooked (which can happen to the quieter kids in a big family). Visit that aquarium before our membership runs out! Learn how to make mozzarella! Go back to that state park with the waterfalls! Try our hand at paper marbling! Spend time at the ocean!

Some of it is things I must force myself to do: Teach at least one teenager to drive! Do something about the attic! Do something about the bathroom ceiling and the mold thereon! Do something about the teenagers in general!

There is also one thing I must force myself to do, that the kids definitely don’t want to do, but it’s so we can all have fun: Institute a weekly screen-free evening. We already do this during Lent, and most years, we do it during Advent, too. It’s stupidly hard. But the rewards are almost immediate; and I hope they are long-term, as well.

Put down the phone

The thing about screen time — whether it’s video games, or TV, or movies, or social media or whatever — is that it doesn’t just take up the time it takes up. If you spend two hours staring at a screen, it’s very hard to just snap back into other activities where you use your body and heart and senses and imagination at the end of those two hours. Screen time leeches the life out of the rest of your day, and makes everything non-screen begin to feel arduous and irrelevant, and before you know it, you can’t really remember how to do anything else. So you don’t. You just look at your screen.

I say this as a screen fiend. I have a very hard time putting my phone down, even if I’m busy and really need to do something else, or if I’m exhausted and really need to sleep, or if everything I see and hear on my screen is intensely irritating or deathly boring. It’s just so easy to scroll, scroll, scroll, and the more I scroll, the harder it is to do anything else. So I have a lot of sympathy for my kids when they don’t want to put their devices down.

But I’m still their mom, and I still get to say what goes on in my house. Here’s one of the great secrets of doing what’s best for children: It often forces you into doing things that are good for you, too, even if only so they can’t accuse you of hypocrisy (which is a child’s greatest joy in life).

Just do something

Here is how we do it: We set the kitchen speaker to sound an alarm at 7 p.m. We also set the WiFi to turn off at the same time. Someone runs around the house shouting, “screen-free! screen-free!” like a Dickensian town crier. And then we brace ourselves for a bumpy transition, while everyone (including me) grumps and sulks and protests, and tries to find a reason why we need to stay online just a bit longer.

This lasts a few minutes. And then, most of the time, we just … do something else. We are released from the stale prison of the glowing square, and we magically rediscover that reading a decent book is a hundred times more pleasant than watching the first few seconds of endless, pointless videos. Some of the kids pull out their sketch pads and start to draw, and somebody might remember we have a ukulele or a taiyaki maker in the house. Sometimes the kids play board games or role playing games; sometimes they just sit around and yack and listen to music, and make fun of each other’s playlists. If the weather is warm, we might even go outside and play wiffle ball, or just romp around with the dog, who cannot believe his good luck. Sometimes the kids all head to the kitchen to make mountains of toast and shout together. They are so good at shouting in the kitchen; you have no idea.

It doesn’t always happen this way. Screen-free evenings aren’t magic, and we don’t have any Trapp Family-style singalongs or spontaneously start studying scripture together as a family. Sometimes taking away screens just means fighting until bedtime; and sometimes my husband and I simply succumb to the treacherous seduction of the evening couch nap, complete with chin drool. Sometimes, when screen-free time is up, one of the kids will run to the TV remote and switch it on like it’s an oxygen tank and we’re minutes away from asphyxiation.

Make screen-free memories

But most often, it’s good. Something good happens, something wholesome and enjoyable. Something restorative. It helps us remember all the other things in life that are enjoyable — most especially, each other.

Screen-free evenings are not just for the experience itself, which is totally worthwhile. It’s also for the sake of the long game of parenting. I know that when my kids leave this house, they won’t have anyone telling them to turn off their phones. But what they will have is a memory of what happened when our family did it. They will remember all the laughing and goofing around, the mountains of toast and the wiffle ball games and the absurd running jokes in Dungeons & Dragons.

Maybe they’ll remember it all fondly, and leave it at that. Maybe they won’t do anything about it until they have kids of their own, and they find themselves realizing that somebody has to do something, and that somebody is them. Or maybe they’ll do better than I’m doing, and really take control of screen time all the time, not just one day a week. No regrets in any case. It’s a good investment.

As summer approaches, do consider doing this in your family, if you can. You can do a whole screen-free day, or just part of the day, or even just a few hours in the evening (which is what we usually do). Give your family some warning that you’re going to follow this plan, and get buy-in from any adults in the house, and make yourself available to help them find something else to do. But give it a try. Build it right into the calendar, and see what happens. I bet it will be something good. 

Simcha Fisher

Simcha Fisher is an award-winning columnist who regularly contributes to America Magazine, Parable Magazine and The Catholic Weekly. She lives with her husband and eight of their 10 children and several animals in a surprisingly small house in New Hampshire.