It was just after 6 a.m. and all three kids were up. Usually, at this time, I am in my office writing. However, Mel had a hard night with the baby. I’d gotten up a few times, but Aspen only wanted mom, so I decided to stay home, watch the kids, and try to write from my living room, so Mel could sleep.
Tristan, my 7-year-old, and Norah, my 5-year-old, got up shortly after I did. The first thing out of Tristan’s mouth was, “Can I have screens?”
The kids are always asking for screens. They are like a drug, and like good parents we try to limit how often our kids use screens. We also use screens as leverage to get the kids to pick up their crap.
We have a rule in our house. No one can play with glowing screens unless they do a list of chores:
1. Brush teeth
2. Read for 20 min
3. Do something creative/active/productive for 45 minutes
4. Room is tidy
5. Cleaned up after yourself in living room and dining room
However, this tends to be one of the first rules we forgo in times of stress. When Mel is trying to get homework done, she gives the kids screens. When one of us is sick, the kids get screens. When I’ve had a stressful day at work and all I want to do is sit, and not think, I give the kids screens. Take the iPad, for example. In so many ways I hate it. I hate the way my kids ask for it when I get home from work rather than hugging me. I hate how my kids fight for it. But at the same time, it is like this little window into peace. I give the kids screens, and they become hypnotized. They stop bitching and fighting. They drift into this dream state that is somewhere between the real world and the digital. As a parent, sometimes, this is what I need to keep from flipping my shit and lighting the house on fire.
I know this sounds like we break the screens rule all the time, but that isn’t the case. Most days of the week they finish their list. Most days they know the rules and follow them. But sometimes, I just can’t enforce them. I don’t have the will power. Sadly, this has made me just inconsistent enough as a parent that my kids put up a fight because they know that there is just a glimmer of hope, and if they fight hard enough, and I’m about to crack, maybe, just maybe, they will get screens back.
Tristan was still in his Skylander underwear, wrapped up in a blanket, and sitting in a rocker. Norah followed his lead, asking if she could watch Doc Mcstuffins on the iPad, a show about a little girl who plays doctor with her toys. A show with a catchy theme song that gets stuck in my head for several days and makes me want to slam my face against a table. She also said she wanted toast.
“No,” I said. “You haven’t done your list. You know the rule.” The kids looked at me with big, watery eyes. Their faces screamed of injustice, like I’d just asked them to do some un-accomplishable task in order to get some basic human need. It’s not like I told them to move a mountain so they could get water, I’m just asking them to brush their teeth and pick up afther themselves.
Tristan started repeating “Please! Please! Please!” Each word he said with more force, and more urgency, and with each “Please” I got more irritated.
Norah, on the other hand, simply fell to the floor. She was in a blue Princess Elsa nightgown, her body spread out, tummy down. She wasn’t kicking or screaming, just whining and telling me how badly she wanted to watch Doc Mcstuffins. And in the middle of all this madness, the baby woke up. I had about two hours to write before I had to get ready for work, and I’d already wasted about 30 minutes of it. I was tired and frustrated. And so, after I made Norah toast, and got Tristan cereal, I gave in.
Without forcing the children to do their list of chores, I turned on the TV so Aspen could watch Baby Einstein. I gave Tristan his Nintendo DS and Norah the iPad, and suddenly the house was quiet. Norah sat at the table, watching her movie and nibbling at toast. Tristan sat in the glider, his cereal still at the table, and played Plants vs Zombies. And Aspen stood next to the TV, one hand on the cabinet, her little knees bouncing, totally hypnotized, while I sat down on the sofa, and wrote.
When I think about this, I feel like a horrible parent. I feel like I’m teaching my children that if they bitch long enough they can get out of basic obligations. I feel selfish because I want this time for myself, even at the cost of my children picking up bad habits.
But at the same time, I think about how selfless being a parent can be. It seems like my whole life revolves around my kids. I go to work to support them, I spend my evenings at their sporting games, or making them dinner, or getting them to bed… I think about how Mel and I don’t talk about anything else but the kids. They are our lives. When I pile up how dedicated I am to my children’s happiness, and how seldom I break the rules just to keep from losing my mind, I don’t feel too bad.
Perhaps this is justifying. Perhaps I need to be 100% consistent with my children or they will grow up to be criminals with greasy hair and offensive tattoos. I don’t know. But what I do know is that my father left when I was a child. He just walked out. I saw him here, and there, but that was it. What that showed me is how fragile a family can be. And it makes me realize that I need to, every once in a while, do something to keep my head on straight, even if that means being a little inconsistent with my rules.
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Clint Edwards was blessed with a charming and spitfire wife, a video game obsessed little boy, a snarky little girl in a Cinderella play dress, and an angry baby girl. When Clint was 9-years-old his father left. With no example of fatherhood, he had to learn how to be a father and husband through trial and error. His work has been featured in Good Morning America, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, The Good Men Project, Fast Company, and elsewhere. He lives in Oregon. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.