Is Screen-Free Parenting Still Possible?

April 13, 2021 by

"Positive Energy." Artwork by Rita Waldner. Rita is a proud grandmother living at New Meadow Run, a Bruderhof in Farmington, Pennsylvania. Her tastes in art span the range from illustrative to abstract.

How can we offer our children a life free of technology in today’s society? This question has concerned me particularly since I recently viewed the Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma. One impression I came away with was that all parents want the best for their children and are desperate to find a way to protect their innocence. Most of us acknowledge that too much technology is bad, but how can it be countered?

In my growing-up years my parents chose not to have a television, revolutionary at the time. Though I didn’t then, I admire them for that now and realize they gave us something much better: a real quality introduction to life. This was only confirmed when I picked up the album my mother had made of my childhood and studied the black-and-white pictures. Take the one of me by my fairy house. The fairy house doesn’t look like much, but it was my masterpiece: four forked sticks with four sticks of equal length laid across for the beams of the roof, then a bunch more for the ceiling. Dried pine needles served as thatch. Then came the furnishing. The best, I thought, was the tiny cooking pot fashioned out of the clay-like mud from the nearby stream. When my Dad got home from work at dusk, I made him come back through the woods with his camera to take a photo. I still recall the intense feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. My siblings and I had a great childhood, and we spent it mostly outdoors.

My husband and I raised our children similarly. We didn’t do much: just enjoyed the world around us together with them. Small children are great at occupying themselves given time to do so. One of our children’s favorite haunts was a little copse right behind the house. They’d scrabble around collecting junk: broken bits of pottery, an old board, and soon Dad and Mom would be invited as honored guests to visit their “house.” Of course there would be rose petal nectar and begonia cordial to “drink.” (And yes, there were times when I groaned as I looked at my tub of tuberous begonias afterwards!) Other days a row of yogurt cups would line the path, and the kids would be squatting there making “stone powder.” Stone powder is really neat; sparkly white limestone, or bluestone and red sandstone, makes excellent paint for flat rock portraits – or better yet, dye for face and arms.

But children become teenagers and today folk deal with much more than our parents or we did. Computers are here to stay, as are smart phones. All of us count on them for business and for communication. The thing to do then is to keep them for that, but that is harder to implement than it sounds. What about technology-loving friends? How do you know what your child encounters there? We parents tend to think our child is exempt, or that we have a good relationship with her so that she surely will tell us if she sees disturbing things. Give it up. Children instinctively “protect” their parents from such topics. Your child may tell you plenty, but there will be that one thing that is “too bad” to talk about and he will continue to carry that burden, a burden that increases over the years. Or, that temptation. Temptations can cause us all to buckle. Games sound innocent enough, but not all are, and the consequences can be irreversible. In fact, tragic.

So what can we offer instead of computer games? I realized the hobbies our parents helped us to pursue when we were children, like birdwatching, building models, practicing an instrument, gardening, and caring for pets, for example, were more important than they appeared. At the time, I wasn’t always particularly keen. Which child is keen to go on drilling on a violin when his friend has just quit piano because “he didn’t like it” and honestly, who likes weeding vegetables on a sunny Saturday afternoon? But something must have rubbed off, because later, as a teenager and young adult, I started voluntarily picking up one or more of these activities. In my mid-twenties, for instance, I got into raising homing pigeons and thoroughly enjoyed it. When I got married a couple of years later, my youngest sister took over. One of my brothers played trumpet and got into transposing music (by hand in those days). Another took up photography. True, many parents may not be in a position to provide things like musical instruments or craft opportunities. Nevertheless, it’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts. Children learn most of all by example, so if you can spend time with them to pursue even one interest – be it kicking a ball in the street, cross-country running, or fixing bikes – it will pay off a thousand fold. And turn your phone off while you do it.

One big reason we live in community is that we need each other’s help and support. Here at the Bruderhof we have all chosen to give our children a technology-free childhood. That means the kids do not have phones or computers, and neither do their friends. It sure makes it easier because peer pressure is a huge deal, as we all know. Yes, they learn how to use a computer in high school, but that is where it stays, just as our computers stay in the workplace.

It would be nice if our country would put a law into effect like the one France did already in 2018, because right now you might feel alone in trying to resist technology gobbling up your youngster’s childhood. Things are no different in the German town where I live, but I do also experience signs of hope. I love walking the cobbled sidewalks near our home: there is Frau Dr. Becher, the local doctor, panting behind her three-year-old grandson who is wobbling enthusiastically down the narrow street on his scooter. And at the corner, there’s an energetic youngster practicing Fussball in the alley with his parents as active goalies at either end. A few weeks ago, I met a family walking around the duck pond – the mother, paperback book in hand, was reading aloud to her spellbound daughter as they walked along; behind came dad, in animated conversation with the younger sibling.

Take heart! Yes, be alert to the problem but more importantly, just keep on spending time with your own children. There are many of us on your team, aiming for the same goal of choosing to cherish childhood.


About the author

Veronica B

Veronica Brinkmann

Veronica Brinkmann has lived in Germany, England, and the United States. At present, she and her husband Tobias live at...

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