Ask a Mom: Managing Screen Time, Christmas Gifts From the In-Laws, and More
WBTV’s Molly Grantham tackles your parenting questions
Q: How do you manage your screen time as a parent when everything you do these days (work, ordering stuff, news, emails, etc.) seem to be on the phone? I am a mom of 4, trying to run a small business on social media, and managing multiple kids school emails. But I don’t want my kids to see me on my phone so much.—Nithya
A: First off, working mother of four during COVID and handling schooling? Juggle on, my friend.
I’m not sure that in today’s world there is a way to shield our kids from seeing us constantly use phones. We can try to limit ourselves—and I bet every mother has had that idea—but “should” is an empty word. What is matters. And the unvarnished truth is this: Our phones are a necessity, even more so these last nine months as many of us WFH. We write and respond to emails on our phones, in front of our kids. Or in your case, run a small business based on the phone. Plus, the future is all about apps and “digital-only,” making it unlikely we’ll put phones down as we move ahead.
Does that unvarnished truth hurt our kids? Probably.
Which leads to your question: How do we best manage the time kids see us distracted by these palm-sized, life-controlling computers?
By picking times you can be on, and times you’re not. The same way you put rules on kids’ screen time. As unpalatable as it sounds, think about creating some loose rules for yourself.
You asked how I manage my screen time as a parent. Honestly, I don’t do it very well—especially on weekdays. But like you, I’m conscious of how often the phone is beside me, and hopefully that counts for something. (“The first step is always acceptance…”)
Weekends are different. I’ve learned to cherish these precious non-school/non-work days and NOT constantly check email, social media, or news headlines. It’s not that I don’t pick up the phone at all, but I’ve found it makes home life happier if I only use it for long periods of time once the kids are preoccupied or in bed.
Choosing a window of time to put the phone down—mornings, nights, lunch shifts, weekends, whatever works best for your schedule—was the best advice I ever got. Someone way smarter than me told me to pick a time to listen to my kids. To look at them in the eyes—no screens around—and talk with them. The key, I was told, was to do it on days or moments the kids could depend on me to be there, distraction-free.
That advice was simple and brilliant because of what we already said: In today’s world, we can’t not be on phones, and we can’t always put them down the second a child needs us. But we can make an effort to find consistent times our kids can know we’re there for them, rather than scroll Instagram.
And not that you asked, but the same person who recommended “make time to be present” also shared this little secret: Bedtime is a great time to pick your child’s brain. Kids are more honest and open when it’s quiet and calm, right before sleep.
Good luck. It’s not lost on me that you’re probably reading this on your phone.
Q: My in-laws totally ambush my kids with cheap, noisy, plastic crap every Christmas. Is there a nice way to ask them to give the kids one or two decent toys or books instead of all of the junky stuff? At this point I’d rather they skip the shopping trip and just give them the wad of cash they’d spend on cheap toys!—Ally
A: ALLY. YES. THANK YOU FOR ASKING. So many people feel badly saying this out loud, but everyone understands. Rather than pick one way to answer you, I asked seven good mom friends how they handle unwanted toys. Together, their (hysterical) replies create a buffet of options. Here they are, in no particular order:
I love my MIL dearly, but the last care package I got from her had complimentary shopping bags that she got from organizations she donates to, some crappy little free stickers, a small stocking she got in the mail from the Salvation Army, and a half-a-notepad of paper. That box spurred me to make a “Do” and “Don’t” list. I put on the list what we DO NOT NEED very clearly, with reasons why. For example, “We have many hand-me-downs already and don’t need any more clothes!” After that, if junky gifts come, I pleasantly thank the relative, wait until my daughter forgets about them, then give them away. I have stopped trying to fix gifts once they touch down in my home.—Candace
If it’s your husband’s parents, let him have the conversation. Encourage him to say things like, “My kids love the experience of shopping at the Dollar Save section at Target, or at the Dollar Store. Five dollars can go a long way there, and they can then show you what they got.” If the relative gives more than $5, you can let the kids only spend $5 and say the rest is going toward savings.—Pam
Say the following to your in-laws, maybe specifically your mother-in-law: “We’ve been talking to the kids a lot about things we “need” versus “want.” A kid-friendly conversation about American consumerism. As Christmas approaches, we’ll continue that theme through gift-giving. We lovingly request you help us with this process and limit your purchases for them to one or two gifts each. If you need gift ideas, I am happy to provide some! We love you…”—Morgan
I have three kids and hated the plastic crap that overtook our home after the holidays. Before the holidays I used to purge the not-often-played-with things when my kids weren’t around. (Though my 3-year-old daughter busted me once as I was coming down the stairs with half her room crammed into a black garbage bag.) After the purge, I would try to casually say to in-laws that we had a 10 to 15-piece limit on toys. I used the “I don’t want your precious grand babies to choke” line. That worked every time. Another idea is to quickly hide some of the toys they receive and pull them out slowly on rainy days. It’s a nice “surprise” for the kids. **Pro tip: This method is particularly handy on a weekend morning when Mommy is desperate to find something to occupy her children.—Shelly
We’re very clear in our household about our expectations with in-laws. We call our home the “no drama zone.” So they know: don’t put the TV on questionable programming, don’t bring up politics or past transgressions if you can’t have a civil conversation about them, and don’t cuss around our children. Follow those rules and you’re welcome inside our abode!—Christine
Nice: “We want our kids to understand the true meaning of Christmas and not get lost in its commercialization. Will you help us by getting this one thing off their list?”
Naughty: Take your kids to the dollar store and let them buy inexpensive gifts for the family with their hard earned money. Your kids learn the joy of giving and your in-laws are the ones left with the cheap plastic crap. Win-win.—Jen
This is tough. They get a lot of joy in giving and may feel like the years are fleeting. One positive about 2020, it’s a great year to argue for a simpler Christmas and start new traditions. Tell the family you’re trying to focus less on “stuff” and offer up a few targeted gift suggestions. Recommend an experience like a gift card to the Whitewater Center or drive-in movie night. Maybe a magazine subscription like Highlights or Sports Illustrated Kids. Whatever the result, savor the gift of grandparents who make your kids feel special.—Sharon
Thanks for the questions! If you want to throw one my way, visit charlotteparent.com and leave your questions in the gray “Ask A Mom” box on the right side, or send an email to email@example.com. Until next time!