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Father of AHHHS – Screen Time vs Face Time

When our son Tino arrived, we did incredibly well at not exposing him to “screen time” and electronics. The first year was a natural breeze, year two pretty easy, he didn’t know about it and was fully occupied just being a growing, playing toddler. At age three we introduced things like Sesame Street and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.  At that time he was verbal and so this did really inspire his vocabulary even more. We even introduced ABC.com for some additional interactive learning.


At age four we found he greatly enjoyed going to the movie theater and watching feature animations such as Toy Story, Cars and Ice Age. We also greatly enjoyed going to the movies as they were opportunities for a respite for two tired Daddies from the endless physical activity of swimming, biking, playgrounds, tag, hide and seek that is the life of a four year old. Sitting in a movie theater for two hours nibbling popcorn was complete bliss. We have seen every movie Disney, DreamWorks and Pixar has ever made repeatedly as a result.


When Tino turned four years old, we applied to Kamehameha Schools and went through the application and interview process. We strolled onto the beautiful Maui Campus on our way to Tino’s testing and evaluation portion of the application process. When the teacher came out to take him into the test, she told me that the complete test would be done on an iPad. I was a bit shocked and also mortified. I told her that Tino has never been exposed to an iPad and that he had not been given any electronic devices up to this point. (I did not tell her that I didn’t  believe that this was an appropriate early childhood development practice, because clearly this was just my opinion).  To my relief, Tino did well anyways.


When he turned five years old, I found myself still feeling guilty about Tino’s lack of electronic capability and wondered if his not getting placed in Kamehameha Schools was somehow my fault. I had an old iPad tucked in a cupboard that I had not used since the iPhone became as manageable as my laptop. I dusted it off, cleaned it up and added a few simple children’s games.  I was unsure if this was the right thing to do and wondered if life was now over as we knew it to be.


Would we forever lose our completely engaging, social, happy child to an iPad?  Would we instead have a child with mesmerized addicted eyes, hearing loss and no interest in the nature and stories of people around him?   I was concerned, but had faith that we would be okay.  We did limit the amount of time and access to the iPad, utilizing it for very long drives or waits when it seemed appropriate. The early games of Paw Patrol, Doc McStuffin’s and Miles from Tomorrowland we’re aced in no time, with no instructions from either Papa or Daddy.  On his own, Tino worked his way from level to level and completed these games in no time flat.


Tino is now almost 6 years and what I have witnessed has been amazing.  From those early simple games, he progressed to Lego, Lego Star Wars, Lego Batman, Angry Birds and Super Mario.  Tino, like most kids I am sure, has learned and mastered them in less time than it takes me to read the instructions on connecting a DVD player or to download a Netflix program.


Growing up in my very traditional Chinese home with my father, we did not even have a TV. I missed out on all those traditions that people my age share, such as Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny. The only time I got to see TV was while visiting a friend’s house. Not having a TV had nothing to do with my development or my father’s beliefs in technology. It had to do with money. He simply did not see the need for the expense when we had so many other things to do. So instead of cartoons on Saturday morning, I would be in our restaurant folding egg rolls or wontons. On Sundays we made pies together or did other types of baking. And of course Monday thru Fridays I was in school and after school doing homework or music lessons. So TV never really had a chance to take for me, even now I rarely sit down to watch TV and none of it really captures my attention for very long.


Recently my family and I flew to Oahu for a vacation and to visit close friends.  While on this trip, Tino was introduced to an Xbox and a Star Wars game with hands free playing and body motion sensors.  This meant he could be a Jedi in training learning to use the force to conquer evil and win the day. He loved it and it was like the greatest discovery of his young life!


Luckily Valentino has not changed much since being introduced to all these new and exciting games and devices. He would still rather swim with his Dads or play hide and seek outside with the dogs. Many times I will give him his iPad and he will hand it back to me after a few minutes saying he’s had enough. So I am keeping my fingers crossed that this kind of technological moderation continues as he grows. But I have to say that I believe the key to this is our being equally willing and eager to spend time and engage him rather than allowing the electronics to do the baby sitting.


I am often bewildered when we go to the pool for a hot summer’s day swim and I find that I am often the only parent in a pool full of kids. Their parents are there, but they are all sitting around the sides of the pool fully clothed, with only the lifeguard to keep watch over their children while they stare at their phones the entire time. The kids soon become uninterested in swimming and want to leave. And why wouldn’t they? Nothing they did in the pool was worth the attention of their parents.


Recently at Giggle Hill, a park near our home, I was playing kick ball with Tino and a mom came over with her boy toddler and told him to play with us.  She then picked up her phone and began to walk away. I called to her and asked her directly, where was she going? She looked at me shocked and then said she was going to go make a call. Since I did not know this woman or her toddler, I told her that it would not be alright for her to leave her son with a complete stranger and walk away. Had she approached this in a different way, I would have been more than happy to engage with her son while she focused on her phone, but her assumption was not appropriate.


I realize now that I did not miss anything not watching TV all those years growing up because what was more important was spending time with my father, even if it was folding wontons in a kitchen or making pie dough. My father valued those times together as much as I did and I believe it helped me become the outgoing human being I am today.  His engagement with me made me feel important and made me realize how valuable interacting with my own child is.


Studies show that children who are allowed to let technology devour their lives tend to be more isolated, anxious and have poor social skills making it difficult to maintain friendships.   These days it is very easy for parents to use technology as a substitute for their time, but I feel it is important for all parents to limit “screen time” and regularly engage in “face time” with their children.  The quality of your relationship with your child drives the quality of their development.  After all, before you know it, your kids are all grown up.


So in the end, my concern that electronics, games, iPads and TV will take over my child are eclipsed by the fact that any of these things could take away my attention just as easily.  Like I learned from my Father, engaging your child is the most important thing you can do as a parent. And whether you realize it or not, your parenting style will become theirs, because your children are always watching.


Dean Wong