“MOM! She hit me!”
“Well, she called me a meanie!”
“I did NOT!”
“AND she told me she wished a coyote would bite my hand off!”
I open my mouth for a reprimand, or a threat, but think better of it. Instead, I pick up my cell phone, turning my back for a moment on the chaos on the other side of the kitchen island. Within seconds, the sound of a flute begins to fill the house from a speaker that, despite its potency, sits unassumingly in one corner of the kitchen.
The bickering stops. Each of us takes an audible breath. By the time the narrator begins speaking, our pulses have all decreased by at least ten beats — a Pavlovian response to the soothing story that hasn’t even begun yet.
I’ve never been a huge fan of screen time.
Call me a hypocrite, because I just finished binge-watching one of my favorite shows and because I spend most of my day in front of one screen or another getting words written for other people to read, but I know from experience that immersing oneself in a fictional world — be it that of a video game or a YouTube unboxing channel — can hinder one’s social life.
That was an easy stance to have, though, when I didn’t have two other humans screaming my name approximately one hundred percent of every day. Sometimes the need to go to the bathroom in peace, or to sleep past 6:00 on a Sunday morning, trumps my anti-screen values. Sorry, not sorry.
I started using technology as a parenting tool when my oldest daughter was about a year old.
When I needed her to sit still so I could braid her messy mane, I would sit her in a chair with my iPhone, which I’d loaded up with baby games, music videos, and children’s shows. Ten minutes later we’d both emerge happier, having conquered the unconquerable — she my phone, and I her boogery, food-encrusted mop.
When I had my second child and needed to manage opposing nap schedules, technology came in handy once more. I would open YouTube, hand my phone to my older kid, and ask her to please, whatever she did, stay right there and not move while I get her sister down to sleep. That only worked about 35% of the time, but the success rate would have been much lower without the technology, so I begrudgingly accepted it.
Podcasts are a welcome alternative to screens.
A curious transition began a year or two ago (probably around the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, if I had to guess). I had begun mostly listening to public radio in the car and, surprisingly, my kids actually dug it. They usually weren’t listening to the words, of course. But when the presenters began talking, the kids would sit back and just chill.
On the weekends, if we were really lucky, we would stumble upon a Moth Radio Hour. This, especially for my older daughter, was the highlight of any car ride. If we caught it in the middle of a particularly compelling story, we would later go online and find the entire episode. If we arrived at our destination before a story ended, we would need to stay in the car and hear the resolution.
Thus began our foray into the world of podcasts. We began by perusing the Moth catalog, but soon we were introduced to several science podcasts just for kids — like Tumble, But Why, and Wow in the World. I’d turn these on and not only would my kids stop bickering for a while, but we’d all learn something new that we could discuss and research later on.
Another favorite in our house is Circle Round, which features retellings of folk tales and legends from around the world, told by actors whose voices kids and adults alike will recognize from some of our favorite shows.
Thanks to our local library, we also have access to dozens of audiobooks, which my kids will play over and over again.
Audio options are calming for the whole family.
Anything that keeps my kids away from the insipid videos that have such a stranglehold on kid culture is a positive, in my opinion. Seeking a screen-free entertainment option, I bought my children cheap little mp3 players last summer and loaded them exclusively with podcast episodes and audiobooks. The players were one of the most-used gifts they’ve ever received. Since then, each child has also acquired her own CD player upon which, daily, she plays the audiobooks she’s most recently checked out from the library.
The thing we all love most about podcasts and audiobooks is that the entire family can consume them at once. It’s not like a video game where one person is solely involved in the story; we can all listen to the media, pause it and ask questions, and then resume play. And, since I’m listening along with them, I know that what they’re consuming is appropriate and aligned with our family values.
Another huge selling point is that we can listen while we do other things. My kids often color, build with LEGOs, or make crafts while they listen; I usually cook or clean.
When the girls aren’t getting along, or when they have a rowdy group of friends over, turning on some “audio,” as they call it, is a surefire way to relax the atmosphere and lower the decibel level by at least a few notches.
I compel the use of technology.
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My kids love each other. They play together peacefully a good portion of the time and, when they want company, I join in as well. But, sometimes, they’ve had enough of each other, and it shows. They’ll start calling each other names or coming to me for help resolving conflicts that I can’t make heads or tails of.
In these moments, when I’m at my best, I say, “Okay, then. I think it’s time we went to our separate places and took a break from each other. Why don’t you each turn on some audio to help you calm down.” (Okay, sometimes it comes out a bit more barky, I’ll admit.)
They don’t usually fight it. They go to their rooms, each listening to her own story for a bit until, after a while, one knocks on the other’s door with an idea for a new game they can play together, and all is forgiven.
My kids aren’t the only ones who decompress during these little time-outs, either. I might listen along to one of their audio choices or enjoy a more adult selection, but either way, I get a much-needed cognitive break, if only for a few minutes.
By the time we reconvene, we’re all more relaxed, more patient, and ready to give each other just a little more slack — but I’ve always got another podcast queued up, just in case.
Nikki Kay writes fiction, poetry, and personal essays about parenting, mental health, and the intersection of the two. Check out her column at Invisible Illness.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.