No more iPad for you!

So I stepped into the fire. I told our 4-year-old son, “No more asking for your iPad. Thirty minutes after your bath, only.” It was getting to the point of, if I took my attention off of him for more than two minutes — like to step into the restroom — he was demanding the iPad. It didn’t feel right to me. So I just decided to stop wondering if I was being fair or if I was wrong or if it was going to be hard and just do it.

I kept thinking back to the blogpost on Handsfree Mama, the one where she references the book “On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life,” by John O’Leary. She tells of facing hard choices with her own daughter and includes an excerpt from the book about a 9-year-old boy who catches rags on fire and burns his whole body. His mom won’t let his sister feed him (he has no more fingers). He is angry, sitting at the table, hungry. And then he figures out how to cram a fork into his bandages and jab the potatoes into his mouth. He is crying and in pain and furious. Many years later he writes this story, thinking about his mom. He realizes how strong she must have been. How devastating to see her boy suffer.

So I thought, I can take the frickin’ iPad away. Most of his iPad time, he played games and watched kid videos. Some of it was learning stuff — games about numbers and letters. But. And this was becoming the BIG BUT: I don’t like all those YouTube superhero giant egg surprises — feeding him on consumerism and desire and acquisition of things he’ll never care about once the curiosity of what’s-inside-this-package is answered. And I don’t like all the fighting he has access to via Netflix and Amazon, even with kid-filtered accounts. Even pretend fighting gets him riled up, and I don’t think, as smart as he is, that he is mature enough to deal with all the aggression and emotions released into his system.

No iPad means less greedy consumerism and less violence as entertainment. It also means more whining and crying. He actually cried, “but I neeeeeeeeed it…!” Yeah, my little addict, I can see that. No. I love you. This whining and fussing is annoying. So what. You might never write a book to thank me, but it’s my job to be your mom and teach you to engage and stretch your elastic brain. Which means teaching you to step into the void. It means allowing you to face your own boredom. I know that is scary. I’ve been there. What to do with yourself?

But I promise. This is the greatest gift I can ever give you — comfort in your own head. Living your life from the inside.

And you know what? By the end of the day, his attitude vastly improved. We went to the grocery store. He listened. He talked. He helped. We came home and he had a meltdown because I wouldn’t wash his hands for him. He cried and hit me and sat in the penalty chair. So be it. He is ready to take that leap to self-care. I need it. I can’t be chained down under a 4-year-old’s orders. I can feel my parenting style coming in. Leader, not servant. I want to show you the world, not wash your hands and pull up your pants. I know it’s a power struggle. We’ll get there. Do as much as you can do, and I will help you close the gap.

We sat at my computer and I showed him how to type letters and make words in a document. I suggested his name, mama, papa, cat, rat, bat. He chose dinosaur, lion, snake, sock. I printed the page out for him, not expecting him to read or spell. Just launching the journey that letters make words. Letters have sounds. I want him to feel the love affair I have for language… the power of harnessing thoughts and emotions. He liked having my attention and he definitely took pleasure in my pleasure.

The iPad is okay, sometimes. Visual storytelling is okay, sometimes. But nothing compares to the purity and possibility of the written word bouncing around in your brain, against your personal history, connections, emotions, and nuances. I pray to raise a reader. I think people who read and write are the most peaceful and powerful and connected to their souls. Writing is like pulling scarves out of a magician’s hat. You can never reach the bottom of who you are. And reading… it is like you get to hang out with the most interesting and thoughtful people — people who are deep into the scarf-pulling and are able to articulate the things that set them ablaze. You can read about things that you never would come across in your everyday life. Or, if your habits are like mine, you can read a whole lot of stuff that examines your everyday life from a bazillion angles, trying to understand, improve, tame, and grow your inner life.

So no f’n’ iPad. The opiate. The creator of superficial desire. The quellor of true curiosity. The closer of the void.

Open up the void. Get bored. Get curious. Get quiet. Get loud. Tell your own story. I hear you, my son, creating dialog with your toys. Yes, do that. Be alive. Feel your own heartbeat. I can feel mine. I am leaning in, walking on coals. Speaking my mind. Making decisions. Bearing the consequences.

After the handwashing drama, he calmed down in the penalty chair (2 rounds). I invited him to help make dinner — measure and stir. Farro. Squeeze limes. Smell cilantro. Pick mint. Smell ginger. Stir and mix. Measure tamari and grapeseed oil. Scoop honey. We chatted. He watered the hatch peppers in the window. He felt heard. Appreciated. Loved. He wandered into his playroom. He acted out a discussion between his superhero dolls. They cooperated. He cleaned up the living room floor. My husband came home and left again when he got a text to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

My son and I cooked a little more. We played with his whiteboard, flat on the carpet between us, creating images and then destroying them. He took real pleasure in the destruction. Not vicious or aggressive towards me. Just feeling his power. I would sketch a simple drawing and he would attack it, saying it was destroyed by the earthquake — a sun, a fish, a crab, a boat, a car, a quesadilla (the only thing he said didn’t look like what I named it!). We did this for maybe 5–7 minutes. It was good. I could see he was venting, unconsciously raging against the arbitrariness of how mom defines the world. Scribble, scribble; erase, erase. Last word. Your form is destroyed — gone. Do it again! Put another one down and let me scrub it to the ground.

Then my husband came home lit up and happy. He’d met new people, discovered some new solutions to a problem he’d been wrestling with. Damn, he is powerful. Accomplished! In only 90 minutes out of the house. Often, I worry that he is big picture and all of my focus on our son makes me little picture.

But our son is almost there. I can feel it. He is moments away from being a participant in the bigger picture. He’s moments away from experiencing the joys of giving and the rewards of generosity. He can learn to be my ride-along, to support in the client visits, to understand he has a role to play in a family legacy. I want him to see that work can be the centerpiece of giving, which is joyous. There are tasks that support work, but the center of work is connecting to other people. Giving, acknowledging, appreciating, and being appreciated.

I’m sure this is not the end of the iPad. Life moves through different periods, and it will be a useful tool again. But right now, it is on hiatus. It has been a week since I issued the dictum. The whining for the iPad has disappeared. The calls for “Mama, watch this! MAMA!!! Watch this!!!” have increased. Good. I’ll watch you. You be the main character in your life right now. Imagine anything and everything. Act it out. Fight for my attention. I’ll figure out how to manage what I need to do and still love you like my heart is bursting.

Originally published at on April 8, 2016.