Selfish screen time

“Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.” (Jk, guys, not really.)

One of my dreams in becoming a parent was getting to share the media I love and enjoy with my girls. I carried a library of films, books, and video games from house-to-house in my 20s, mostly because of my emotional attachment to objects but also to share them with potential offspring.

The reality is far from the idyllic indoctrination1 I imagined at 23. It’s a balance between what the girls want to watch,2 what I want to show them, and what they just happen to watch because I’m watching it and they’re there.

I like watching movies and playing video games, but since the girls were born most of that personal screen time has moved to after they go to bed. The thought of watching a movie for myself while the kids are awake would fill me with guilt that I should be doing something for them. If the girls are awake and we watch something, it’s generally been “for kids.”

But recently I’ve been experimenting with adding a little bit of that personal screen time back in. I fondly remember my dad just watching movies because he liked movies. Sometimes I would come in and watch too, but sometimes the movies were boring, and I would go outside and play in the woods. Some of those movies I enjoyed at the time, but others I only rediscovered as an adult. The films are great on their own merits, but they’re even better when I know that my dad likes them, too.

A couple weekends ago I was feeling sick so I decided to watch a movie for myself: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. One Christmas I woke up super early and watched Bill & Ted five times in a row while waiting for the rest of my family to wake up. It’s one of my favorite movies and a great way to briefly forget you have a mild fever.

The girls, of course, came upstairs and watched with me. Because they were there, for the first time I was struck by the anachronisms of 1988. My kids don’t really know what a phone booth is and we rarely hang out at the local mall. While I knew some of the jokes–“He didn’t even card us!” and “Sixty-nine dudes!”–would go over their heads, I was surprised how casually Bill and Ted refer to each other as “fags” after hugging each other in a PG movie.

Overall, I think the girls enjoyed it as a silly movie that Daddy likes. The three-year-old was afraid of the time-travel lightning, and the six-year-old astutely noticed that there was only one female personage of historical significance.3 I don’t think the girls would choose Bill & Ted on their own, but it wasn’t a waste of 90 minutes.

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Last Saturday I decided to play a video game. Because I haven’t allowed myself a Wii U,4 I started playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on our Wii. The girls watched as I navigated the intro town, catching fish,5 herding goats, and breaking pumpkins for the precious rupees inside. It’s a good 30 minutes before you encounter your first bad guy, and when I finally did, the girls’ reactions were visceral. As a violent plant started to munch on Link, the three-year-old hid under a blanket while her six-year-old sister shrieked “Kill it, Daddy! Kill it with your sword!”

Even though I was the one playing, the experience felt communal. Contrast this with the time I spend on my iPad or iPhone. Sometimes I’m reading a book or a magazine, but all too often I’m just mindlessly catching up on my Twitter or streams. Activities on smartphones and tablets feel so insular. Looking over someone’s shoulder who is using an iPad feels invasive in a way that watching a movie or playing a console game on a larger screen doesn’t. If I am going to commit myself to a screen during my available family time, why not do it in a way that doesn’t put the screen between my kids and me?

When you have kids, spending time and attention on yourself is a straddle between necessary and selfish. As with most things, the answer is probably deliberation and moderation, but that’s hard. As I allow myself to play through a video game, or watch a movie that doesn’t have “Tinkerbell” in the title, I will try to be mindful that it is something I actually want to do, not just a way to kill time.

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  1. “Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.” 
  2. Or are ready to watch. My six-year-old only recently began to process films that contain the slightest amount of suspense. 
  3. Who had exactly two lines, both in French. 
  4. I am a grown up who has to resist spending money impulsively and frivolously because I am actually not a grown up. 
  5. We’ve had the game for years but I never made it past the fishing until last Saturday. I had to read the manual

Photo by: suzettesuzette

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Sam Davies

Sam Davies is the father of two daughters (ages five and eight) who lives in Northside Richmond. He and his wife Kat are trying their best to not raise sociopaths.

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