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Knowing When You—and Your Child—Should Turn off the Screen

Whether it's separation anxiety or screen-time limits, sometimes parents can benefit from advice mostly directed at kids. How can we steel ourselves for that first day of school, so that our kids feel confident enough to let go of our hands? Also, how do we avoid the trap of answering our kids' questions while our nose is firmly stuck in our smartphones?

Jean Schreiber, a New York-based early childhood educational consultant and an expert in Hank Azaria's Fatherhood Web series, gives parents some insight.

Does too much screen time affect children's behavior at home and at school? Do you recommend setting limits?

I think screen time should definitely be limited. I think for really young children, they don’t need any. I think that human interactions are so much more valuable.

I think that children eventually are going to have screen time, and there’s nothing wrong with children watching television, watching something on an iPad, if parents are using it for a specific reason—you need to make dinner, you need to get dressed, you need to do things—and a half-hour of television here or there isn’t going to be harmful for any child.

I think the biggest thing to think about is, when it’s time to turn it off, is the child so addicted that they can’t turn it off, they can’t transition, they can’t do something that’s more interactive and playful where they’re using their imagination and they’re creating their own environment? Or is it a child who is totally flexible, and you say, “Turn it off,” and they’re willing to turn it off because it’s not something that they’re dependent on?

How about parents? Do we need to limit our own screen time?

Children are hungry for parents’ attention, and when parents are multitasking and not really paying attention to their children, children feel it, and children respond, and the youngest children will act out and become demanding and will do everything they can to get a parent’s attention away from the screen.

And if parents are thinking that they’re actually paying attention to their children but they’re really on their Blackberrys, on their phones, whatever it is that they’re doing, children are very aware that they don’t have our full attention. No matter what age they are, they’ll find a way of getting our attention, and it’s usually in a negative way.

Parents don’t need to give 24/7 full attention to their child, but I do think that when they are giving attention to their child, it should be full attention and not sharing it with their Blackberry.

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When it comes to separation anxiety, does that exist for the parent as well as the child?

Yes. I think often it’s more the parent’s anxiety than the child’s, and I think every parent who has taken their child to their first day of school knows that they are somewhat anxious themselves. They want their child to go into school happily. They want their children to be able to separate. They want to see that they are going to have a good time and be able to have that independence that they’re hoping they’re going to get in that kind of school setting.

Children really pick up so much more on our body language than our words anyhow, so a parent who’s anxious is going to have their whole body feeling anxious, and the child who’s holding an anxious parent’s hand is going to feel a lot less confident than a child who has a parent who is [confident]—even if it’s putting on a good act, and this is a time to be a good actor, to go in with a positive attitude and a vote of confidence for your child.

When kids come home from school, how do we get them to open up and talk about their day?

The most effective way is to do it at a family dinner time. I know that lots of families don’t have dinner together anymore because of everybody’s busy schedules, but I think that family dinner time is probably the most valuable time for sharing ideas. And I think if families sit down together and parents model sharing something that happened in their day and children then have an opportunity to share something that happened in their day, they feel much more eager to share if the grown-ups in their lives are also doing the same thing.

If kids are having problems at school, how do we approach them about that?

It’s really helpful to ask them first before you start digging for more information and trying to help them feel better about something. Say, “Was that a big problem or a little problem?” Then you can say, “I’m so glad you were able to take care of that on your own,” and just change the conversation to something positive. And if they say it was a big problem, then I think it really is a parent’s responsibility to get more information and try to figure out what it is, because children who are being bullied report that the reason that they don’t tell grown-ups about what happened is that grown-ups don’t help them, that grown-ups don’t do anything. That’s pretty much what kids report, so they tend to stop talking about it.

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