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Screen time is how he unwinds


Nolan’s teacher sent me a text Tuesday morning warning me the school bus had gotten stuck in the snow somewhere and would be late getting to our house. It made me wonder two things:


1. How did the bus driver, who I’m assuming is from Wisconsin or somewhere else in the upper Midwest where we learn as young adults to master winter weather driving like Kyle Busch conquers NASCAR tracks, get stuck in only three inches of snow?


2. How would Nolan handle having to wait an extra five, 10, maybe 20-plus minutes, before the bus arrived?


My mind went over some possible scenarios regarding the second question, and all of them were bad. He could begin yelling and grabbing either Cindy or I, or both of us (not good). He could begin yelling, crying, and hitting himself in the head (really not good). He could do what he’s done in the past when he’s wanted to leave right now, which is begin pulling me toward the door before I’ve even had a chance to put on my shoes and stocking cap. I run outside year-round and can handle the cold all right, but even I need to dress appropriately to be outside in 18-degree weather and three inches of snow.


But Nolan grabbed one of his iPads – we have four in the house – found the YouTube Kids app, sat down on our living room sofa, and watched a Harlem Globetrotters video. He had a few moments of enjoyable down time – who doesn’t like the Globetrotters? – before the bus pulled up in front of our house. He calmly put down the iPad, put on his coat, Cindy helped him with his backpack, and I walked him out to the bus (yes, wearing shoes and a stocking cap).


We bought Nolan his first iPad about eight or nine years ago, and we can’t imagine life without it. It’s his communication device. It has a music app he loves and uses frequently. And it provides an endless stream of videos that captivate and entertain him.


Yes, I’m talking about allowing our son to have screen time. I admit we probably let him have a little more than he should. I know admitting something like that might cause a few of you reading this post to give your phone, tablet, or computer screen the stink-eye and question our parenting skills. It's not wrong to say a lot of us -- myself included -- should not be left to our own devices with our technological devices. What could Nolan possibly be learning by watching things such as hijinks on the basketball court, kids on waterslides, and lately, some furry troll-like creature named Booba that sounds like Chewbacca in desperate need of a throat lozenge?


The answer is, maybe absolutely nothing. But for a kid who is on the go for 10 of the 14 or 15 hours he’s awake on a typical day – first going to school for 7½ hours, and then either his after-school program for two hours a day four days a week or 45 minutes of music therapy on Mondays – maybe that down time is everything to him. I initially wasn’t that crazy about Cindy allowing Nolan to have access to videos. Right or wrong, I’m starting to rethink that.

You know what – we’ve never said we’re perfect parents, and now there is data to back that up. We’re guilty of committing the top three mistakes made by moms and dads, according to a recent survey of 2,000 parents ages 23 and older conducted by OnePoll. Sixty-five percent of those parents allow their kids to have too much screen time. Forty-two percent of those parents have accidentally taught their kids curse words. Thirty-nine percent of those parents have allowed their kids to watch something that wasn’t age-appropriate.


(I admit that Nolan once watched a few moments of “The Big Lebowski,” one of my favorite films, and only heard maybe three or four of the 260 f-bombs uttered in the movie. I also admit he might have said a couple of the expletives Cindy and I have dropped. He’s nonverbal, so any word that comes out of his mouth – even one of the seven words George Carlin told audiences in the 1970s could not be said on television – is a good word, in our opinion).


You might be asking why we don’t choose reading Nolan a book over giving him time with his iPad. We have read to him. Cindy bought and read to him all seven Harry Potter books. I’ve tried sharing with him some of my favorite books from when I was a kid. But Nolan is a kid who can’t sit still for very long. He would wander out of the room no matter how exciting the adventure Harry, Ron and Hermione were having. He walked up to me, gave me a look that said, ‘that’s enough,’ and closed the copy of Beverly Cleary’s book “Otis Spofford” the last time I started reading it to him.


So Cindy and I have tried to connect with Nolan via the iPad. Billy Joel videos on YouTube, “The Longest Time” and “Tell Her About It” in particular, have quieted a few of his meltdowns and sad moments. I’m not kidding when I say one of my proudest moments as a father is getting Nolan to sit through most of the 45 minutes of Billy’s 1978 appearance on “The Old Grey Whistle Test,” a British music show. We’re hoping the Globetrotters videos we found for him will help prepare him for when we go see them in late March.


But mostly, screen time is Nolan’s opportunity to just be mellow after a busy day.


Most mornings he’ll walk to the kitchen after he gets up and goes to the bathroom, retrieve the iPad with the YouTube Kids app, and retreat to his bedroom for a few minutes of watching something before he has to take a bath. He finds something to watch while he eats breakfast. He finds something to watch after I bring him home from his after-school program, and again before bedtime. The videos change in rapid-fire succession – anything from Lightning McQueen to Australian dudes on trampolines to kids signing in Spanish.


Maybe it isn’t always the best way for Nolan to spend his time. But it’s his way of getting himself in a good place, which might come in handy if the bus runs late again this morning.

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