Grandparenting and Managing Screen Time Competition

Nov 13, 2020 | Perspectives

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Where do we start? Kids have so many digital distractions these days—as we’re sure you’ve noticed. There is something powerful competing with you for your grandchild’s attention. It’s not a brownie straight from the oven or a basketball waiting to be bounced. It’s an iPad, or other brand of tablet. And it’s the superhero of the toy kingdom. That slim rectangle is the gateway to so many adventures. It makes other activities look lame in comparison.

Perhaps you remember a time your grandchildren came to visit before screens took over. You read books and colored. You made popcorn and then watched a movie together. Visits look different now. Your grandchild wants one thing more than anything else: time to play on the iPad.

What makes the iPad so alluring, anyway?

The tablet has been painstakingly designed to engage your grandson or granddaughter with an endless adrenaline drip of excitement and entertainment. Our brains are drawn to intermittent, unexpected rewards—and that’s exactly what this device constantly provides. Remember that excited feeling of going to the mailbox because there might be a letter for you inside? That’s what it is like when your grandchild starts using the iPad. Surprises await, and the brain craves that hit of dopamine, the hormone associated with pleasure.

Did you have a favorite television show when you were a child? You had to wait for a certain time each week to watch. There were commercials, and way back you couldn’t mute or fast-forward through them. You couldn’t tape it. The show ended after thirty or sixty minutes. Maybe you didn’t like the next show, so it was easy to turn off the TV and go do something else. The iPad doesn’t provide stopping points like this, but offers a continuous stream of new and exciting things to watch, almost commercial-free. You have to create the interruptions, or else your grandkids will just keep watching.

If you are having a hard time wrangling the iPad away from your toddler or teenager, try one of these solutions:

  • iPad Zones—Have particular zones in the home where the iPad is allowed and other zones where it is off limits. Some tablet-free zones that come to mind are around the dinner table, the kitchen, the backyard, bedrooms, and bathrooms.
  • iPad Hours—You can post operating hours on a piece of paper such as “iPads allowed between 11 a.m. and noon.”
  • iPad Naptime—With younger kids, you can tell them that their tablet needs a nap. You can fold a cloth napkin to create a little bed. Cover up the iPad, read it a story, and let it lie dormant for a few hours.
  • iPad Check—Copy the coat check service at the theatre. Upon entering your home, your grandchild can check in his or her device. You can place it in your closet for safekeeping and even issue a little ticket to claim it later (which would be fun for younger kids).

A new routine

Before you begin a new routine for iPad use during visits, have a chat with your grandchildren about the new rules, preferably over some ice cream. Your grandkids may not embrace these new rules. In fact, they will probably throw a fit at some point! Stand firm, however, with your boundaries, and before long, they will become the new normal at Nana and Papa’s house.

By the way, you may need to begin a new routine for your screen use as well. If you are asking your grandchildren to trade their video games for books, but you are constantly answering text messages and scrolling through news sites, that will not go unnoticed.

When you have time with your grandchildren, it’s important to enjoy some playtime—just having fun together. Now . . . it’s unreasonable to think you will be playing together the whole time. You have other work to do, and you don’t have limitless energy. You can explain this to your grandchildren so they can adjust their expectation of having an energetic play buddy all day long. But it is good to establish a pattern of having a certain time dedicated to playing together.

A pattern

My (Arlene’s) parents bought a Ping-Pong table to play with each other and also to play with the grandkids. My parents have gotten so good that my kids, who are in high school and sixth grade, really have to try to beat them! My parents are not very athletic, so if they can do it, pretty much anyone can. They also love to play cards with the kids.

Karolyn and I (Gary) have an air hockey table at home. Our two grandkids lived three hours away and as soon as they were old enough, we started playing air hockey together. Now my grandson, who is a sophomore in college, will visit and say, “Okay, Grandpa, I’m going to beat you this time!” Of course, he always wins, and we continue making wonderful memories playing air hockey together. During visits, we set up the card table and put out board games. Sometimes it is the four of us playing; sometimes it’s Karolyn and the kids, or just the grandkids. You want your home to have activities easily accessible to bring the family together. It doesn’t have to be costly. A few dollars at the local thrift store will buy you a board game, chess set, badminton racquets, or puzzles. You can find games and activities that the grandchildren can do together without you, giving you some time for rest. When you take screens out of the equation, siblings often rediscover the fun of playing with each other. After all, there’s no one else to play with! This bonding time cannot be underestimated. When siblings are on individual screens or watching a program together, they aren’t really interacting.

You can go to the library and get stacks of books, setting up your own library in your family room or a corner of your living room. Your grandkids can pretend to check out books from you and then sit with hot cocoa and instrumental music playing in the background while they read. When they are too young to read, you can read to them and then they can draw pictures and color afterward. Make reading time part of every visit. You won’t be as tired running after your grandkids, and they will be much more ready for school with hours logged in your library.

The goal is to build memories together with your grandkids.

If time and resources allow, take your grandchildren on trips with you. It might be as luxurious as a cruise or as simple as a thirty-minute drive away to rent a lake house or stay at the beach. These happy memories will be in your grandchildren’s minds when they become parents and grandparents someday. Our (Gary’s) family gets together each year for one week at the beach. Our kids and grandkids have said it’s their favorite week of the entire year.

If a week’s vacation isn’t an option, a special, daylong outing to the zoo, the tallest building in your city, live (and age-appropriate) theatre, or something completely different like visiting a civil-rights museum or touring a working farm will long be remembered by your grandkids. Don’t forget, too, individual outings for your grands!


Excerpted from Grandparenting Screen Kids: How to Help, What to Say, and Where to Begin by Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane (©2020). Published by Northfield Publishing. Used by permission.

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