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Can I Rely Less on Electronic Babysitters?

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I am a working mother with a 7-year-old daughter and a 2-1/2-year-old son. I don't have much energy to play with them in the evening and feel guilty for not giving then sufficient attention. My daughter watches TV all the time and my son plays games on his cell phone. Can I get some helpful tips on activities they can do with me or on their own?

Thank you for writing in your question. No doubt, you're not the only parent who relies -- sometimes heavily -- on TV and digital devices to buy some peace at the end of the day. Here are some things to consider, as well as some practical ideas:

• Modify your expectations. There's a great quote that goes something like this: "Lower your standards. You'll achieve more!" Too often, parents set impossibly high expectations for their behavior, feeling badly if they can't bring themselves to play a round of Candyland or aren't fascinated by their child's story about what happened at recess. It is tiring to be with children day in and day out. Accepting that you simply may not have the energy to enthusiastically engage with your kids each night may be the most important step to finding non-screen alternatives to keeping them occupied.

• Become comfortable with hearing "I'm bored." It's perfectly OK for children to wander the house in search of something to do. While your 2-1/2-year-old may need more direction, it's fine for your 7-year-old to learn that she can find fun things to do on her own that don't require you or a device of some kind to keep her entertained. Respond to, "I'm bored," with "Let me know if you'd like some suggestions of things you might enjoy doing," but don't feel obligated to liven things up for her.

• Take care of yourself. Put your feet up for five minutes while your children play nearby. Insist that this is mommy's time to rest after work, and that for those few minutes, your children will need to look at a book, draw a picture or engage with a favorite activity. (See next tip.) I realize it may seem impossible, but if you start claiming even two or three minutes, your children will gradually develop the ability to play more independently, without being plugged in to something.

• Offer age-appropriate options. Puzzles, crayons, paper dolls, moldable beeswax, stickers, pipe cleaners and magnets are all safe standbys, but your children may have their own favorites. Be realistic -- your kids aren't likely to play on their own for an hour -- but you can gradually help them develop their capacity to occupy themselves without a TV or cell phone if you start with a few minutes and commit to sticking to the plan.

• Acknowledge disappointment. If your kids get upset when you hit the "Off" button, respond with, "It's hard to miss one of your favorite TV show," or "You really like that game on Mommy's cell phone..." and leave it at that. The less you explain your reasons for depriving your kids of their electronic babysitter and the more you allow them to be disappointed, the sooner they will adjust to its absence.

• Strengthen connection with special mommy dates. Your kids do need quality time with you, but it doesn't have to happen on a nightly basis. Make time regularly to take each of your children to lunch or dinner, perhaps combined with a trip to the park. When they are feeling nourished by one-on-one time with you, it will be easier for your kids to accept that you have less to give at the end of a long day of work.

• Set clear guidelines. Understand the addictive nature of digital devices on children (and adults!) and limit their use. Decide what your rules are and then stick to them, even if your kids try to negotiate for more. Be clear, acknowledge their disappointment and avoid caving in for "a few more minutes." Once your children sense your clarity, they will make peace with your guidelines.

• Begin bedtime routines early. Get baths and teeth-brushing out of the way and establish a nightly reading, joke-telling, song-singing, back-scratching ritual to wind down the day. Make sure that electronics are off (including your own!) so your kids move gradually toward bed and sleep.

Travel back in time to bring to mind some of the many ways children had fun before cell phones, computers or televisions were invented. For thousands of years, kids have been drawing, dancing, climbing, scribbling, digging, making music, and using their imaginations to generate fun. Left to their own devices -- and not those electronic ones -- your children will find ways to occupy themselves while you catch your breath at the end of a long day.

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