Mind & Body Parenting

Steps to Free Our Kids From Screen Dependency

“I don’t know how to explain it, but something is wrong with my son,” one mother told me, fighting back tears. “He’s a good student, he does his chores, he used to be so sensitive and caring. But I feel like I’m losing him. His video games are the center of his universe now and he’s losing connection with us.”

She explained that her son was depressed and seemed to be disappearing into another world. Her child was becoming unrecognizable to her.

This lonely parent was sharing what many parents wish they could share, but don’t due to the current cultural norms around kids and screens. Many parents are afraid to talk about it. We, as a society, have accepted the idea that screens are harmless, and part of every child’s day-to-day life. And the industries responsible for producing and marketing the technology have not been transparent with the known risks.

So how do you help your child? How do you rescue him or her from this screen-driven culture? How do you get your child to come eat dinner, join in family celebrations, and reclaim the happiness of everyday real-life pleasures?

It is not as hard as you may think, but early action is the key.

Get Educated

A basic understanding of child development provides direction for healthy screen use. For example, when parents understand that the executive function area of the brain is not fully connected until the mid-twenties, they understand why children and teens are driven largely by unregulated emotions and rewards.

When parents know that young people crave peer and group approval just about as much as food, they think twice about allowing negative exposure to social media. When they understand that the dopamine released during video gaming and social media use mimics the effects of a drug, they will be motivated to take action.


Warning Signs of Screen Dependency

  • On entertainment screens every day and for longer periods of time
  • Lies to parents about how much time they are spending on screens
  • Sacrifices social and physical activities for more screen time
  • Leisure screen time interferes with homework and school success
  • Experiences bad moods when not allowed on screens
  • Chooses screen time over spending time with family


Get Community

When the weight of your entire society is tilted in one direction, the first step after education is to find support.

One of the greatest human needs is to bond with others and earn the approval of our peers; it is a survival mechanism and a core aspect of the interdependent nature of human beings. This is true for parents as they look to other parents for advice and support, and it is true for children as they seek to fit into peer culture and develop their identity.

The human drive to belong to a community is so strong that people may follow group norms even if they are being hurt by them.

Finding a new community that understands screen struggles and offers you support is essential to creating healthy screen habits for your kids. Most parents can’t make screen changes alone. The bigger your struggle, the more important it is to seek out like-minded families. Without this support, the odds are that you and your kids will slip back into old habits.

Once you are confident with the facts and find a new community to bond with—or even just a few friends to support you—you will be ready to remove the screens that are harming your children.

Be a Coach, Not a Friend

Adjusting your parenting style is the next important key to successfully raising kids in a screen culture. Decades of research point to one style of parenting that offers the most success: firm but loving parenting. This means that parents are not their child’s best friend; instead, they are their best coach. Strong parents are not afraid to go against the norm when needed and put up guardrails and boundaries so their kids will thrive.

Children crave this type of parenting. When parents love their children enough to say “no” to negative forms of screen use, they will win against the pull of today’s screen-obsessed culture.

This coaching perspective allows you to love your “team” with confidence, and to do the right thing even if the team doesn’t like it. You can trust your instincts that have come with years of experience.

Are you experiencing a losing season right now? Then it is time for a new game plan. Go back to the fundamentals and do the hard work—even if the team complains.

When we change our perspective and begin to parent like a good coach, we put ourselves on course to win the screen battle. This one simple step to rethinking your parenting style will get you halfway to your goal of reclaiming your kids. You are no longer the mean parent; you are a smart, winning coach.

Redefine Fun

Your child uses screens because screens are fun. Your job is to replace those activities that bring about negative consequences with something truly fun: real life. This art of replacement is paramount in overcoming most addictions.

Parents must plan ahead to fill the time that was previously spent on screen-based activities. Practical replacements like board games, books, art supplies, and puzzles are a necessity. One mom reported that during this replacement period, she had never played so many Monopoly games in her life. Another mom learned how to play chess. Don’t worry about having to play board games every day with your kids forever; this phase is temporary. Eventually, your child will not need you to fill downtime.

In order for replacement activities to work, your child’s environment will also need to change. Video game controllers on the table are too hard for your child to resist. Willpower has a short shelf life; few can withstand the same temptation more than a few times. Many addicts do well detoxing at a treatment center only to fall right back into their addiction when they come home to the same physical cues in their environment. For families, this may mean that you need to rearrange your home to be more family-centered instead of screen-centered.

Right now is not the time to worry about over-scheduling your child. Sign them up for lessons: music, art, sports, dance, etc. But realize that you don’t have to break the bank. Do what you can to keep them busy, creative, and physically active. How about a family bike ride after dinner, daily runs, or workouts with Mom or Dad? Your goal is to structure new interests by getting involved, especially at first.

Reconnect to Family

The final phase of screen detox is centered around your effort to get your child reattached to your family. This is easier to do with younger kids, but can be more challenging with teens. Chances are that if you have a dependent gamer or social media addict in your home, you have a child who has emotionally distanced themself from the family unit. Your child—at every age—needs to feel close to the family.

Don’t stress about what some friends might say. Ignore what mainstream culture says about kids being “left behind” without screens. Your goal is to unconditionally love and support your child through this lifestyle change. You know in your heart that your kids will be far ahead without the stress and anxiety of negative screen time. Spend time with them. Sit and read a book with them. Go camping, even if it is only in the backyard. Get off your own screen when you are with your child. You have everything you need to save your child.

One of the best parenting tips I can leave you with is this: Trust your intuition. Our world is full of stories of a parent’s intuition saving their child. A police detective working in the sex trafficking division once told me, “We listen to the moms. When they tell you that they have a ‘feeling’ about something, I can’t logically explain it, but they are always right.”

Screen detoxing is the best decision you can make for your family. It is difficult at first to think of a life that doesn’t revolve around smartphones and video games. But stepping away from these distractions leads to freedom and a revelation that these devices, not your child, are the problem.

Forty years ago, very few people suspected that cigarettes caused cancer. People smoked in hospitals, churches, and airplanes. Today, no one questions the facts that cigarettes are detrimental to the health of smokers and those around them. One day in the very near future, people will think the same thing about screens for children. As a parent, you need to start now to protect your kids from years of damage.

Think of your screen detox as the happiest decision you will ever make—a proactive decision to help your child that will benefit them the rest of their life. You are creating new habits that will not only enrich your child’s development, but also enrich your relationship. You are opening doors you never dreamed you could open, helping them reclaim potential they never knew they had, and creating fun memories that almost never were.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to help their children gain the benefits of screen media without the toxic consequences of overuse that threaten healthy mental and physical development. The ScreenStrong Solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skills development, and family connection. 



Family Parenting Relationships

Beyond Gift Getting

As the holidays approach, the issue of gift giving looms large. Marketers will do everything they can to get your child longing for their newest toy or game. And while those gifts may delight your child, there are ways to deepen the meaning of the holiday and broaden it beyond the narrow focus of gifts. Here are some tips to do just that.

Use ‘Want’ and ‘Need’ Accurately

Words are always powerful, and during this season, two of the more important words are “want” and “need.” Make sure you use them correctly; teach your children the difference and correct them often when they misuse them. Do they “need” a new phone or “want” one? Do you “need” another cookbook or “want” one? Show them, through your conversations and decisions, that you’re more committed to meeting their needs than to giving them everything they want.

Prepare Children to Give, Not Get

Let’s talk more with our children about what they’re going to give others than about what they want to get. Ask them to think about what their siblings, other relatives, and some friends might need and want.

Ask them to spend a few days observing people. Suggest that they ask themselves questions about each person as they watch: What do they love that is old now? What could they do better or more often if they had something else? After they’ve observed, ask your children what they think would be great gifts to purchase. Make a big deal out of putting others first. Make the shopping trip and wrapping the gifts a part of the fun.

Give Away What You Have

We all have things we’ve outgrown and things we won’t use again. To increase other-centeredness and decrease self-centeredness, everyone in the family can choose used-but-nice things to give away in the weeks before Christmas.

You can choose clothes, toys, games, DVDs, books, kitchen supplies, tools, office supplies, decorations, and more. This is a sure way for everyone to come face-to-face with the reality that they already have a lot, and yet they’re going to get more in a matter of weeks. The family can clean everything and decide together where to donate it all. School administrators often know families in need. Your church might, too. And there are local ministries and non-profits who can accept and distribute used things. Celebrate giving!

Three Gifts

In Luke 2:11 of the Bible, we learn that the Wise Men brought three gifts to the Baby Jesus. Based on this, many parents choose to buy three gifts for their children. You could buy them something to read, something to play with, and something to wear. Or something to learn from, something to play with, and something to wear. Another option could be something to enjoy alone, something to enjoy with others, and something to wear.

Talk with them in advance so they have realistic expectations for Christmas morning. Of course, they’ll most likely get gifts from siblings, grandparents, and others, so this isn’t all they’ll get. It’s just that parents can model personal, intentional, limited giving. Giving fewer gifts can decrease entitlement and increase gratitude.

Buy Their Own Gift

As my brother, cousins, and I got older, it was harder for our grandparents to choose Christmas gifts for us. One year, our grandparents had a fabulous idea. They gave each of us money on Thanksgiving so we could buy ourselves a Christmas gift. We chose what we wanted, wrapped it, put it under the Christmas tree, and opened it in front of everyone.

We were the only ones who knew what it was. It seems so backward, but it was fun. It helped us understand the value of the money and was less stressful for our grandparents.

I remember my cousins often buying expensive athletic shoes. I purchased pieces to my first nativity set, which began my collection, and finished it after several years. I now own 143 nativities from around the world and display them all year-round in my home and office.

Dr. Kathy Koch (“cook”) is the founder of Celebrate Kids and Ignite the Family, a faculty member at Summit Ministries, and the author of five books including “8 Great Smarts” and “Start with the Heart.” Dr. Koch earned a Ph.D. in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University.


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How to Discover What Your Children Are Feeling and Why It Matters

Have you ever behaved in a way not typical for you?

If you cared enough to ask yourself why, did you find that a feeling had hijacked your heart?

For instance, for me, it’s a critical spirit.

This is the opposite of who I want to be, so when I realize I’ve been critical, I’ve learned to look inside. It’s much easier to blame others. (She made me do it!) But taking personal responsibility matters. Unwanted feelings like jealousy, disappointment, pride, or insecurity influence my choices. When I work on my heart, the behavior stops.

Imagine our children understanding this at a young age! When they behave in surprising ways, they can learn to look inside and think about their feelings to change outward behavior. We can help them. They don’t need to get mad at themselves or lash out at others.

Why Are Emotions Difficult for Children and How Can We Help?

Challenging times. In the past 18 months, because of health concerns, the quarantine, and loss of what children could depend on (school, church, athletics, time with friends and family, and more), many children of all ages are reporting that they’re depressed, anxious, or stressed.

Concerned parents are asking their children, “Are you depressed?”

But it may be unreasonable to expect children to know. They don’t know what depression feels like. They may not know what “too much stress” or anxiety feels like. What if asking the question increases their stress? And many tell me they’re afraid to answer “yes” because they don’t know how we’ll respond.

Rather, let’s describe what we notice that causes us to ask about depression and stress. For instance, “Jake, normally you’re very patient when playing games with Dave. We’ve noticed you’re not lately. What’s up?” And “Beth, I miss our talks while you hang out in the kitchen and help me fix dinner. You’re choosing to isolate. What’s up?” You could add something like, “Because our feelings change our behavior, we’re just wondering how you’re doing.” And “How can I help?”

Children may not immediately answer, but you’ve described something real that can’t be denied. They may come to you within a day or two to talk about their experiences and feelings. If they don’t, approach them and let them know they’re too important to you for you to not ask again about how they’re doing.


Boys’ emotional vocabulary is not as robust as girls’, so it’s harder for them to answer questions about their feelings. This is a reason “Okay” is a frequent answer to “How are you doing?” and “How are you feeling?” Girls can answer in the same way, but they have an emotional thesaurus in their mind. If they trust us and want to take the time, they can usually answer the questions. They may be frustrated, upset, angry, confused, jealous, and disappointed. Boys are safe saying they’re “angry.” But there are almost always other feelings, too. Anger is caused by something.

We can teach boys emotional vocabulary and how to assign accurate vocabulary to their feelings. We can use accurate words to describe our feelings and explain why we’re frustrated, but not angry. Or why we’re jealous and how we didn’t let it result in anger.

When asking boys (especially) how they’re feeling, we can give them choices based on what we think might be going on. For instance, “Do you think you’re mostly frustrated or confused?” “Are you more content or joyful?” We can invite them to explain their choice and we can provide helpful feedback.

Technology. Technology causes children to believe they can be happy all the time. Tech is new, all around them, easy, quick, and they get to choose much of what they do with it. As a result, they have a hard time with “hard” emotions. They may tend to stuff grief, fear, and disappointment rather than process them.

We can model that those hard emotions are a fact of life. We can explain how we handle loss, grief, sadness, and the like. When children bravely share that they’re feeling something challenging, we can listen longer, help them find the words they need, and thank them for trusting us with their hearts.

Also, when they share that they’re having a hard day, they’re angry, or mad at themselves, let’s not flippantly announce things like, “Tomorrow is another day.” Or “I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think it was.” This “toxic positivity” can shut children down. They’ll feel invisible and unimportant. It makes it less likely they’ll be honest in the future. If they learn to deny their hard emotions, these become bigger and more controlling, increasing stress and anxiety.

Vulnerability Isn’t Easy

For reasons already mentioned, being transparent, authentic, and vulnerable don’t come naturally to young people. If you want kids to go deep and share details, talk with them without their siblings present. As an example, the dinner table is a place for light conversations, devotions, and sharing quick highlights and low points of everybody’s day. Don’t expect deep conversations about personal things unless the topic is relevant to everyone.

To make vulnerability more likely, try talking in the dark at bedtime.

Children tell me frequently that it’s easier for them to be open when they can’t see the fear or disappointment on our faces. Also, going for a car ride or a walk is wise. Again, extended eye contact isn’t possible.

Boys will open up more when they’re busy doing something. So when you go for a walk, let them kick a rock. Girls may be able to handle talking while you sit with them. Boys need to be doing something—building with blocks, shooting hoops, doing a jigsaw puzzle, weeding the garden with you, or playing a favorite game.

Perhaps you’ve been frustrated that children tell you about how they’re feeling or what’s going on, but don’t elaborate. You start asking questions, which causes them to get mad that you always must know more, are never satisfied, and make every conversation into an interrogation.

Instead of asking questions that force them to share details they may not be ready to share, when they pause, listen. Be quiet. They may continue. If not, try saying “and?” with an inviting tone that suggests you want to know more. You can say “Keep talking” or “Tell me more.” If they complain or even if they don’t, it can bless them to hear, “I want to understand you.”

One Final Suggestion

We want children to feel their feelings and to process them. We want them to understand their feelings and their feelings’ effects. Sometimes being distracted helps the processing. Children won’t feel as overwhelmed. They may make progress without trying.

Spending time outside might be the perfect idea. Try it. Send your kids outside when they’re frustrated, stressed, and tending toward depression. Their dark bedroom full of technology won’t help them. Being outside, sometimes with you, will.

My friend Ginny Yurich says it this way: Nature provides many different types of safeguards to help kids as they navigate depression or anxiety. Exposure to full-spectrum sunlight, for example, causes the body to release serotonin—that “feel good” chemical. Kids often go from sad to glad when we change from an indoor environment to an outdoor environment.

Being outside will lower cortisol levels, the chemical associated with feelings of stress. Rumination decreases after time outside, which can be notably impactful for the worrying child. Even the simple act of observing nature evokes feelings of calmness.

What About You?

Like with so many other things, how emotionally healthy you are will influence the children in your life. Would rereading this with yourself in mind be beneficial? Only you know.

Dr. Kathy Koch (“cook”) is the founder of Celebrate Kids and Ignite the Family, a faculty member at Summit Ministries, and the author of five books including “8 Great Smarts” and “Start with the Heart.” Dr. Koch earned a Ph.D. in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University.

Family Mind & Body Parenting Relationships

The Father You Really Are (But Don’t Know It)

Several years ago, I wrote a book called, “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need.” We titled the book “Hero” because we wanted to show fathers who they really are in the eyes of their children.

But fathers didn’t see it that way. They saw the title and put the book down thinking, “This isn’t for me because I’m no hero.” This was very telling because it showed how poorly fathers regard themselves in our country. It not only made me sad, but it also infuriated me because it wasn’t true. No child—in my 30 years of practice and interviewing thousands of kids—has ever told me that they didn’t need their dads. They always said the opposite—they ached for more from their dads.

Why do dads feel they don’t matter? They have very legitimate reasons. First, try to find a Father’s Day card that says something nice about dads. They are depicted as sloppy, beer-drinking guys plopped in La-Z-Boy chairs hogging the channel changer. Or they are told that they are not needed. We women often say, “Thanks but no thanks; we can parent very well on our own.” The message to fathers everywhere is that women and kids don’t really need them.

I have been guilty of communicating this to my husband. We raised three daughters and a son. When my husband would talk to the girls, halfway through the conversation I would insert something “very important.” My tone of voice conveyed that he didn’t really know what he was talking about when it came to our girls and furthermore, I knew how to talk to them far better than he.

What a horrible thing to do not only to my husband but also to my daughters. Many times, they needed his understanding, his words, his perspective more than they needed mine. Most mothers do this—we put husbands (or ex-husbands) down because we don’t think they really get our kids.

Then we have ads, movies, social media, comics, musicians, etc., constantly putting men down. Find a movie where the husband looks like a hero. You won’t. No wonder dads saw my title and put the book down. Let me take a moment and tell you fathers what your kids really think about you.

You are the most important man in their lives. Period. If you have a decent, not perfect, but loving relationship with your kids, they are home free. They will be stable, confident, and successful adults.

You are their first male love. This sounds weird when it comes to sons seeing their dads as a male love, but he is. You are the one who shows your son what it feels like to be loved by a man. You are the one who shows him how to love as a man. Daughters learn what it feels like to be loved and respected by a man. They learn what to expect from boys and men in the future. If that man or boy doesn’t treat her as well as her father, out he goes. With a father’s love, boys fly. Without it, they can drown. Look at the inner cities where boys ache to find identity and turn to gangs. Why? Because they need fathers. Can you imagine how drastically inner cities would change if fathers were present in these troubled areas? I am convinced that drug use would plummet, and gangs would move elsewhere. This is the power that dads have, and you and I both know it.

You need to know dads that you are your child’s hero. You know this because this is exactly what you wanted from your dad. Every child starts life seeing his or her father as the strongest (“my dad can beat up your dad”), smartest and wisest man alive. Of course, you aren’t, but your kids don’t care. Through their eyes, he is. You are their hero.

If a father leaves the home, so goes the hero. He has left his kids feeling that they don’t need to be loved, they don’t need to be protected, and that they aren’t worth sticking around for. This is the deepest pain a human heart can feel. The problem is, dads really don’t know this because no one has told them.

This Father’s Day let’s tell the fathers and husbands in our lives that they are needed and that they count. They change our kids’ lives. Let’s stop focusing on how we mothers feel about our kids’ dads and be strong enough to face the fact that we and our kids need them. When a show comes on making fathers look dopey, change the channel. Make a statement. And fathers, when you even begin to embrace the idea that you are no one’s hero, kick the thought from your mind. And don’t you dare believe that you don’t matter because to your kids, you are the most important man in their lives, their one and only hero.

Dr. Meg Meeker has been a practicing pediatrician for 31 years. She’s the author of seven bestselling books, host of the national podcast “Parenting Great Kids,” and a mother, grandmother, and wife of 39 years. Learn more at

Family Habits Mind & Body Mindset Parenting Relationships

Connect With Children Through Purposeful Play

I recently asked a friend what she had been up to and she answered, “Not much. I’ve just been playing with my kids.”

I asked her to restate her answer without “Not much” and without the word “just.” With a quizzical look, she obliged. I then asked her, “Didn’t that feel better?” She agreed that it did.

You might be surprised at the power of play. Even when we’re busy—and who isn’t busy—play can be a priority for our children and us. “I’ve been playing with my kids” is a goal to set and meet.

What do you think of when you think back to your childhood? Many of us think of the many “little” things that made up quality family time. Some big things will make the list. For me, being shocked with the gift of a viola when I was 12 is on my list. After renting one for a while, my parents knew I was serious about learning how to play and improving my skill. Buying me my own viola communicated their belief in me. That was more valuable to me than the gift itself.

But it’s the consistency of “little” things that are actually “big.” These experiences, like playing with siblings and parents, school performances, family dinners, and holiday traditions, define childhood for most of us.

Children Should Play Now

Many children, regardless of age, haven’t been able to live as children during the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve had to learn online, isolated from friends. They’ve had to work at home, rather than play at home. In addition to typical chores, many cared for siblings and helped their parents, who were distracted and extra busy working from home. Having parents close-at-hand but unavailable can be confusing for a child.

This summer, let’s give them back their childhood. We can’t allow children to be defined by what they lost during the COVID crisis. Let’s give them a summer to remember, one that they’ll want to look back on. Lately, Fred Rogers’ statement, “Play is the work of childhood” hasn’t been true. Let’s change that going forward.

Play With Children

One of my saddest encounters with a child occurred when I researched how children believe parents’ phones affect them. At a park play area, a young boy’s countenance changed from happy-go-lucky to sad as he shared, “I wish my mom played with me instead of taking pictures of me playing.” I’ve heard this echoed by many, many children throughout the years.

Some people have said, “Love is spelled T-I-M-E.” To a large extent, that’s true. “Like” is also spelled T-I-M-E. Children frequently tell me, “My parents have to love me. I wish they liked me.” They follow this with, “My dad sometimes plays with me, but I don’t think he wants to play my game with me. I wish he wanted to,” and, “My mom tells me to ‘go play,’ but I like playing best with her. She’s always busy. If she liked me more, maybe she’d want to spend time with me.”

I respect that you’re busy. I fully recognize you had to think about whether you had the time to read this article. Every minute matters to busy parents. That’s why saying “yes” to our children encourages them deeply. Playing with them communicates both love and like!

When children invite us to play with them, they notice when we stop working, reading our book, or visiting with a friend to say “yes.” When we initiate play without them asking, they notice. When we prioritize them, they feel loved. They know they’re loved. But it goes deeper than that. They also feel liked.

What’s the value of your children knowing you like them? They’ll feel known, which is the heart’s desire for everyone. They’ll feel wanted, which meets a need we all have. Because they’re known and wanted, they’ll feel safe with you. This makes everything more positive. Children’s behavior will be more consistent. Security also increases cooperation, confidence, and obedience. But there’s still more.

When we prioritize liking children, we’ll have meaningful and personal conversations instead of interrogations. Thoughts and feelings tend to merge during conversations stimulated by play, and both are strengthened. They get to know us just as we get to know them a bit better. Because we’ve gotten to know each other beyond “mom, dad, and child,” children will discover what they have in common with us. “Mom, you liked games like this when you were my age? Cool! And your mom played with you? We’re like you and your mom except now you’re the mom!” or “Dad, I liked playing catch today and hearing your great baseball story. I didn’t know you weren’t a very good player at the beginning either. Now I can believe you when you say I can improve.”

Play for the Heart

Through play, parent-child relationships can again be defined by joy and togetherness rather than disappointment and separation. In addition, by simply prioritizing play, frustration, fatigue, and anger can decrease. The mental health benefits are real.

Playing to take a break from technology and the intensity of work is good for everyone. It leads to more rest. Stress lifts and confusion dies out. Contentment and clarity result. Loneliness and isolation are replaced by renewed relationships and fellowship.

Character can grow. When children only play games by themselves on their devices, they can quit games they might lose, develop pride when they win, and get angry when they don’t.

When children play with others, they’re more likely to develop self-control and learn humility when they win and patience and teachability when they lose. They can learn sacrifice, selflessness, and respect for others as they let siblings choose what outdoor game to play, help younger siblings learn new board games, and celebrate someone else’s victory.

Learning resiliency, helping children to bounce back quickly from disappointment and defeat, might be among the best reasons to prioritize play this summer and beyond. Our children have experienced a lot of loss. Negativity and fear are common. We can’t allow children to be so overwhelmed by it all that they’re defined by loss.

When children aren’t chosen first, or a sibling knows more than they do at a museum, or they accidentally knock over their carefully built tower, our presence helps them mature. We can encourage them to try again, play again, ask again, and show up again. They can develop resilience.

Play for the Mind

All kinds of play are good for the mind. Children—and adults—are smart in eight different ways. Through a variety of play, each intelligence can be awakened and strengthened. Knowing and planning for this adds value to our play. Remember, no one “just plays with their kids.” When you play with them and plan various rich play experiences for them, you’re increasing their intelligence. Tell your friends that the next time they ask you what you did all day. For example:

The word-smart part of the brain uses words. Play word games, talk and listen, read together, enjoy learning and using new words, write and produce plays and skits, read and listen for enjoyment and to learn from different websites, and more. Go to the library and bookstore.

The logic-smart part of the brain uses questions. Play games that require factual recall, cause-and-effect thinking, and predicting; enjoy nonfiction books and presentations on sites like YouTube; read mysteries, building things and asking questions while you do; enjoy inventing a solution for something; and more. Go to museums.

The picture-smart part of the brain uses your eyes and pictures. Color, create, play games that require visual recall, read picture books and talk about the illustrations, build and design everything from the doll’s bedroom to an organizational system for the laundry room, and more. Go to art museums and craft stores.

The music-smart part of the brain uses rhythms and melodies. Make noise, sing songs, write and perform funny musicals for relatives, play instruments, compare ringtones and alarms, and more. Go to musicals, concerts, and music stores.

The body-smart part of the brain uses movement and touch. Make designs with sidewalk chalk, play old-fashioned tag, play catch, ride bikes, “wrestle” with dad, build tall towers, join a sports team, create dance movements, and more. Go to sporting events and the playground.

The nature-smart part of the brain uses patterns. Hike, fish, go camping, walk around the neighborhood, garden, read books about animals, spend time outside, play games that use patterns, collect things according to their designs, and more. Go to the zoo, park, pet stores, and animal shelters.

The people-smart part of the brain uses talking with other people. Invent something together; tell people why you like the music, art, and games you do and learn what they like; teach someone to play one of your favorite games; spend time with people; and more. Go listen to speeches and debates.

The self-smart part of the brain uses reflection. Play by yourself, make choices, do quiet activities, write poems and songs that express how you’re feeling, and more. Go where they want to go—a museum, park, store, etc.

Play On Purpose

Some children and families have done better than others during the past year. No matter your situation, remember that play has purpose. Relationships, the heart, and the mind can all be strengthened. Don’t “just” play with your kids. Play!

Dr. Kathy Koch (“cook”) is the founder of Celebrate Kids and Ignite the Family, a faculty member at Summit Ministries, and the author of five books including “8 Great Smarts” and “Start with the Heart.” Dr. Koch earned a Ph.D. in reading and educational psychology from Purdue University.

Family Mind & Body Parenting Relationships Technology

How We Save Childhood

Parents across the globe are struggling with what some call the biggest parenting challenge of all time: how to control a child’s overuse of addictive technology—primarily video games and social media/smartphones—in a culture where they have constant access to it.

Teens are binging on YouTube and video games throughout the night, sending racy photos to people they don’t know, and seeing therapists for social media-related anxiety and depression. They are even dropping out of college due to an inability to leave the virtual world long enough to attend class.

Parents are in shock and wondering what to do. Why are so many families in conflict? Why are we losing our kids to this virtual world?

Kids’ Brains and Screens

The first reason this struggle has become so overwhelming for today’s parents is that they lack a basic understanding of the physiological effect that excessive screen use has on kids’ brains and the continuing impact it has on their development into adults. Parents don’t understand why their kids are so focused on screens, and they fail to see the lasting consequences of screen overuse.

Gone are the days when normal cultural patterns assisted parents with the task of building their kids’ brains in healthy ways. As children, many of us played outside until the streetlights came on, learned new skills at clubs after school, rode bikes everywhere, played a musical instrument at school, and enjoyed pick-up games (or “free play” as we now call it) in the cul-de-sac. But today, prisoners are required to spend more time sleeping, socializing, and enjoying the outside than the average teen chooses to spend on such activities.

As kids, our parents used to be our natural moral compass. They were strict yet loving—just like our coaches. We had solid boundaries, which allowed us to develop our potential. And like good coaches, parents were in charge and respected by their children. Today, game consoles and smartphones are crowding out parents’ voices, and peers have become the new source of authority in the average child’s life.

One distressed mother recently commented that her 14-year-old daughter’s phone was her best friend. The concerned mom said, “My daughter spends so much time on her phone, I feel like she doesn’t even live here anymore—it’s like she has already moved out of our house.”

To successfully raise our kids in our screen-saturated culture, parents first need education. A simple understanding of the physical, chemical, and behavioral effects of screens on our kids’ brains can get us reoriented and ready to move in the right direction again. Research continues to emerge about these effects, providing parents with new insights and better options to solve the screen dilemma.

Role Confusion

The second reason parents struggle with their kids’ screen addictions is role confusion. The notion that children are little adults contributes to parents’ inability to manage this issue. Parents can’t be the strong guides they need to be when children are allowed to call the shots about their screen usage.

Science tells us that a teenage brain isn’t just a smaller version of an adult brain, and intelligence does not equal maturity. The idea that an adolescent child can be expected to use an addictive screen wisely with just a little encouragement or training is a myth that often leads to disastrous consequences. It’s not uncommon for parents to see a shift in the climate of their homes when they reverse this thinking. For example, the mother of one 8th-grade boy reported that her son secretly asked her to keep his phone for an additional month, following the loss of his phone privileges the previous month.

“He actually wanted me to take the phone away—I think deep down it was really causing him a lot of stress,” she said.

A teen may score in the 99th percentile on his PSAT, but because the brain’s judgment center is not fully connected until the mid-20s, he or she still does not have the executive function skills required for healthy screen use. Impulse control, the ability to plan ahead, an understanding of delayed gratification, and flexible thinking are just a few of the skills that are still developing in teenagers.

Even with a brain that is still under construction, children can be trained to appropriately use certain technology—write a paper with Microsoft Word, create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel, and enjoy a family movie—but their brains can’t be fully trained to resist the temptations and distractions that addictive tech brings. And, in fact, the lure and hold of addictive technology are working against the executive function development that’s still underway. Our kids are being set up for failure before we even put those protective screen covers on their new smartphones. Are we actually protecting our kids’ devices more than our kids?

Cultural Pressure

Finally, the biggest reason why parents struggle to help their kids manage screen time is that they’re pressured by the culture around them to think they have only one choice when their kids are begging for screens. Despite what their instincts are telling them, they feel they must hand screens over to their kids at certain ages or be guilty of “sheltering” their children. Parents are led to believe that every kid needs constant access to popular gaming and social media platforms to stay ahead, have friends, and be accepted. Making matters worse, parents have blind spots when it comes to their kids. For some reason, we believe that our child will be the one in a million that’s “more mature” or is a “good kid,” and therefore will not fall into the same screen traps as other kids.

A juvenile probation officer experienced these blind spots firsthand. “I’ve had many parents calling me in tears because their child erupted in violence against them. One mom bought her son a phone as a reward because he was doing so well in school. When his use got out of control, she tried to take the phone away, and he hit her. A lot of kids find their way into the juvenile justice system this way.”

A Better Path

Many parents are beginning to realize that there is another choice available to them. Despite what the culture promotes, there is a countercultural approach that is minimizing the screen struggle—hitting the pause button on video games and smartphones. Having an intentional plan to delay screen usage that is addictive and potentially toxic can have a life-changing positive effect on our kids’ development.

Parents who choose this path put their kids on a more balanced, healthy trajectory. They realize that violent video games are not healthy, and social media was not designed with a teen’s best interests in mind. They know that time spent consuming inappropriate content makes inappropriate use and inappropriate actions more common. As we learn more and more about the effects that screens have had on this generation of kids, parents are choosing the countercultural path and raising screen-strong kids all around the world.

The effects of making this choice are more dramatic than we realize. Kids raised with screen-strong principles are comfortable in their own skin and are usually more socially advanced than their screen-immersed peers. They are more likely to show respect for authority—the adults in their lives. Screen-strong kids and teens grow up with less stress, less porn, less anxiety, and less fear. They have better friends and become more confident as they stand out from the crowd. Since screens don’t dominate their lives and their time, space once again exists to master new hobbies and learn the life skills they need to develop into healthy adults, develop strong leadership skills, and enjoy future life success.

When parents choose a screen-strong path, they give their children the freedom to develop their potential, as well as a much stronger attachment to family. Screen-strong kids can experience the benefits of technology without the risk of addiction and the exposure to toxic content that excessive use can bring.

We don’t have to be victims of this screen culture. When parents get educated, reclaim their leadership role in the home, and choose the countercultural path, they can win the screen battle and get their kids back. Parents have the power and responsibility to choose how they will raise their kids in a screen-obsessed culture. This refreshing choice has the potential to save our kids from significant anxiety and pain, while freeing them to get ahead and develop into healthy and balanced adults. It’s time to stand out from the crowd, stand up for our kids, and become screen strong.

If you want to learn more about how screens affect healthy brain development and arm yourself with information about how to raise screen-strong kids, visit You will find solutions to childhood screen dependency, including the “ScreenStrong Challenge,” a 7-day digital detox for kids.

Melanie Hempe, BSN, is the founder of ScreenStrong, an organization that empowers parents to keep the benefits of screen media for kids while empowering parents to delay screens that can be toxic—like video games and smartphones. The ScreenStrong solution promotes a strong parenting style that proactively replaces harmful screen use with healthy activities, life skill development, and family connection.

Mind & Body Nature Parenting Technology

Recovering From Nature Deficit Disorder

I often speak to parent audiences in school settings about screen addiction warning signs and prevention. On the way to the auditorium for a recent parent talk, I found myself wandering through the K-2nd grade hall of a local public school. My youngest of four children is in high school now, so it has been years since I visited an elementary school.

As I walked through the halls, I remembered fondly when my kids were little. Some things were the same: the smell of glue and crayons, and the tiny little backpacks and cubbies. But  I began to notice some things were different.

I peeked in a classroom and assumed that I would see those little desks with the chairs attached. But they weren’t there. Instead, the classrooms had strange hammocks and swinging chairs hanging from the ceiling that looked like cocoons. Instead of little chairs at the desks, they had big balls and wobble chairs that I was told were for “active sitting.” My escort, Kathy, the technology teacher, told me that since kids spend so much time indoors on screens, they are entering school lacking the core physical strength to help them actually sit in a chair and learn. Everything in the classroom was designed to accommodate kids with gross and fine motor sensory deficiencies.

She explained these tools are necessary to accomplish the catch-up work needed to build kids’ core strength. There were floor surfers so kids could slide on their bellies across the room, vestibular wedges, a balance disk, and more.  “This is the regular classroom. This is standard for our younger students,” the teacher said.

Down the hallway, there were art projects strangely different from those I remembered. Very few were made by hand. Instead, they were photos printed from a digital printer, sloppily cut out, and pasted on poster boards.

“Kid’s do digital art these days, they love the computer,“ she explained. I did get a glimpse of a few hand-drawn pieces outside the door of the first-grade classroom. Kathy said that this teacher doesn’t like to use technology in her classroom. It was refreshing to see something a little more familiar, but the drawings weren’t the trees, families, and flowers one might expect from young children. These drawings were block-like video game characters, computer/tablet screens, and one image with knives, red blood drops, and a disembodied head. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie. Where was the kid art? No houses, no birds or rainbows, and the few families drawn had no detailed faces–remember the wonderful drawing your child brought home on Mother’s Day with the exaggerated eyelashes and big earrings? None of those either.

As I continued through the building, I asked about a strange “dirt” line along the entire length of the hallway at waist level. Kathy explained: “When the children walk in single file, they extend their arms out to touch the wall so that they can get their bearings and not fall over. Their balance is off because their core is weak; they don’t get enough time outside in real physical play.”

Their balance is off in more ways than one.

I began to unravel this elementary school mystery when I got home and called Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist. She explained that the average child spends more time on a screen than asleep. They aren’t getting enough time moving or in free play to build core muscles. They aren’t spending enough time outside in nature—what’s known as a “nature deficit.”

“Humans have two sensorimotor systems that are stimulated by movement: the vestibular system located in the brain (often referenced as our “inner ear”) and the proprioceptive system located in our muscles. These two systems integrate with each other and with the visual system to provide core stability, motor coordination, and balance. Children who don’t move enough don’t fully develop these essential sensorimotor systems resulting in poor core stability, coordination, and balance with the consequent need to reach out to use the wall for stability,” she said.

Rowan said nature ignites the imagination in ways a screen never could. Nature stimulates all of our senses—sight, sound, touch, smell, and even taste—in the perfect balance that kids need to develop appropriately. Without exposure to these stimuli, kids become hypersensitive and anxious. I learned that a lack of nature experiences contributes to sensory deficiencies and that physical strength affects brain development. Who knew that holding crayons and learning to read were so dependent on how much time a child spends on the playground? It hit me just how much screen time is robbing our youth of necessary movement and physical exercise. With an increase in sedentary screen time comes attention and learning problems. It made so much sense now.

Our parents knew nothing about sensory needs or the critical core strength needs of children. Why did we not require cocoon swings, wobble chairs, and balance boards? Why were we drawing pictures of real human faces and trees and birds? Because nature was our classroom, we socialized face-to-face, and playing outside in the dirt was what we did to grow up.

Kids need to play outside.

My favorite memories of childhood centered around playing outside with my brother. These nature experiences were the building blocks of our personalities and who we became as adults.

We learned things outside you could never learn in a classroom. We used our imaginations and innovative skills to build a double-decker tree fort—complete with a trap door—in the avocado tree in our backyard. It was safe enough for us to sleep in. We made mud stew filled with leaves and berries and fought battles with kumquats—the more rotten the better. We became businessmen, selling avocados to the neighbor and investing our earnings in candy from the drug store.

We counted splinters, cuts, and skinned knees as badges of honor. We hung from trees and climbed Mr. Heart’s very tall brick wall daily (it was only five feet tall but seemed like 10 feet tall to us).  It came naturally to us to see the backyard as our workplace. We learned to use a hammer, a shovel, and a saw. We rarely complained that we were bored. I have no recollection of our parents being involved in any of our outdoor adventures. We felt independent. We rode our bikes everywhere and our parents didn’t track us.

We worked hard to build our imaginations and strengthen our brains. We learned how to plan, try new ideas, and invent our own fun. We solved problems and invented as we learned how things physically worked. We acted out the Wild Wild West show. I convinced my brother to set up a zip line from the treehouse to the real house. It was a lesson in gravity, speed, and physics.

We dug big holes in the backyard (to make temporary swimming pools), and walked our cute dog, Daisy, twice a day, rain or shine. We got plenty of dirt and vitamin D. Most importantly, we had empty space and ample time to relax and contemplate. We watched 30 minutes of TV a few times a week if it was raining outside.

We stayed outside till the streetlights came on, ate our dinner as a family, and fell into bed every night for a full eight hours of rest. We built a wealth of memories as rulers of our backyard kingdom.

School was fun.

Recess was our most important period of the day. We got our energy out and then focused on math. Teachers knew that kids who moved a lot learned a lot. We never sat for hours in front of a screen–and neither did any of our peers.

We grew physically strong. The whole class participated in fitness programs and we got ribbons for being the fastest runner and doing the most sit-ups and pull-ups. We wanted to win, so we ran a lot at home and at recess to practice. We didn’t need vestibular wedges for our chairs because we swung upside down on the ring swings.

Our emotional health grew alongside our physical strength. We developed confidence and figured out who we were as we became gritty and worked hard. Our identity was based on what our family valued, what we learned, and what we accomplished, not the approval and influence of social media peers or virtual influencers.

We weren’t anxious, we were social. There were no smartphones at lunch and there was plenty of time to build friendships. Our emotional intelligence grew as we spent in-person time with a few close friends at home and a few more at school. Science would eventually explain why quality is better than quantity when it comes to building friendships.

We were practicing our executive function skills as we worked through awkward conversations with peers without being able to text mom for help or sympathy. We learned to compromise and cooperate and communicate. And the mean girls only got to be mean till three o’clock, then everyone went home for a break and a good night’s sleep.

We shared our feelings and social conflicts with close friends in confidence or by writing them down in the diary we kept under the bed, not on public platforms. Our family stories and secret handshakes were kept private, too, making them more valuable.

Kids are lost in a virtual bubble.

Now imagine growing up in today’s world without learning how to climb trees, build forts, and balance your favorite book, bubblegum, and baby dolls as climb up to the treehouse. Imagine never feeling the soft but sometimes itchy grass on your bare feet, and the feeling of that same grass when it gets wet and slippery as you run through the sprinklers. The sun, the mud, the made-up games in the backyard—the average child is missing out on all of that today. They are living in a physically sterile and emotionally toxic virtual bubble instead.

They are out of balance and stressed. They are lacking core strength, both physically and emotionally. And it gets worse: They have no memories and no stories to draw on for the rest of their lives. They are empty and depressed because their lives are void of nature and the most wonderful parts of being a child. What will they tell their children they did when they were children?

How to fill the void?

Today’s kids are starving, empty, and missing out. The only way to fix the problem is to replace the volume of hours spent on screens with the rich benefits of nature, in-person relationships, and purposeful downtime. Remove the toxic screens from our kids’ lives, and replace them with time spent in nature.

The best antidote for screen overuse is to go play outside.

This fix is easier than you might think. For younger kids, only a few weeks of a new low-screen time routine will reset their brains. For older teens, with brains that have already been shaped by the screen culture, it will be harder. But it is possible. I’ve seen it happen many times.

To start, try to gather one or two like-minded families and resolve to make a change together. The best place to begin is with one completely screen-free week. Then progress to a month and keep going one step at a time. When toxic screens are removed as an option, kids will be forced to go outside and explore like they’re supposed to. Will they complain at first? Absolutely. But they will also get bored, get creative, and make their own fun. They deserve the opportunity to experience the freedom that the natural world brings.

Aside from stimulating kids’ creativity, imagination, and all of their senses, nature is also a source of comfort. Kids with high levels of screen time are anxious and stressed—nature is the perfect balm for their anxiety. Research in Canada shows that nature experiences can even treat ADHD. Nature experiences also lower stress levels and decrease blood pressure.

It’s hard for kids to be in nature and not move. Outdoor time helps children expend energy and calm down. If their energy isn’t expended, it turns into stress. To put it in adult terms, proper exercise doesn’t exhaust you, it keeps you healthy and relaxed. And if you’re wondering why kids can’t use screen-based games to relax, it’s because screen-based activities aren’t relaxing. Ask any adult who tries to use Facebook as a relaxation technique: It overstimulates the brain and only increases stress and anxiety.

One of our most important jobs as parents is to take the long view when it comes to our kids’ lives because children (even teens) aren’t mature enough to do that themselves. Ask your children what their favorite backyard memories are. If they don’t have any, today is the day to start creating some.

7 Warning Signs Your Child has a Screen Dependency

  1. Screen activities are the only thing that puts child in a good mood
  2. Unhappy when forced to unplug
  3. Screen use is increasing over time
  4. Only thing that motivates child
  5. Sneaks around to use screens and lies about use
  6. Increase in anxiety and stress
  7. Screen use interferes with family activities, friendships, or school