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How Do You Navigate Play Dates When You're a 'Device-Free' Family?

Meghan Moravcik Walbert Jan 14, 2020. 12 comments
Parental AdvisoryParental AdvisoryTackling your most pressing parenting dilemmas, one tantrum at a time. Email your kid-rearing questions to mwalbert@lifehacker.com with "Parental Advisory" in the subject line.
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As screen-free as you and your little kids may be (or you may want them to be), there comes a point when even the devices of others become unavoidable. You may not want your kids to have tablets, but all of their cousins have them. Your kid wants to play with their friend down the street, but the friend is always glued to their Nintendo Switch.

This week’s Parental Advisory question comes from a “device-free” parent in our Offspring Facebook Group:

We are “device-free” but socially most families we are with aren’t. How do you navigate screen time within social situations? My kid is four it’s not a thing thing yet but our neighbor who is 6 is on a tablet all the time and his friends are, too. How do I parent in the moment, so to speak, when the time comes?

As you’ve already figured out, committing to device-free living (while most families around you are not) is likely to become more and more challenging as your child gets older. And how you’ll handle these situations as they grow will also vary based on whether you intend for them to remain completely device-free for the duration of their childhood or whether you plan to allow limited device usage as they get older.

In either case, it will be helpful for you to find a community of other device-free parents. One of the best out there is the Screen-Free Parenting website, which was started by psychologist and psychology professor Meghan Owenz and her husband, who are screen-free parents. The site has loads of research-based articles for parents, “wherever you are on the screen spectrum. Screen-free, screen-limiters or screen-embracers.”

In particular, Owenz wrote a piece titled “How Our Screen-Free Kids Keep up with Screen-Loving Joneses,” in which she gives practical tips for how to introduce your kids to popular kids’ TV/film characters (with books!) and how to help your kids answer the “what shows do you watch/games do you play” questions from their peers. A search of “screen-free parenting community” on Facebook will also yield a list of public and private groups full of likeminded folks.

Of course, as your child gets older, they’ll spend more time away from you and under the supervision of teachers at school and other parents on play dates. It’s fairly common now for kids to use tablets or Chromebooks at school—my son has been using one regularly in class since first grade and attends a weekly “digital literacy” class in which they learn how to research educational topics safely online.

But you’re asking specifically about social situations, which indicates to me that you’re less concerned about them playing First in Math at school than you are about your kid wasting away on a tablet with their friends when you’d rather they be outside playing hide-and-seek. As my own son has gotten older, I’ve taken on the general philosophy that the rules of whatever home he’s in are the rules he will follow. (Within reason, of course.)

Some parents allow their kids to have an array of Nerf guns at their disposal; some are completely anti-toy-gun. Some allow all the junk food the kids could possibly want; others have unlimited fruit. Some embrace the gaming lifestyle; others, like you, are free of devices.

Generally speaking, though, unless there is a safety concern, I feel comfortable allowing my son to temporarily operate under the rules of another parent—particularly because he only goes to the homes of parents I know and trust to begin with. And if I feel their rules are simply too lax for me (they let them play video games I consider to be too mature for his age, for example), I host instead.

If there’s a situation where, say, you’re going away for a weekend trip with friends or family members with screen-loving kids in tow, talk ahead of time about how you can work together to limit the screen time of all the children so they can capitalize on their time together. (Maybe they can have a special “movie night” but the tablets will stay home so the kids can spend their hours swimming or playing board games with each other instead.)

This might mean a slight shift in mindset from being a “device-free family” to having a “device-free home.” That takes into consideration the devices and screen time they’re likely to experience at school and in the homes of friends, while still prioritizing your commitment to living the majority of their lives free of devices in a consistent way.


Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your question to mwalbert@lifehacker.com with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line, and I’ll try to answer it here.

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