My nine-year-old son is hooked on his iPad. Its claws are dug in deep, like an electronic monkey on his back. Since the age of three, he’s been chasing the screen-time dragon and loving every minute of it.
Lucas is non-verbal, but he’s never louder than when he’s plunged into the iOs paradise before him. He swipes, claps, and screeches to his heart’s content. His squeals of glee are so pronounced that a cable guy on the phone once thought I had birds as pets. Seriously. He asked twice.
It’s like watching the E True Hollywood Story, only instead of seeing a former child star strung out on party drugs, it’s my round little boy overdosing on Elmo apps and YouTube Kids. At times, he seems to disappear into that world and I have to pull him back.
Of course, a voice in my head tells me to let it go. Lucas spends the bulk of his day learning and being taught skills that he works hard to master. He’s constantly being pushed to move forward, so I inevitably feel guilty. When he’s home, he should be happy, right? He’s the least squeaky wheel and often seems to get the short end of the stick. The iPad makes him happy. I should just let him have it.
On top of that, the iPad makes me happy. Without it, he spends every ten minutes asking for it in a variety of ways. He looks on the floor and behind couches. He throws up hand signals and uses his talker device to request it. It might not be all the time, but when he’s fixated on wanting it in that moment, holding him back from the tablet he loves seems mean – not just for him, but for myself.
There’s more to it than that, though. If allowed to, he will stay wired into that thing all day and night. While it’s in his hands, he’s never tired. He never falls asleep holding it or puts it down to do something else. He will skip meals and allow haircuts all as long as he’s stimming and clapping along. You name the feeling – exhaustion, fear, hunger – and the iPad will protect him from feeling it. He’s in his own world.
Just last night, he hopping and swiping when I nabbed him for a bath. He watched closely as I plucked it from his hands and placed it on his bed. I could see his fixated eyes were red and drooping. He appeared ready to pass out standing up, but he zombie’d his way into the tub. It was then when I decided that his device had to evaporate before we got back. That’s what it did.
Ten minutes later, upon reentering the room, he immediately went to the bed where his Precious had been left waiting. He saw it was gone. I explained.
Sorry, buddy. No more iPad. You look tired. We can watch TV and go sleepies.
Undaunted, he reached over defiantly and grasped the comforter with two balled up fists. Hand-over-hand, he started tugging it from the bed in search of his missing addiction. I watched as his eyes looked determined, but also bloodshot and weary. He was on auto-pilot. It was like watching a scene from Intervention.
The crazy part? I felt bad.
A voice in my head started making deals with me about time and expectations. Let him have it for another few minutes. Why do you take away the things he loves? Poor kid just wants to have fun. What is wrong with you?
No, no, no. I put the voice away and Daddy’d up. I may be feeling guilty, but I was also thinking correctly. My son was tired and the iPad time was over. It’s my job to keep him on track when he can’t do so himself. When he looked back up at me with both hands full of blanket, I shrugged.
Sorry, kid. No more iPad. TV. Here. You pick.
With that, I held up my phone to show the collage of television shows that he likes. He scanned the screen and settled on The Wiggles with his trademarked double tap. So I put on The Wiggles.
And he fell asleep.
I knew he would. Why? Because I’m the daddy, that’s why. I can question myself all day long, but I also know what’s best for my children. While my own insecurities and concerns might second-guess them now and again, that’s actually a good thing. It shows that I’m vetting my decisions to make sure they’re right. Almost always, they are.
Being a parent, especially to a boy like Lucas, requires the confidence to do the hard things – not just for him, but for me. It’s about forgoing the peace and quiet of an iPad babysitter now and then when I know he’s had too much. It’s about nudging him into a group photo with his sister’s friends and siblings on Halloween even though he’d rather lay down on the grass. It’s about telling him no more cookies when he’s about to explode chocolate chips all over the kitchen.
It’s my duty, obligation, and privilege. Even though all I want to do is spoil him, I also have to do what’s best for him.
…and only spoil him sometimes.