Case of the Don’ts

You can’t create nothing. But that’s what you attempt when you tell someone else not to do something: you attempt to create a vacuum.

Nature abhors a vacuum. This is an old trick, but try this: don’t think about pink elephants.

You thought about pink elephants, didn’t you? Of course you did. What else could you think about? But you didn’t think about gold-plated tire swings. If I didn’t want you to think about gold-plated tire swings, I’d say something like “don’t think about pink elephants.”

Because you can’t create a vacuum. You can’t create an absence of something like that.

Okay, let’s go deeper: if you’re a parent, you’ve probably heard of the concept of “screen time.” Maybe even if you aren’t one! The idea is that too much time spent in front of electronics is probably bad for developing brains and the habits that they’re forming, so maybe you should limit how much time kids spend on things like tablets or whatever. And the parents who adhere to this theory do that by putting maximums on screen usage – like, “you can’t be on your tablet more than an hour a day,” or whatever. There are even built-in parental controls for most tablets that let you automate this feature; your kids’ screens will just go dark after whatever pre-set daily limit you create.

I have never done this. I have never limited my kids’ screen time… at least, not directly. Because I try very hard to avoid parenting through “don’ts.” Kids encounter far too many don’ts, in my opinion – adults, too. I eschew them in favor of “elses” – as in, “something else.”

It rained today. A lot. My kids, after dinner, had picked up their tablets to wind down a bit; the day was nearly over and it had been full of fun activities like painting and other crafts. There was maybe an hour or an hour and a half before I was going to send the kiddos to bed, and I didn’t really want them spending all that time on their tablets, especially right before trying to sleep. So instead I said “Hey kids. take off everything but your shorts and you can go run around outside and get as wet and muddy as you want. When it’s time to come in, I’ll dunk you in the tub before bedtime.”

I have never met a kid that would pick tablets over “parent-endorsed, unfettered mud play.” They were out the door like a shot. They were having so much fun, in fact, that they ended up staying awake almost an hour past their normal bedtime (gasp!), but those days are too short as it is.

You can’t create a vacuum, but you can fill space – by and large, you can fill it with whatever you want. Whether it’s children or adults, don’t list off the things they can’t do and then wonder why they seem to keep coming back to those things. Give them a few encouraging ideas for what they can do and watch them fly.

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