Screen-Time Life: Five Ways to Help Our Kids Engage the Real World & Cultivate Gratitude

Screen-Time Life: Five Ways to Help Our Kids Engage the Real World & Cultivate Genuine Gratitude

There was a time early on in ENLACE’s history that Ron and I would host service mission teams without the incredible staff we now have. Those years were extremely demanding and, as in all small businesses/organizations, it was all hands on deck much of the time. So it was quite common for our children to accompany us as we navigated the roads and byways of El Salvador, facilitating service teams.

We would spend many hours getting to know each other as we traveled to and from work sites. People often made one particular comment during their visit; they wished their children could experience what our children experienced every day by living in El Salvador. They wanted their children to see the reality of poverty, to see how people lived without so many things we take for granted. However, they felt that it was nearly impossible to get their children to stop playing video games or watching TV. I hear the same kinds of comments now regarding social media.

I’ve noticed that the tone that parents used was something like a lament. They yearned for a family life experience that was different than the one they currently had. They felt that their kids were growing up in a culture that lacked gratitude and fostered a sense of entitlement. They believed that mostly, these attitudes originated from their kids’ addiction to various “screens” like iPads, iPhones, computers, and TVs. The experiences that the screens offered was something with which real life could never compete.

Many parents surmised that teaching their children to be grateful would be so much easier and more effective if the backdrop was different. Instead of suburban homes and Super Targets, dirt-floored huts and mothers washing clothes in the river would provide a jolt of reality that would change their perspectives and perhaps quell their devotion to empty, screen-time entertainment.

I think these parents were on to something in many ways. It is certainly true that different kinds of experiences open our hearts in different ways. And the opposite is true. Some experiences can also close our hearts, insulating us from having to deal with the realities of life. But in truth, I was also facing the same challenge.

Even though we spent time as a family visiting friends who lived in crumbling, dirt-floored homes, we lived in a home that had running water and electricity. My children had their own beds that were free from insects. We lived a life that included sports and school. And while we didn’t have the latest technology, we had TVs with videotapes that offered a variety of entertainment options at our fingertips.

And I struggled with my own specters. I never wanted my kids to resent having lived in El Salvador as opposed to the States. And I wanted their gratefulness to come from an authentic place in their lives, not the result of being “forced” to experience poverty because of their parents’ professions. I never made them attend any activity or event unless they wanted to go.

But I know that at the heart of our parental angst is something both beautiful and complex. We want our children to experience a life of nourishment, joy, and safety so that gratitude and kindness bubble up from that experience. But we also know that Real World experience is one of the best teachers.

There is no one-off experience in the world that will replace a consistent and committed orientation toward generosity and openness within our families. However, we can all be more deliberate and intentional.

Why not try one of these ideas this year or even this weekend? Comment if you do and add your own ideas!

1. Go on an International Serving Trip with ENLACE

One of the coolest ways I’ve seen families create an experience that fosters gratitude and builds compassion in a nourishing environment is by going on a serving trip together. In the many years of hosting teams, we have heard amazing stories from dozens of families about how their experience has changed their family.

Learn More About Short Term Service   Teams and Church Partnerships!

2. Count Your Blessings: Wake Up With Gratitude

Right after waking up and before rising out of bed, count on your fingers ten things you’re grateful for. If you’re groggy like me, just start with your pillow and move to the clean air you’re breathing in, then your spouse and kids. By the time you reach ten, you might have twenty more on the tip of your tongue. Suggest this game to your kids. Ask them over breakfast or during the morning commute how many they counted today.

3. Screen-Free Day or Weekend

Pick a weekend day to turn off all screens. Use the time to do something active outdoors or help another family in need. Before the fast is over, reflect on your experience. What was this experience like? Will it change how you do things in the future? First, do this yourself. Talk about your experience and then invite your kids to follow suit on another weekend. If you do this together as a family, the time of reflection might provide some insight into what everyone is experiencing and why screen-time is the distraction it is.

4. Reframe Your Experience & Engage All Five Senses

Screen-time entertainment is an incredible ride. It’s a billion-dollar industry that delivers high-quality experiences. (By high-quality, I mean, experiences the public will pay for, not in terms of genuinely improving our hearts and minds.) What this industry cannot compete with is simplicity. Think of how many times you’ve heard people say a child had more fun with the box a toy came in than the toy itself. Get deliberate about planning simple fun with your kids, but engage all the senses--sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. No screen can replace making a fire and roasting s’ mores together, or going to a neighbor in need and helping to paint their home.

5. Go Beyond Once a Year and Create Real Relationships

Go beyond serving a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless or gathering items for a Christmas box for a child in need. Along with your kids do at least one thing every month that is service-oriented together. And don’t just pick something that appeals to you. Take the time to find out what people around you might really want or need. The upshot here is that you have to create new relationships with people in order to serve them effectively. 

What other ideas do you have for helping kids engage and cultivate gratitude? Leave a comment below!