By Sabina Mollot
Most parents today are concerned about their children’s constant use of electronic devices from phones to computers, but often the parents themselves are just as addicted and as a result it’s their children who suffer.
However, it is possible for both children and parents to kick their screen habits, at least long enough to make time for their families and other matters of importance, and a Peter Cooper Village education expert has a new book on the subject to prove it.
Heather Miller, who just wrote the book Prime Time Parenting (Lifelong Books, $16, paperback), said the answer lies in keeping electronic screens out of the picture for just two hours each evening.
“Most parents feel that their kids are using video games and screens really much more than parents would like and they’re sometimes a little out of control,” Miller said. “Even toddlers are given tablets and their parents’ cell phones in a stroller. As soon as you introduce games… it gets very addictive. We live in a digital world, but it’s the amount. Another part of this issue is parents are not in control in (their) screen use. You need to start with your own.”
This means parents have to insist on the hours of 6-8 p.m. each day being screen-free time, and the rule applies to everyone.
“We’re not going to multitask,” she said. “We can’t text a friend during dinner and tell ourselves that’s active parenting. It’s not about tons of time. We can do it (differently) in smaller amounts of time when you’re interacting with them. Give your family two hours of time exclusively, and put your kids to bed every night from 8-9 p.m. Then you’ll have time for yourself.”
Each segment is a half hour with the first part being about reconnecting with the child and meal prep. The book also includes tips on making healthy dinners that don’t take longer than 25 minutes and Miller recommends getting grocery shopping done on weekends. If there’s a picky eater in the home, Miller doesn’t believe parents should be making an alternative meal. Additionally, during dinnertime, there should be conversation.
Ideally there will be time for this as well as bedtime stories for younger children, but if there is only time for one, Miller believes interaction at dinner time is more important. This is because children get to ask questions rather than be talked at, which, she points out, how they’re spoken to at school.
“The value is the conversation,” she said. “It’s more impactful for young children. They get to follow the contextualized talk. They learn complex sentence structure and they have to work to imagine what you’re saying.”
This also means it’s important for parents to resist the urge to simply “yes” their kids.
“In many families, it’s just the parents saying, ‘Eat your vegetables, clean up your room.’ You don’t get a lot of sentence structure,” Miller explained.
The third segment of prime time parenting is what the author refers to as “homework hustle,” intended for children from the ages of 5-13.
“The parent’s role is project management,” Miller said, and this means helping children with their work as well as oversight like making sure all their assignments and other things they’ll need the next day are ready ahead of time. “It’s very much about organization, and it’s a skill that can be learned.”
The reward will come in the form of a less stressed child and generally, better grades than if the parent had opted for a more hands-off approach.
“When you see a very organized child at school, they didn’t do that on their own,” Miller said. “We don’t think it’s our job but it is, and it makes a huge difference in terms of calmness of the child the next day.”
This, she adds, is different than being a helicopter parent, since the active quality control isn’t on all day long. “Helicopter parents,” said Miller, “are at it 24/7.”
In contrast, prime time parenting is intended as a way to manage time. The time limit is also helpful for children as it helps get them to focus. “It reminds them that they’re not going to be sitting there forever.”
In situations where parents find themselves unable to help the child with his or her work, especially since math is now taught differently than many parents remember it, Miller recommends that the parent write a note to the teacher on the student’s work mentioning that he or she isn’t getting something.
Bath time should follow homework, and parents still need to resist the urge to start texting until later when the child is in bed.
“When your parent’s eyes dart from you to their phone, it sends the child a message about their value,” said Miller. “We can’t be perfect parents, but we can be engaged for two hours.”
For parents who work late all or some of the time, the prime time parenting routine can be transferred to a caregiver. Miller especially recommends parents who share custody of their children both keep to the drill.
“The routine is important for children,” she said. “Moving from house to house is very hard on children. (Routine) asserts a sense of control and predictability. It’s also very good for children with special needs.”
Miller will be giving a talk about prime time parenting and offering tips for implementation at Ibiza Kids, the children’s clothing shop in Stuyvesant Town at 310 First Avenue on Friday, September 21 at 6 p.m.
Prime Time Parenting was released on September 4 and is available through major booksellers.
Miller, who has an education firm called LePage Miller that works with New York City schools, was inspired to write the book after years of observing students’ behavior and noticing, in more recent years, that some children, as young as third graders, were dozing off in their seats. Upon questioning them, she’d learn that they didn’t necessarily go to bed that late, but were staying up late because of use of their electronic devices.
That use, said Miller, “inhibits melatonin, so the brain functions like it’s 3 p.m. and the body is confused about what time it is. Kids are lying in bed, unable to sleep and they’re sleeping the next day in class. Parents need to ensure that their kids are coming to school in great shape.”
Because of her job, Miller spends two to three days a week in any given school in the city.
For Le-Page Miller, she’s written over 35 plays intended to be performed by students in class with the goal of getting children engaged in the classic literature stories in a low-pressure way. Miller has degrees from MIT, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Tisch School of the Arts. She is a lifelong resident of Peter Cooper Village, where she raised a son, Jasper, now 25 and the manager of her company.