The media ominivore’s dilemma

When I first posted about the Momentum Optimization Project, I was expecting just a few friends and family members to read it. But it must have struck a chord: As of today, it’s been viewed more than 100,000 times (although part of me suspects it’s my mom, clicking over and over again just to feed my ego). The traffic kind of freaked me out, to be honest–I’m an editor, not a writer, by trade, and I’m not really used to having people whom I don’t know read, comment, even ask me for advice based on something I’ve written. I should probably make it clear that I’m not an expert on anything, more of a curious questioner. And as far as getting my kids to keep things really need and orderly? It’s kind of hilarious that anyone would look to me for advice, because: I am a disaster. Seriously. I need one of these just to find my keys at any given moment.

Anyway, 100,000 views are bound to yield a few criticisms.  A few readers inferred that my insistence on the kids reading “real text (not comics)” meant that I don’t want them reading comics at all, or that I don’t think comics are valuable. Others thought that by limiting screen time and insisting on “creative time,” I was implying that computers are not in fact tools that can be used creatively, or that I think gaming is stupid. All of which is kind of hysterical. Seriously, media–tv, books (including comics and graphic novels), movies, music, online gaming and computers–makes up a huge chunk of our family budget, in terms of time and money. Technology and media are kind of priorities in our lives. We’d rather have new machines than go on vacation (and so, we don’t really go on many vacations).

My goal with the Momentum Optimization Project wasn’t to make the kids not play on the computer, or not watch TV. It was to remind them that there are other ways to spend their time, too.

I know that as a child in the 1970s and early 80s, I watched as much TV as I possibly could. But in reality, there was just not that much TV to watch. Five channels, with maybe three hours of programming per day that might be interesting to a child of any given age, all running at the same time. No DVRs or TV on demand, no streaming media, no 24-hour Nickelodeon or MTV yet. I could watch All The TV There Was To Watch, and eventually, run out of TV to watch. I’d get bored, find something else to do.

Today’s kids have no such limits forced on them. There is so much entertainment, available the touch of a button, that can be delivered right to their faces. And, despite the existence of some really terrible stuff (I’m looking at you, Real Housewives), much of what’s out there is ABSOFREAKINGLUTELY AWESOME. I’m quite certain that if I had Internet when I was a child, I’d have spent my entire adolescence sitting in my room watching SNL clips and searching some kind of irrefutable evidence to prove, once and for all, that REM was better than U2. (Because they were). And if I were a kid in the 2000s, I’d probably have grown pasty looking for LOST spoilers and theories or watching Epic Rap Battles of History until I, like my kids, knew every word to every single rap battle. I get that Everything is Awesome, but I would by happy if my kids would be motivated to, say, follow up on Stephen King vs. Edgar Allen Poe by perhaps reading Carrie or at least looking up Poe’s biography on Wikipedia.

So, really, I’m not looking to put an end to computers (or comics) or to even put strict limits on either of them. I’m just trying to raise well rounded, media omnivores. As I’ve stated before, Newton’s Laws of My Family state that if they get involved in a video game early in the day, that’s pretty much what they’ll want to do all day. If I don’t point them toward other things, and give them a little shove, I know they’ll waste their free time away in a Minecraft or Steam bubble at the expense of all the other awesome stuff–music, sports, books, podcasts, movies–not to mention sunshine and face-t0-face socializing–that they could be enjoying, exploring, and learning from.

Anyway, when I started instituting “creative time” last winter, I generated this little Wordle and hung it in the kitchen. It’s just a hodgepodge of ideas so I always have an answer to “I can’t think of anything to do.”

DO SOMETHING wordle

 

There’s exercise, chores, good deeds, and even some ideas for using technology creatively. When it’s cold or rainy, or when they’re in the height of swimming season and don’t really need to be pressed for more exercise, I’ll let them slide on the “glowing screen” aspect, and suggest they do something active or creative–say, research some topic of interest or make a video or go on a photo treasure hunt–which might involve a computer or tablet. For me, the key is to make them use technology actively and creatively, rather just having them passively absorb content while sitting in a chair.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Momentum Optimization Project: Summertime edition

First of all, thanks to everyone who has visited and taken time to comment on the Momentum Optimization Project. I’m absolutely gobsmacked by the response–I guess all my friends who saw our List on the kitchen wall and commented that I really ought to share it were on to something.

Enough readers were wondering what I was planning for the summer to put a fire under my ass to make a summer plan. Summer is a really busy time for me, work wise, as the books I work on tend to go into production in the spring and they’re always late by May, which means I spend much of June and July trying to catch up. It’s also my favorite time of year to be not working–my little sleepy neighborhood comes to life in the summer, with the beach and the seasonal restaurants and music and tons of events. So my goal in the summer is just to get the entire work day done as early as possible–I get up in the wee, wee hours, around 4:30, and work until lunchtime. And then I have the afternoon to enjoy with the kids at the beach, or to work in the yard, or whatever.

To clarify: I do not do any summer camp stuff–the kids are on their own, but I’m in the house. My office is in the basement, which is also where the other computers live. Because I don’t have to get the kids up/dressed/out, I can work straight through the morning. As a result, I’m way more productive than I am during the same hours in the school year, when my morning is disrupted by the school launch pattern (after all, I have as much, if not more, of a momentum issue as they do). My goal is to keep them out of my hair during those work hours, and at 11 and 14 years of age, I think that is a pretty reasonable expectation. And in fact, it pretty much worked out last summer without any plan at all. But they did make a mess of the place while I was working. I’m trying to break that pattern this year.

So here’s what I do, and I’m quite certain it won’t work for everyone.

In the summer, I just let them stay up pretty much as late as they want, and then sleep as late as they want in the morning. Yes, that means they spend a lot of the nighttime hours in front of screens, and after my husband and I have gone to bed. I set the limit on the computer at midnight, but they can stream TV in their rooms after that if they want to. It’s summertime, after all, and when I was a kid I spent the long summer nights in front of the TV and I’m perfectly fine (at least I think so). They’ve proven themselves pretty responsible about Internet use, and the older one does a solid job of policing the younger one online (although the younger is more of a night owl and at least once last summer I woke at 4:30 to find her still sitting awake, watching Futurama reruns on Netflix). Clearly, this is not an option for every family, but I feel ok about letting my kids have some free range, both online and in the real world.

My general rule is: Sunshine = no computers (rainy days are another matter). I don’t specifically say “no computers in the morning,” but since all the computers are in our basement, where the “room of requirement” and my office share a large, open area, the kids are basically banned from the basement, and thus the computers, during my work hours. They can watch some TV upstairs  in the morning, as long as they’ve done The List. And the summertime List is different from the school year List. Or at least it will be, since this will be the first official summer of the Momentum Optimization Project.

Here’s the revised List for this summer:

THE LIST: Summertime Sunshine Edition!

THE LIST: Summertime Sunshine Edition!

 

The big change here are that they now have several chores that they are both expected to complete each day (including cleaning the bathroom), in  addition to the old “your room is tidy” rule and spending just a little time on summer school work. These chores will be permanent–they’ll be expected to keep them up during the school year as well.

The old list had a “pick a chore” rule, and a separate chore chart. That’s been replaced with a set of index cards, strung on a binder ring, with a different assigned chore for each day.  I started with a short version a few weeks ago:

Rotating chores, iteration 1.

Rotating chores, iteration 1.

This index card method works better than an assigned schedule (this on Monday, that on Tuesday), I think, because it’s more flexible. If we are not home for a day, or just slack off (and we do slack off sometimes often), we’re not waiting an extra week to, say, have the bathroom cleaned, just an extra day. And I can easily tweak the schedule as we go, by adding/subtracting/reshuffling the cards.

So, now we’ve got a 14-day cycle, with a mix of big/small chores; each day, they are assigned one task in addition to the “daily chores”  on The List, Here’s the current rotation:

  • Purging boogie (find 3-5 things that you don’t want/don’t fit/can’t use and put them in the trash or donate box)
  • Clean out the van
  • Help plan and make dinner (my husband suggested this one; he wants them to figure out what to cook, do (or help with) the shopping, and help prepare a meal)
  • Bathroom: Weekly clean (this comes up twice a cycle; I assign the upstairs to the elder and downstairs one week, and reverse it the other, since upstaris generally gets messier than downstairs)
  • Straighten up the room of requirement
  • Clear and dust your desk
  • Clear your dressers/shelves and dust them off
  • Dust everything else in your room (trophies, books, headboard, poster frames, windows, ceiling fan)
  • Purge/organize one drawer in your room
  • Sweep floors downstairs (granted, this needs to be done every day, but it’s not something I’ve ever relied on them to do. So, we’ll make them do it once a cycle and see how it goes).

And finally, I’ve added in what I think of as a late afternoon re-boot, to force them to get involved in end-of-day household recovery as well:

The late afternoon checklist. Depending on what they do during the day, I'll ping them to deal with a few things before they park in front of the computer for the evening (and before I park in front of the tv).

The late afternoon checklist. Depending on what they do during the day, I’ll ping them to deal with a few things before they park in front of the computer for the evening (and before I park in front of the TV).

I’m already realizing that I need to add another bullet: Evening pickup (i.e.,  go around the first floor and pick up anything you’ve left in the living room, dining room, etc. and put it away–it’s mostly shoes and books).

This might seem to leave a lot of room for computer time, and it does, but not to a degree that I think is problematic. After all, in the evening that “free” computer time is competing with evening card games, bbqs, pool parties, and other face-to-face family and friend time. So while they might sit for six hours one night glued to Minecraft or one or another Steam game, there’s plenty of nights where they don’t have time to even look at the computer until 10 or 11 pm.

So that’s the plan for this summer. And to paraphrase Dwight D. Eisenhower, planning may be useless, but planning is everything. We’ll see how it works and tweak as we go, and report back here. I encourage anyone who’s trying their own list to report back as well.

 

The Importance of defining your terms: Cleaning the bathroom

The revised List has my kids each giving one bathroom a quick daily cleaning, in addition to a weekly cleaning. I’ve learned that they need a checklist, or else they’ll just look at it and shrug (“Looks clean to me.”). So, I’ve posted directions in each bathroom, and set each bathroom up with a set of cleaning supplies so there’s no excuses. And I’m hope the constant reminders to “put things away” will help us all to get a better handle on clutter. Husband and I will still have to clean the bathroom periodically–but it should be less of a chore for us if the kids take on some of the regular tasks. Here are my directions for the kids:

I'm making them do a very quick wipedown each weekday, and then a heavier cleaning will go into the chore rotation. I'm sure they won't do it perfectly, but I hope it will get them into the habit of keeping the bathrooms clean.

 

Momentum Optimization Update: The importance of defining your terms.

Sometimes, you need to add more index cards.

When I started The List, I told them that by “tidy” I just wanted to be able to look in the room and not want to cry. As the kids have started getting the hang of making the bed and then hiding all the mess behind the bed, it was clear it was time to up the ante. And so, this reminder hangs in each of their rooms now:

20140522-055241-21161026.jpg

 

I’m trying not to ask for too much… but I hope that by laying out some basic benchmarks, they’ll gradually learn some good habits. So far, Himself is meeting these criteria on 5 out of 7 days. Herself? Not so much. A confession: I’m not really meeting them all on a regular basis, either. We’re all in this together.

 

Momentum Optimization Update: It’s easier when the sun is shining.

Yesterday was the first acceptable beach day of the year, and also the first beach day ever when I felt like my son was old enough to send him out on his own. So when I found him wandering toward the basement computer at 10:30 p.m., I just kicked him out of the house. He tried to roll off some lame excuses (Himself: There’s no one to hang out with. Me: They’re probably at the beach. Go see.”) I popped him a few bucks to have lunch at the concession and sent him on his way.

Long story short, he spent the day surfing and hanging with friends. After he got home and showered around 3pm, he hooked up with his cousins who were down for the day and spent the afternoon/evening playing board games and pool with them. He didn’t get home until almost eleven, and didn’t spend a moment of the day parked in front of a glowing screen.

I know quite well that, had he sat down in front of the computer, he’d have stayed there until one of his friends came and found him (he’s not the most pro-active when it comes to socializing. As in, not at all). But he is 14. I’m not making play dates for him any more, nor am I inviting every kid in the neighborhood to come hang at my house (where they invariably wind up…. on the computer) when the sun is shining.  No, he didn’t complete his list yesterday–but who cares? He was an object in motion all day, and that bodes well for the summer.

Addendum: We’ve had caveat in the “No Screens/Unlimited Screens” rule for a while:  I try to enforce “Screen-Free Sundays,” which means the kids are not allowed to use the computer at all on Sundays (as they have invariably put off doing any and all homework over the weekend). I admit that over this long cold winter, I did slide on it at times. But now that spring is finally showing up, however late, to the party, it’s in full force, and extended to apply not just to Sundays, but to all sunny days.

The Momentum Optimization Project: Creating a self-sufficient teenager

So, an update on the Momentum Optimization Project, my counterintuitive plan to get my kids going on things that do not involve sitting in front of screens before they are allowed to sit in front of screens. While the whole concept is based on my desire to limit screentime, it dovetails nicely with my other personal goals, such as getting my kids to do their chores and getting my house in order. The kids have to complete a list of tasks before they are allowed to use a computer (or cell phone or tv or tablet). There are some things they are expected to do every day (tidy their room, make the bed) and then they must also complete one item on the chore list. I made it a point to put a mix of tasks on there, so some chores are really easy and some require more time and effort. The results have been promising, as noted previously, but of course not perfect. I’m going to start with my son (13 years old when we started, 14 now), for whom we’ve seen the biggest changes in habit. Looking at the Chore List, he immediately decided that the easiest thing to do was what I call (using language I picked up somewhere on the interweb, possibly flylady.com)  the “purging boogie,” in which I instructed him to, essentially, get rid of 5-10 things that belong to him. I kept an extra hamper in the upstairs hall, specifically for clothes they don’t want or that don’t fit, and a donate box in the basement for book, toys, whatever. Over a few months, he has weeded books, clothing, and clutter vigilantly. That, combined with a few tweaks we made in his bedroom (installing a row of coat hooks, and replacing and old, shoddy dresser with a new one from Ikea with properly functioning drawers) translated into less stuff, and no excuses for not putting the remaining stuff away. He makes his bed every day now, almost without thinking about it.

Tidy Enough.

Tidy Enough.

His bed isn’t always made perfectly, but it’s good enough for me. As he becomes more thoughtful about what he wants to keep and what can go, his room is nearing a monk-like state of spartan simplicity, to the point where he’s running out of things to get rid of, so he instead has moved on to keeping the basement play area (known as the Room of Requirement) in order as well. So, with his room in order, I decided it was time to up the ante. I changed the “chore chart” to a “chore schedule.” I’m starting out with seven tasks, written on cards, so each day he has an assignment (I use a hole punch and a binder ring to hang the on the cork board). Like so:

20140522-055240-21160705.jpg

Chore Schedule, Iteration 1

After a week, we’re down to repeating the tasks. So yesterday, when the card said “clear your dressers and dust them off,” he noted that they were already clear, because he did it last week. And I said, “that’s the point. Give them a quick dusting and your chore is done.” That, I hope, will make him less inclined to let crap pile up. He’s learning that cleaning up after oneself is a daily thing, and that if you actually do it daily, it’s less of a chore. My plan is to incorporate more tasks, so we’ll wind up with a 14- or even 28-day cycle, with some tasks repeating frequently and others just coming up once every week or once a month or whatever (so, “clean the bathroom” would come up a few times a week, while “change/launder your sheets” might come up every 2-3 weeks). Himself is really taking to this system, and I’m feeling much better about the fact that I didn’t do it sooner, because at least it’s working now, and it’s easy now, mostly because he’s old enough to do it (and also because he REALLY REALLY REALLY wants to get on that computer, so he gets his stuff done fast). My daughter’s journey has been a bit bumpier, for a variety of reasons, including her age. I’ll post on her progress separately. But for now, I’m really, really pleased with the progress my son has made.

How I limited screen time by offering my kids unlimited screen time.

As a freelancer who makes her own hours,  I’ve learned a few things about personal momentum. I’m a morning person, and my peak productive time is before 10:00am. If I start my day by sitting at the desk at, say, 5:00am, and digging in on actual work, I’ll keep going all day. If I start the day by, say, cleaning the kitchen or folding laundry or phaffing about on the interwebs, I’m in trouble. And if,  God forbid, I sit on the couch and flip on The Today Show, all bets are off; I’m not moving until bedtime.  I think of it as Newton’s Law of Personal Momentum, for I am an object that will either stay at rest or stay in motion, based on where I am at 5:30 am. 

My kids are the same way. And because they are youth existing in the 20teens, they are drawn like moths to glowing rectangular screens as soon as they wake up, and given their druthers, would spend the entire day glued to the Interwebs, killing zombies or mining diamonds or whatever. I know all the reasons why that’s a bad idea, but since my kids are growing up, I don’t feel like it should be up to me to find ways to entertain them. At ten and thirteen years old, they should be figuring out what to do with their own time themselves. But of course, I shouldn’t be surprised when they want to DO MINECRAFT now and do homework later. The problem is, frankly, I’m too lazy to argue with them. I don’t want to do homework, either.

So, I stopped arguing. They need to learn to prioritize their time, and I need to figure out a way to make sure that they get all the things they need to do done without me having to do it.

Which brings me to the Momentum Optimization Project (MOP), or it is more commonly referred to in my house, The List.

The List is simple, it’s short, and in a six month trial at my house, it has shown promising results.

The List is just a list of things things they needed to do EVERY SINGLE DAY. I printed it on a 5 x 8 purple index card, like so:

The Momentum Optimization Project

They’re rules. Not Guidelines.

 [[A quick note on comics]]

I posted The List on what has become the MOP Command Center (i.e., the kitchen cork board) and I told them, sure, you can use the computer, or watch tv, as much as you want, as long as you do ALL THESE THINGS first. 

No compromises. No complaints. No Negotiation. Just do these things. And once those things were done, they could HAVE AS MUCH SCREEN TIME AS THEY WANT.

[Edited to add: Ok, sometimes there are compromises.]

Yup. Complete The List by 8:00 a.m., and you are free to rot in front of the monitor until your eyeballs bleed.

I know what you’re thinking: Surely these two vidiots will devolve into pasty, nearsighted dunces. But that’s where Newton’s Laws come in. I know that if I get them up and out the door bright and early, they’ll be out playing all day. But let them sit down in front of a screen, and they’ll stay there all day.  Like me, they are all about momentum. The simple direction to “do something creative” would get Herself started drawing, or building. The first week, she figured out how to use a hot glue gun and devoted an insane amount of time to constructing a bizarre three story building, complete with a spiral staircase, out of cardboard and wine corks. Himself picked up a novel and wound up blowing through five in two weeks. Homework was suddenly getting done without me nagging. Brownies were baked. Rooms were tidy. And computer time, while still substantial, was contracting. 

It’s been six months, and while the results haven’t been perfect, they’ve been impressive. I’ll update with details soon, but for now, why not get started on a list of your own? You can view my lists here. Let me know if it works for you.

EDITED 6/9/2014 to add: Check out the summer edition of The Momentum Optimization Project.

EDITED 6/11/2015 to add: A Momentum Optimization Project Update