One fish, to fish

It’s old news/old adage that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Childhood in our culture is heavy on “teaching,” and most of us would say we believe in that old adage, but there are many instances in which we ignore it and opt for the single fish.  

Kids’ use of electronic devices is a perfect example.  The adult tendency is to head straight for imposing limits on screen time (one fish) rather than figuring out how to facilitate self-regulation and management (to fish).

Imposed limits might curb the problem in the short term. (I say might because many parents find that when they lay down the law about screen time, great power struggle ensues. The problem is not solved, and a new one is born. This phenomenon may be particularly intense with screen time because it’s a realm that is native to kids and not native to their parents.)

But even if your imposed limits do take care of the problem in the short term, if you’ve chosen the limits by yourself, they’re your limits.  Kids don’t have the chance to get a feel for what may and may not serve them in the way of using the technology in question.  You’re teaching them only how to follow rules, or to resist them. Not only does this frequently create power struggle, it doesn’t prepare kids for the time when they’ll have to regulate their own use, which is probably what you actually want for them.  You want them to learn how to make their own rules and choices, consistent with their values and commitments.  You want them to notice, for example, that they enjoy chatting with their friends online but they also enjoy playing outside with those same friends. You want them to realize if they have a tendency to lose track of time when they’re working with their movie editing software and forget about other things they also want to do with their time.  You want them to notice that their eyes get tired if they don’t take breaks. If kids are busy resisting your limits, they can’t notice and address these kinds of things.

It’s not fair (or effective) to expect people to behave logically and maturely if you’re always making the logical and mature choices for them.  If you really want kids to develop the capacity to manage what’s coming at them and own it rather than just feeling restricted about it, you can start by asking them to weigh in; giving them the chance to participate in the management. When kids get to participate, they have the experience of being heard and respected.  Once they’ve had that experience they’re much more available to receive guidance and suggestion.  It becomes possible (and even appealing) for them to work with you to learn to manage whatever it is you want them to manage. That’s how they’ll learn to do it when you’re not around to handle it for them. You’ll be teaching them to fish.

Credit: Free photos from