feminist parenting screens lead

Overtired, cranky children.

Exhausted, desperate parents.

Like peas and carrots.

As long as there have been children and parents there have been overtired children driving exhausted parents to the brink of insanity. It’s kind of their job. Their mission. Their sick and twisted joy.

Not surprisingly, the most epic meltdowns are reserved for the most public of spaces: your grocery stores, your Targets. Your libraries, your museums, your holy places of worship and silent contemplation.

And up until recently, there was little those desperate parents could do when presented with one or more cranky children.

Issue real or perceived threats of violence.

Perfect the “you’re gonna get it” look or enlist other forms of public humiliation.

Ride the cranky wave or simply give up on ever being able to leave the house again.

But now, parents have another option. An option that is a panacea at first blush, but really just kicks the bad-behavior can down the road: the screen.

It’s a scene that’s become as ubiquitous as the stroller and the diaper bag. The overtired, cranky child has been replaced by a quiet, zoned-out child. Because instead of pitching a fit or throwing a tantrum, they are instead kept entertained by some sort of electronic device.

But as any caregiver of small children knows, pitched fits or thrown tantrums don’t go away because of screens. They just get delayed. Pushed down. Suppressed. And the longer those big feelings are bottled up, the stronger the explosion becomes once they’re finally released. The screen may initially save all those other people from the fit and the tantrum, but they ultimately make the situation worse for the poor caregiver who ultimately needs to endure it.

This is not to say that this overreliance on screens is the fault of the parents. Rather, it is the collective fault of the rest of us for not tolerating—even loving—the very real sound of children in our midst.

Somewhere along the line, we lost all acceptance for the presence of children. We expect them to act like tiny adults, assuming that they are pre-programmed with a full understanding of social mores and expectations. Long before exhausted parents were able to entertain a tired child with a device, adults have been forgetting that they, too, were once squirmy two-year-olds, still learning the very difficult lessons of how to grow into adults.

And now, technology has allowed the exhausted parents to cave to social pressure by popping a glowing box in their children’s faces every time they leave the house.

To encourage and uplift these parents, we must to do more than simply tolerate the small children in our midst. We must support them so whole-heartedly that they feel confident uninstalling the PBS Kids app or even leaving the iPad at home altogether. Because part of living in the presence of other people is not only accepting that we share restaurants and grocery stores and libraries and museums with other people, but also encouraging them to be there. All of them. Even the tantrum-pitchers.

But that’s not what we do at all. We encourage the kid-with-a-device scenario so insistently that many parents preemptively whip out the device. When parents are constantly pressured to push a screen in a child’s face, they quiet the joyful noise of a child’s laughter. They squelch a child’s enthusiasm over everything from a unique pattern in the carpet at church to the otherwise-not-socially-acceptable nudity at the museum. They also quiet a child’s honest disapproval or their very real anger or frustration. And we are all poorer because of it. So are our children.

Children who are told that their lives must be lived as passive bystanders internalize the message that their genuine voices have no real value. They learn that they are only well-behaved if their voices are not heard. The burden then shifts from the grown adult who doesn’t care to practice patience, and onto the small toddler who must be seen and not heard.

Our role as feminist parents is to help our children find their own voice. It is not our job to force them to mimic a voice we think they should have, nor is it our task to quiet the voice they so desperately want to share. Rather, feminist parents must help children discover their own unique, powerful voices, free from screens and unafraid of judgment.

Feminist parenting also comes with the heavy task of modeling for children when and how to best harness the power of that voice, saving it for the fights that will make a difference and being aware of how our voices affect other people. Feminist parents play the long game, guiding our children away from the screen and toward the amazing discovery of the unique power of their very own voice.

Rachel is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She is a recovering political writer and most recently taught high school English in Baltimore. She is thrilled to now be a full-time mama and writer,...