Screen Time Meltdown

He threw the homework worksheet onto my desk beside me stapled with a newspaper article that he had clipped from the New York Times about the Rutgers kid who had been bullied.

“We have to do this! You have to help me!”

OK. I knew I had to remain calm, but this was not starting off well. Both my kids have a terrible aversion to having me help them with their homework. I try not to take it personally, but I do wonder what it is about my style of helping them that is so off putting. Perhaps I am too much of a perfectionist. I’m not sure.

We went to the dining room where we could sit at the table together. I read him the article as his head lay buried in his arms on the tabletop.

“I don’t get it!” I explained. Still calm, sort of marveling at how far I had come since Olivia used to pull the same behaviour on me. I looked at the worksheet that was broken into the WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN and HOW classifications.

“OK, who is the article about?” No answer. I took the pencil and highlighted the name of victim. “You will need to write this name in this section, and also these names,” I said, highlighting now the two people who were now being charged with invasion of privacy. No response. “I can’t do this for you.” I walked into the kitchen to begin making dinner. “When you are ready I am here.”

There was wailing, breaking of pencils, crumpling of paper. I remained calm. I encouraged. I cajoled. I sat down again and went through every single item until he had them all written out. Then it came time to writing a summary using the information he had just written down.

“Easy,” I said. “It’s all right here.” Logical. Reasonable. Calm. More wailing. “You can do this.”

“I can’t!” he screamed. It’s stupid! I hate this! And you’re not helping at all!”

“OK,” I said, “just tell me what you would like me to do.”

“I don’t know!”

“I am trying my hardest to help you, but you have to help too.” I don’t know why I was trying to reason at this point. He was way beyond reason.

“Please don’t be rude,” I said after he threw his pencil at me. I could feel my clam ebbing. The noise in the room was at rock concert level. I don’t do well with loud.

“Let’s put this away and do it later. I am not going to tolerate this kind of behaviour.”


“Then let’s do some reading.”


It got worse. Spiraling into a place where I realized I was going to have to punish the behaviour. There is nothing that he cares about more than his computer and so I said it.

“If this  behaviour doesn’t stop, I am going to take away your computer for the night.” The wailing reached fever pitch. It might not have been the right tactic, I’m not sure. I realize now he thought he was being punished for not being able to do the homework. But really it was for the rudeness, the disrespect. The behaviour morphed into a kind of begging.

“You can’t take my computer away! I won’t let you!”

But I did. As the behaviour got worse the days of no computer grew. I now have custody of the computer for a week. And here’s the kicker: I don’t know if *I* can do this. I realize I am just as addicted to him entertaining himself on his computer as he is addicted to using it.

But I’m glad it has come to this.

“It’s so boring here! There is nothing to do after school!” he complained. And I realized he was avoiding all the things kids normally do when they are not tethered to a computer. Hang out with friends, join teams, read, play with other toys or games. Frankly I blame the fact that he refuses to read on his excess computer use. Why read when you can watch YouTube? But it’s affecting his school work and I am honestly wondering if there is a learning issue now. Or is it just excess computer use?

After the implosion, I had a meeting at The Healing Center with other widows and widowers so I got to tell my story. I was able to calm down. Afterwards one of the women who has children of similar ages to mine came up to me and told me she has the same problem with computers. That she doesn’t know what to do about it either. I told her how I lie awake at night worrying about the fact that my children are addicted to their computers and she admitted to the same thing. I am certain we are not alone.

But in all honesty, I don’t know what to do about it. Will taking the computer away for a week change things? Is it feasible to limit computer use? What happens when I have to leave him alone in the house? I feel like married parents have this figured out and that its us single parents who are floundering around, using the computer as a crutch, happy for the extra time that we are granted. But I don’t think this is only a single parent issue. It’s a parent one.

I’m open to suggestions…

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  1. Leslie October 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    I have no suggestions, but I am relieved to hear I’m not alone in the “help-me-don’t-help-me!” homework scenario. We had a similar meltdown here last week, and the week before that….

    And no, married parents don’t have it figured out either!

  2. annie October 6, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    If you haven’t heard from his teacher(s) about his reading, my guess is that there is nothing wrong, but do check with the school to confirm. Better to rule it out right away.

    As far as gadgets go, kids become used to things just like we do. I rarely see a kid above the age of 11 anymore who isn’t glued to a cell phone, texting or web-surfing. It’s not a single parent thing as far as I can see.

    Also, some kids are just more drawn to computers and such. Kat likes the computer but she really only gets on one at school. The computer on her desk hasn’t been plugged in since last January when Rob started work on the reno in there and we emptied the room. Now that the office is back – still no computer for her.

    And you have to build the tolerance in terms of dealing with kids trying to break your will – like relent on punishment – I spent two decades practicing indifference to wheedling, whining and tantrums as a school teacher and my daughter still taxes me when she decides to go there.

    But what I told parents who were battling over homework was to simply tell the child to put it in the backpack and take it back undone and to send me an email explaining the circumstances – and let me play the heavy. For most, simply telling their child to take it back unfinished was enough to get the homework done. Cause and effect is a powerful learning tool. I never minded tag teaming with a parent. More than one way to skin a cat after all. And I was getting paid to do it.

  3. Dampdynamite October 6, 2010 at 9:43 pm

    well, I don’t know if this will work at your house, but we used to have “screen time” rules and limits, you know, like only 1 hour of gaming on the TV or the computer on school nights and that was when all homework had been done. I know some parents didn’t allow any screen time at all during the school week. Weekends up it to 2 or 3 hours, because you know they will never get off! Such a headache this stuff is, as if you don’t have enough to worry about as it is. May I also add that I found as my boys got older, it became a none issue. It seems it is one of those power play things that kids must use to push the limits as far as they can to see if you will really draw a line. Hang tough!

  4. tiffany scherer October 7, 2010 at 6:52 am

    hello abby. boy have i been there w/the homework scenario! a smile crept across my face as i read your blog and recalled the many times my 8 yr old has thrown the same homework temper tantrum. I don’t smile b/c it’s funny, I smile b/c it is so good to read that I am not alone!
    I wanted to suggest with limiting computer use– you can install software on the computer that will monitor how much time it is used and lock it after the time is exceeded. It is a web nanny software package– there are many and I’m happy to suggest one specific application if the selections overwhelm you. It is a good way to keep him accountable to his daily allowance of screen time– and before long, he’ll start finding other things to do when screen time ends– good luck 🙂

    1. Kristine October 7, 2010 at 12:12 pm

      I would like to know the name of a good “screen nanny” for the PC– I have the very same issues, as do, I know, so many other parents. And my son routinely blows past any timing deadlines I set, regardless of prior agreements. The temptation to stay on is simply greater than the consequence that he envisions I will employ. I am getting better about sticking with the consequences, but it is so tough. It is exhausting to put up with their push-back, and frankly, sometimes I am just too tired.

  5. Kim October 7, 2010 at 11:34 am

    We absolutely have limits about computer use and always have. 1/2 hour after school for snack time and then no more until violin practice and homework are done. Then, there is no more time. During week ends and the summer it is 1 hour per day, unless it is a video or information that multiple family members (meaning, the adults)are sharing in. My 16 yo finds entertainment in so many other ways – reading, art projects, volunteer work. She goes to yoga with me one evening a week and NIA exercise every Sat morning. She recently informed me she has abandoned facebook, and never has played video games. Computers did not enter our lives until middle school, and even then we were reluctant, fearing it might change our life for the worse. (and my husband is a software engineer!) It really is ok to set some limits.

  6. Kristine October 7, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Abby, I could relate not only to the questions you raise in your last paragraph, but also to the homework scene you described. Interestingly, I had recently had a very similar discussion a few days before the Healing Center session with another mom at her wit’s end with her son’s computer obsession. I have no answers, only the willingness to brainstorm with others to find some ideas that will work for us. Thank you for posting this and generating the discussion.

  7. Jody Doe October 7, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    Hi Abby,

    I can empathise with your situ, boys & computers & homework. Our seven year old, gets some homework, enough to enhance his weekly school work, but not overly exhaustive. And having a 22 year old son, the experience then as now was EXACTLY the same. Patience…( haha you say) is the answer. The fight with the computer, or the Wii has been an issue for the last year. I must admit, I have become a computer Nazi and will switch it off, along with TV and make him do something else. It is a child’s drug, so I treat it as such…I want him to be able to have other stimuli that doesn’t involve moving graphics & warfare; moving limbs and air currents are much better. (just like carrots & peas) Whether you are a single parent or not, ( and no we don’t have it figured out either!!!) it is being a parent which counts and knowing that when they are out of control, they need boundaries ( and we are for them, that control & boundary(ies) until our kids have learned to set their own)..I don’t think there is an easy answer on the setting rules, something that needs to be done.But, sympathetically more difficult on your own. My husband would agree that boys need to know where they stand…and having been a single parent myself with a experience has taught that there are times when being a mom, is being ‘ Mrs Meanie….sigh. He’ll get it, ’cause you get it. Hang in there

  8. smartspider October 8, 2010 at 8:08 am

    I wonder why Carter is frustrated by the homework? Is this a topic that frightens him in some way? There must be a reason for such an explosive response and the computer issue may be a way of re-directing your attention. “Bullying” may be a horrifying topic for him and he may be very sad about it. He may need you to help him deal with this before he can write it up.

    The computer issue is like the TV issue for parents of your generation. We worried that you would become zombies! (You didn’t, on the whole!) The computer issue is not going to go away because they are now considered valuable research and learning tools in the classroom.

    Why don’t you start a conversation with Carter…ask him what he think Bill Gates would do if he was bullied as a child?

    Good luck!

  9. Sandy Barnes November 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

    AThis incident wasn’t about the homework at all. It just just a setup for manipulation and verbal abuse.

    So don’t go there. One thing I learned from an intensive parenting group is “No Advice, Criticism or Explanations”

    So, at the first sign that he’s jerking you around, you say something like “Oh, this doesn’t work for me” in a neutral tone and exit. Refuse to have anything more to do with the homework.

    This is his homework, not yours. Detach from the idea that it is a bad thing for him to return to school with the homework undone.

    Your continued presence at the table escalated the situation. You said that yourself.

    Your son is still pretty young but I think establishing that his homework is his responsibility not yours will help in the long run.

    1. Abigail - Site Author November 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm

      Yes, I agree with you. Things have actually gotten a lot better since this incident and I did keep his computer for the entire week. Now all it takes is the threat of its removal to maintain the upper hand, and he has begun to realize that having something incomplete because he didn’t understand it, isn’t the end of the world.

  10. Sandy Barnes November 3, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Do you think that he was not able to understand it or just didn’t want to do it.

    1. Abigail - Site Author November 6, 2010 at 2:53 pm

      Sandy, likely it was a combination of not understanding and not wanting to do it. The wall goes up and that’s all that he can see no matter how much you try to reason with them.

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