- - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Culture challenge of the week: Winter gloom

A month like the one we’re having reminds me why I hate winter.

Last week’s bitter cold swept across the country from Minnesota to Maine and Wisconsin to Virginia. It even sent shivers through the South. The cold canceled school and kept families indoors for days. When the cold front did pass, the warm air sent a dismal drizzle along the East Coast.

Bad weather presents a different kind of parenting challenge. Gloomy days beget grumbling attitudes — for both parents and children. A cold, miserably rainy day, a houseful of children bursting with energy and no outdoors to spend it on — what’s a parent to do?

The easy solution in our electronic age is to flip on the screens so the children will zone out and leave us alone. Most of us have screens of one sort or another in every room, or even in every family member’s pocket. The computer, the smartphone, the TV — they tempt us to endure winter in solitary fashion, just us and our screens.

Don’t take the bait.

According to a Japanese study, children who spend excessive amounts of time in front of the television experience negative effects to the structures of their brains, resulting in lower verbal intelligence. As the first researchers to look at TV watching and its influence on the brain’s structural development (not simply brain function), the Japanese scientists offered some important cautions to parents: “TV viewing is directly or indirectly associated with the neurocognitive development of children. At least some of the observed associations are not beneficial and guardians of children should consider these effects when children view TV for long periods of time.”

In other words, the more TV we allow our children to watch as youngsters, the less their intellect develops. Put differently, hours in front of the TV “dumbs down” our own children. We spend so much time, money, and attention on helping our children succeed in other ways, shouldn’t we pay attention to this?

In summertime, it’s easy to reduce television time. Children head outside to catch fireflies, play in the pool or flag down the ice cream man. But when your child has been stuck in the house for days because of the cold, or finishes homework long after darkness sets in, television looks like the answer. With iPads, iPods, iPhones and Play Station, parents must say no to not one type of screen, but three or four.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-TV: It can offer great entertainment for the family and be an absolute lifesaver when parents can’t keep a child occupied and simply must attend to other responsibilities.

But most of us know we can do better for our children, even on gloomy winter days.

How to save your family: With winter creativity

Let’s take advantage of winter’s requisite “indoor time” and cultivate some creativity instead.

Read aloud as a family at night, no matter how old your children are. Bill Bennett’s classics “The Book of Virtues” and “The Moral Compass” are ideal short selections. Try the children’s series “Sticky Situations” for conversation starters. The books present short, real-life problems and ask children to judge various solutions.

Make board games more accessible. If they are shut away in a drawer, your children won’t search for them. Try placing them on open shelves, below coffee tables or out in the open. Start a tradition of calling bad weather days “family board game days.” Board games spark conversations and offer family time and competition. (Who doesn’t like to defeat an elder sibling?)

Break out the craft supplies and turn your kitchen table into a workbench. Children can be endlessly creative without a lot of persuasion. Washable paint was invented with mothers in mind, so buy a bunch and use it. When my children were young, I kept several inexpensive easels set up, with smocks and paints handy. The children spent hours painting just about everything, including one another.

Recapture car time: Before every child had a phone and every car had a DVD player, children read books in the car, played travel games and listened to audiobooks. If your children typically are plugged in during car rides, anticipate the protests. Start small and select one day of the week as a no-screen day. Or pick a day when car time will be book time or listening time, or select a style of music for each day (Monday is classical, Tuesday is rock, etc.). Keep books in the car suitable for your children’s ages and tuck small travel games into the seat pockets. They will discover fun as they wean off the easy but numbing stimulation of screens.

Screens don’t have to rule our lives — or our parenting styles. Find out what your children’s interests are and use those to draw them away from the television and chase away the gloom of winter with creativity and fun.

Rebecca Hagelin can be reached at [email protected]

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