Happy man with daughter using digital tablet on sofaAs a child, I always hated playing Simon Says. I lost every time I played. No matter how hard I tried, I’d end up scratching my nose while everyone else rubbed their head. I suppose the point of the game is to help improve kids’ listening skills, and I must have been a bad listener.

All these years later, I’m not sure my listening skills have improved much, but I’ve recently learned that those who lose at Simon Says might not be bad listeners after all. Instead, they might be amazing imitators.

For example, in our home I’m kind of a clean freak. It drives my family crazy. I go around the house nearly every evening and pick up the daily clutter and put it all into one big pile in the middle of the family room. These piles consist of the typical things that kids leave out: dirty socks, crayons, toys, and papers with half-drawn animals.

After years of doing this, I noticed a consistent pattern in the content of these clutter piles. More than anything, the piles contain books. My kids leave books everywhere. It’s like they don’t know what a bookshelf is. But one night it dawned on me that maybe my kids weren’t bad at picking up after themselves after all. Instead, maybe they are simply really good at imitating their mom and dad.

Sure enough, I began to notice that my wife and I leave our books all over the house, too. In the kitchen. On the table. On the floor. And if kids are anything, they are great imitators. So of course they don’t put their books away! They’re simply modeling the behavior of their parents. They’re doing what Simon does, not what Simon says.

Research shows that the same pattern of imitation exists when it comes to kids’ media use. Several studies have found that the single, strongest predictor of children’s media use is parents’ media use. In other words, the more we watch TV, the more our kids watch. The more time we spend on our phones, the more time our kids spend on their phones. If we watch action movies, read the news while we eat breakfast, or spend large amounts of time on social networking sites, it’s likely our kids will, too.

At first glance, it’s pretty intimidating to think that we, as parents, have so much influence on our kids’ media behaviors. But these findings suggest that we have an amazing opportunity as parents to guide that media use. If we want our kids to spend less time online, we don’t need to create elaborate rules or have a big back-and-forth, knock-out, sit-down discussion with them. All we need to do is put our phones down a bit more. Or wait another 30 minutes before turning the TV on at night.

And even better, if we want our kids to spend their media time with educational media content instead of with all the other alternatives, an easy way to start is to spend more time with educational content ourselves.

Sounds like easy parenting to me because it doesn’t require an entire overhaul of our way of life. In fact, here are a few simple things that each of us can do today in our homes to start making a difference in the media example we set:

  • Turn the TV off during dinner. Start with just one day a week and see how it goes.
  • Resolve to stay off social media for one day each week.
  • Put your phone in a different room, where you won’t hear notifications, between dinnertime and bedtime.
  • Plug your phone in for the night in the kitchen, instead of your bedroom.
  • Watch educational TV a little more and cable TV a little less. Nature and Nova are a couple of favorites in our home that we watch together about once a week.

To say all of this in a different way: As parents we are more powerful than we think. While it may be hard to get our kids to pick up after themselves, to get to bed on time, and to eat their vegetables, it’s reassuring to know that even when we think they’re not listening to us, at the very least they’re watching us.

So, parents, Simon Says choose one media habit to change. This time around, it’s a game we can all win.

About Eric Rasmussen, PhD

Eric Rasmussen, PhD, is a husband, father of four, professor of communication, and children and media researcher. He is the author of ChildrenAndMediaMan.com, and his mission is to get research about children and media off the academic shelves and into the hands of those who need it most—parents.

You Might Also Like