Tweens love screens. Making the time to watch TV with your tween can spark great conversations and keep your relationship strong during the years when kids can start to withdraw or push parents away. Watching shows together is easy and relaxing, and if you use the tips below to be intentional about a couple things, it really will help you connect with your tween.
When my kids were babies and toddlers, I had so many questions. I soaked up advice from other moms, the books and the Internet about sleep schedules and discipline and developmental stages. Being a new mom was challenging and exhausting. But I also knew so many other moms going through the same things at the same time. In those early years, kids tend to follow similar patterns and one piece of solid advice could ripple through my mom groups and help us all.
“Put on two crib sheets with a waterproof pad in between so that midnight blow-outs don’t require a complete change of sheets.”
“Say yes as often as you can to your child when it involves giving your time or reasonable risks.”
Now that I have two tween sons in my house, I feel like a nervous new mom all over again with a much shakier road map. There are fewer quick fixes and universal pieces of advice for parenting tweens. Older kids have such unique personalities and opinions. Technology and society continually throw curveballs. There are so many outside factors crashing into our kids that didn’t come into play when they were little and their entire world included basically our house and our sitter’s house.
Moms a few paces ahead of me in this parenting marathon tell me stories of waking up one day to find a defiant alien where a fairly kind and compliant kid used to be (I’m hugging my littles tighter tonight).
I hear tales of kids I’ve known since birth breaking serious rules and making dangerous decisions (bestill my mothering heart).
Sagas of kids who pull away in anger and turn their back on the families who love them (my heart breaks more than a little at the thought).
These moms of grown children then tell me not to worry, because it only lasted two...four...maybe six years, and then the kids moved out and returned to normal - like that’s supposed to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It doesn’t. I feel like a 6-year-old who sat at the top of the stairs sneak-watching my parents’ scary movie and then lay paralyzed in my bed with wide eyes, unable to unsee Pennywise’s creepy face.
I’m reminded daily that I’m far from a Stepford parent, and that I’m not raising perfect children. I don’t need Snapchat rainbow waterfalls to shoot out of my teens’ mouths on the daily, but I’m clinging to the hope that I can enjoy every stage of parenting in different ways. Bottom line: I don’t want to loathe my years parenting teens.
I get that there will be some gut-wrenching, gray-hair-producing days when I may not like my kids all that much. But I also want to have good days where I see at least sprouts of the adults I’m working hard to raise - and where I can love the new connections I’m forming with my kids because they aren’t really kids anymore. We can go canoeing as a family, play cards, giggle like idiots because we overheard someone say “balls,” and watch shows that I actually like and want to watch. (I talk more about this in my post on How to Love Your Years Parenting Tweens.)
So here’s what I plan to use as my secret sauce: being really strategic and intentional in how I stay connected to my tweens, and then my teens. It’s a careful balancing act to let our relationships with our kids evolve. We have to figure out how to let them learn who they are and what they like, independent of our family, without cutting them too loose too soon.
One easy and guaranteed way to connect - and stay connected - with your preteen is watching TV together. Yep, I kind of hate to admit it because I rant about screens all.the.time in my house. I would even call myself fairly anti-screen (I’ve hidden the Playstation in the laundry room and confiscated phones off the family docking station - but I bow to disciplinary prowess of a friend who wore her son’s Playstation cord hanging across the back of her neck all day until he earned it back).
But what we’re talking about here is very different from a tween spending endless hours isolated in a basement gaming, or four family members sitting in four different rooms on four different screens. I’m saying that tweens love screens, and that making the time to watch TV with your tween can:
- Spark some of your best conversations
- Give you a seamless way to share important life lessons without coming off as preachy
- Strengthen your relationship with your tween
The American Academy of Pediatrics promotes what it calls TECH parenting as a healthy way to monitor kids' media use, and the C in TECH stands for Co-viewing and Co-using media with our kids actively. The T stands for Talking to kids about their media use and monitoring their activities. The E for Educating kids about media risks, and the H for establishing House rules for media usage.
Using TV to Spark Real Conversations
A 2017 Netflix study found that 82 percent of Canadian parents have watched their teen’s shows to feel closer to them. Three-fourths of the teens surveyed worldwide also said they want to talk to their parents about the shows they watch. Netflix watched this trend closely following the release of the controversial show “13 Reasons Why,” which centers on the suicide of a high school student who leaves clues as to why she did it.
Parenting tweens requires some difficult conversations. I’m a communications pro with two degrees in the subject, and it’s still a challenge to bring up certain topics or try to get an embarrassed or distracted or disinterested tween really talking. Quality TV shows and movies can be natural conversation starters, especially when you’re prepared as a parent.
My husband and I asked our oldest son to watch the movie Just Mercy with us. Based on a true story, Jamie Foxx plays an innocent Black man on death row Alabama accused of a murder he didn’t commit. A lawyer fresh out of Harvard and his colleague - played by award winners Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson - fight to clear his name and see justice trump racism.
We wanted to watch this movie together not only to educate our son on this true and heartbreaking story, but to continue our ongoing conversations about racism. About the protests and other actions being taken in our country right now to change hearts and minds and create a culture based on love and equity.
Nearly every show or movie you watch with your tweens can open up quality conversations if you take the time to really watch with them and then speak up. An episode might address a topic like adoption or stealing or mental health. It might show a romantic relationship between young people or divorce or a friend asking someone to keep a dangerous secret. Those are the seeds of valuable conversations.
Beyond the plotlines, you can use TV characters to talk to your kids about things like body image or stereotypes in a way that feels less embarrassing or threatening because you’re talking about people who aren’t real - there’s a degree of separation that can open up more honesty. Use our list of the 10 things your tween wants you to know but won't tell you as you consider topics to broach.
Also remember to listen - really listen - when your tween talks. Moms are busy, and it can be tricky for our kids to get our undivided attention. One-on-one time watching shows at the end of the day can open this door and be a time our tweens know they have our attention.
We created SALT effect tees and mugs to serve as reminders to listen more and to Serve And Learn Together! And we hope they're good conversation starters too!
Kristie and I are always on the lookout for shows that hit a sweet spot between being too young and too mature for the tween boys in our homes. And honestly, tons of the lists of “shows for tweens” also seem focused on mothers and daughters (sorry Gilmore Girls and Anne with an E). So we compiled a list of the best shows for tween boys for our fellow boy moms. We also included a couple conversation starters for each show to get your kids talking. We based them on the show’s characters and plotlines. Download it for free.
Using TV to Strengthen your Relationship
Tweens love their screen time and it’s easy to get caught up as parents in the debate over “how much is too much.” It’s easy to miss the importance of what they’re watching and how they’re watching it.
A Common Sense Media study of media use among tweens and teens found that overall screen time stayed pretty much the same from 2015-2019. (The average is nearly five hours for kids 8-12 and more than seven hours for teens, in case you’re wondering.)
Here was the big shift: watching online videos went from the fifth most popular media activity for young people to the number one spot. This points to a couple important things:
- Tweens and teens are consuming media on their phone more and more - which usually means screens in isolation. There’s less of a social component and less parental oversight when watching on a phone rather than a TV.
- Watching videos on phones means young people predominantly see content chosen by an algorithm rather than any intentional choice. Instead of scrolling through Netflix to choose a new show that looks interesting, they’re letting YouTube or Snapchat Discover suggest a new video and lead them down a random rabbit hole.
This picture looks completely different when we encourage our tween to find good shows on streaming platforms, and then actually sit down with them to watch.
There are many studies out there that talk about the benefits of eating meals together as a family, but there’s a relaxation component to watching TV together that isn’t quite there during the bustle of making, serving, eating and cleaning up a meal.
With COVID changing school and work schedules, my family is staying up and sleeping in later. My oldest son and I have started watching Psych together most nights once the younger kids are in bed.
This means my 12-year-old is up until 11 or later many evenings these days - so he’s getting to bed later than I’d like and I’m losing the time I typically use to work after the kids go to bed. We pop popcorn lots of nights and lounge together on the couch - and we just enjoy being together. We don’t need to talk or plan. We’re not interrupted by other people’s questions or needs.
The show is clever and hilarious. We both 100% look forward to it. In fact, most nights when I finally get done saying goodnight and delivering ice waters to my younger kids, my oldest son is sitting on the couch with the next episode cued up and ready to go.
It's good for him, and it's good for me. Parenting well takes a lot of energy, so I'm honestly excited to be able to serve up an easier and more relaxing suggestion this time. If you need another excuse to squeeze in a little me-time in front of the TV, check out our post on how watching more TV can make you a better mom (before you eyeroll or start judging, let me remind you that I don't watch a whole lot of TV - so check out where I'm coming from on this one and then decide what you think and let me know in the comments).
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