One of the columnists' kids, staring at a screen. (Photo/Nicki Gilbert)
One of the columnists' kids, staring at a screen. (Photo/Nicki Gilbert)

When my kids gaze at their tiny screens, I want to scream!

I knew something was awry because it was quiet. Too quiet. In a house full of kids and a very vocal dachshund, I often crave quiet. I long for moments that are warm and gentle, for silence that floats calmly through the hallway and up and down the stairs … but 7:47 a.m. on a school day is not usually one of those moments.

This was not a calm and gentle silence. This silence was eerie and still. This silence made me nervous.

At 7:47 a.m. on any given school day, the brothers can be heard arguing over who finished the last of the milk or laughing at something funny one of them said. The youngest is full of corny jokes lately. At 7:47 a.m. the oldest is already shouting “bye, Mom,” as he heads out the door to make it to school on time, and I am calling for my daughter to come here now if she wants help with her hair.

At this time on a weekday, there is usually a mad scramble to find shoes, jackets, homework and backpacks. Even though they had all those things just yesterday. Kids bump into each other as they dump their breakfast dishes in the sink, sneakers land at the bottom of the stairs with a thunk, the dog barks and runs in mad circles around the kitchen.

So what made this morning different from other mornings?

I flew into the kitchen, braced for the worst. And stopped, mouth agape.

There they were, all four of them, sitting at the kitchen counter at 7:47 a.m. on a school day, hunched over their (empty) bowls and plates … and their phones! (Not the youngest, he doesn’t have a phone, but he was equally immersed on a video on the iPad).

One son was subtly flicking his fingers over the screen. He is obsessed with “Clash of Clans.” The other was smirking to himself, something funny on Snapchat, no doubt. My daughter was texting — I could tell by her furrowed brow and the way she used her thumbs to type. What is there to say after sleeping for 9 hours and eating a piece of toast?

“Hey! Guys! You have to go to school!”

No response.

“GUYS!” My drastically elevated pitch grabbed their attention. Four pairs of eyes blinked at me with confusion. As if they didn’t know where in the world they were. It’s possible they didn’t.

Screens down. NOW! Time for school.

“Screens down. NOW! Time for school.” Mayhem ensued as I stood, half bemused half furious, in the middle of the kitchen.

When the kids were in preschool, more than a decade ago, we had a no-screens-before-school policy. Besides trying to limit their exposure to give their brains a chance to develop and their imaginations time to grow, any kind of screen is a major distraction for human beings. When faced with a screen, kids and adults alike lose track of time and forget even the most basic responsibilities — like how to drive. And get ready for school.

But as the screens have shrunk to the size of their hands over the last 15 years, apparently so has my resolve.

I’ve noticed this not-so-subtle takeover before. I’ve confiscated phones from the older kids, and limited all their screen time to an hour a day. I’ve removed phones and computers from their rooms at bedtime, but invariably they find their way back for one reason or another — sometimes homework, but usually because at the end of a long day I forget.

But in the unforgiving quiet in the kitchen that morning, faced with the dismal sight of the heads and hunched up shoulders of my four kids, my resolve returned. With meaning.

“You will give me your phones every night and you will get them back before school,” I told them clearly and firmly, as they filed out the house on their way to school, shoes untied and backpacks half open.

The collective eye-roll was dramatic. And their dismay was palpable.

“Mom, come on,” my son wheedled. His siblings joined in. I covered my ears. They reminded me of the Jewish people we read about during Passover, wandering in the desert after their freedom from Egypt but moaning and complaining to Moses at every opportunity. He knew it was worth it but they didn’t … yet.

It hasn’t been easy, but the morning chaos has returned, thankfully. With one difference.

“You know, Mom,” my daughter said, surprise in her young voice, “I can get ready for school much quicker without my phone.”

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Nicki Gilbert

Nicki Gilbert is a writer, Alcatraz swimmer and country music lover who lives in Piedmont with her husband, four kids and dachshund puppy. Her blog is RedBoots.me.