The Fort is Not Dead

It was a Friday afternoon, and I had just picked my daughter up from daycare. I was buckling her into her booster seat when I said,
“Guess what, baby?”

“What, mama?” she responded, a hint of anticipation in her voice. I leaned in closer and whispered, “It’s a Girls’ Night.”
“Woo HOO!” she shrieked, pumping her fist in the air. “AND we’re going out to eat at your favorite pizza place. Just you and me.”

She erupted into a frenzy of wild claps as she bounced up and down in her seat.

We drove to the restaurant, listening to our special “Girls’ Night” playlist (Joni Mitchell, Indigo Girls, Tori Amos). She chattered away at a mile a minute, and I listened with a smile.

As we pulled into the parking lot, she let out a cheer and began telling me how much “pizza bread” she was going to eat. (ALL the pizza bread in the world, if you’re curious.) We entered the restaurant and as soon as her butt hit the booth she outstretched her hands.

“Mama? Phone?”

I blinked at her. She looked at me, smiling. She wiggled her fingers. I stared. Her smile began to fade and her eyes became desperate.

“Mama. Phone,” she insisted, fingers wiggling like impatient little worms.

I shook my head. “No, baby,” I said in my best “patient mom voice.”
She dropped her antsy hands and her lip quivered.
“But — but — but,” she sputtered; the saddest little motor boat there ever was.

I shook my head again. “No,” I told her. I slid into the seat next to her. “I want to spend time with you, and I can’t do that if you’re watching Netflix or playing with my phone.”

Guys, did you know that many five-year-olds lose all of their bones when something like this happens? They do, and it’s unfortunate. My boneless five-year-old slithered down in the booth as fat tears rolled down her cheeks.

“But mama,” she whined. “It’s so boring!”

“Patient mom” voice died, and “I’ve had enough of your B.S.” mom voice emerged.

“STOP,” I said. “We’re here to enjoy a meal together and there will be no phone for EITHER of us.”

My tot sniffled and snorted. She wiggled into the corner of the booth and glared at me. I regarded my daughter and my heart sank. This is the way she reacts when I deny her technology? I thought. I felt like the world’s biggest failure.

stared at her with my “serious business mom” eyes for a bit longer, then rummaged through my purse and found a pen and some paper. “Hey kiddo,” I said. “Want to learn how to play Tic Tac Toe?”

She perked up a bit and nodded, her bones magically restored. We played games until our food arrived. Once I had engaged my daughter she forgot all about my phone — but I still felt guilty for her tech dependence.

When we arrived home that evening, I fully expected her to run to the T.V. and ask to watch her favorite show — but she scurried upstairs instead. I followed so I could change clothes. I was in the bedroom when she rushed in.

“Mama,” she asked, breathless. “Can we build a fort?!”

I looked down at my smiling girl; face smudged with pizza sauce, eyes hopeful. My sunken heart lifted, and I returned her smile.

“Of course,” I told her. “Of course we can build a fort.”

“Woo HOO!” she yelped. “Come on, mama!” She turned on her heels and zipped into her room, beckoning me to follow.

She may be addicted to technology, I thought. But at least the fort’s not dead.There’s still some magic there. Maybe there’s hope for her yet.

While we built our fort, I thought of what I could do to fix her iPhone addiction. I had, after all, created this tech-dependent tot and now it was my job to undo the damage. As all parents know, childhood habits are notoriously hard to break — any mom or dad with a pacifier-loving kid can tell you that. So what, as parents, are we to do? We can either cut them off cold turkey (which is usually very ugly), or take small steps. I decided to go with the latter.

I settled on some new tech rules: The only time my daughter could have have my phone would be on the car ride to school in the morning, and at very select moments when we were out at a restaurant — only for a short time, and never while we were eating. When I broke the news to her a few days later, she protested — a lot. But we forget sometimes that kids are adaptable, and within a few days it was the new normal.

I’ll be honest — I’ve deviated from the restaurant part of the rule. Sometimes I want to have a conversation with my husband without a hundred interruptions. Hey, nobody’s perfect. Baby steps, right?

We spent the rest of our Girls’ Night building, deconstructing, and re-building the fort until it was perfect. When it was finished, we turned on a movie and wiggled inside. My daughter settled herself into my arms, I planted a kiss on her head, and we watched a movie in the fort we had built together.

So take heart, parents. Tech may be king and kids may turn into zonked-out Candy Crush-playing zombies from time to time, but the fort is not dead. It’s not comfortable, and you have to fold your limbs in weird ways to fit inside… But it’s still very much alive.

Long live the fort.

This post was written by Natalie Anastasia Green for the Torch community of Parents.