We Accepted Our School's 'Screen-Free Saints Challenge.' Here's What Happened.
A grateful mom shares her family's screen-free Lenten journey with the support and encouragement of her faithfully Catholic school community.
It is four o’clock in the afternoon on a cold Wednesday in Lent. My second grader has finished her homework, she and her brother have practiced piano, they have put away their backpacks and set the table for dinner. As they round the corner into the family room, I anticipate their question before it leaves their lips, “Can we watch TV?” I would like to say that I suggest they go play a board game or build a block creation with their toddler sister, but in reality I quickly agree to what will likely be an hour of TV leading up to dinnertime. I feel a mixture of relief and guilt. I’m able to rest and they are content, but at what price?
Our family’s Lenten season has been quite different from our experience last year. After discovering several weeks ago that our family is expecting twins in the fall, we have relied on TV time as a crutch to get us through these difficult weeks of extreme fatigue and nausea. I'm sure we aren’t alone in using TV as a tool during difficult seasons. You have to do what you have to do. However, each day that I park myself on the couch watching after-school TV with my children, I recognize the stark contrast between our current screen habits compared to last year. You see, last year we took part in a unique challenge developed by my children’s school, and it was one of the most valuable undertakings our family has ever pursued. Here’s how it started.
Five years ago we were fortunate enough to discover Regina Coeli Academy, a private Catholic classical school in Abington, Pennsylvania. Regina Coeli serves students from Pre-K to 8th grade, with a mission of forming joyful saints through Catholic formation, classical wisdom, and virtue-in-action. It is intentionally a fully screen-free campus, but last year the administration upped the ante: they challenged every faculty member, student and their families to commit to a completely screen-free Lent at home too. No TV, no video games, no YouTube, no smartphones, and so on. It was dubbed The Screen-Free Saints Challenge and it was a resounding success.
The goal of the Screen-Free Saints Challenge was to lessen our community’s attachment to technological entertainment and redirect our time towards the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, which is the goal of any truly Catholic, classical education. The entire community at Regina Coeli Academy was invited to abstain from screens and technology as entertainment for the 46 days of Lent as we prepared our hearts, minds and bodies for the Risen Christ and the Easter season.
What’s the big deal with screens?
While media can certainly be used for good, research continually suggests that society’s current level of consumption is bad for our minds and bodies. At Regina Coeli Academy we are constantly striving for holiness, and we know that the path to holiness requires a well-ordered life. One of the benefits of the Screen-Free Saints challenge is that it encourages each family to build a well-ordered family culture, where our leisure time is used for something beautiful.
Our community as a whole has always strived to be a family of families. We are walking the path towards sainthood together, which means what influences each individual family has a ripple effect on the entire community. If we spend our leisure time virtuously, it is going to have a beautiful impact. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it has been found that children innocently stumble upon explicit material online as young as seven years old, with the tween years being the most common age of internet porn use. If children are given too much time in front of a screen, or even a little time that is unsupervised, unsavory material can find these children quicker than most adults realize. This can cause long-term damage to children. The Screen-Free Saints Challenge encourages our entire community to spend less idle time online so that our children’s innocence is preserved.
This initiative also invites parents to consider two ideas: first, waiting until at least high school to offer any type of handheld or personal technology and second, removing any handheld or personal technology from a child’s bedroom or secluded area. Many families have chosen to place computers or other necessary technology in common areas of the home only.
What technology is included in this fasting challenge, and isn’t this a little intense?
Screen time that our community tries to avoid during the challenge includes: movies, TV shows, video games, YouTube or other video services, computer games, cell phone games, social media, or any other unnecessary use of screens. Technology can, of course, be used for work or school if necessary.
It might seem intense when looking at the list in print, even overboard perhaps, but I ask you to try to reframe your mind for just a moment. The Regina Coeli Academy leadership made it clear to all that this challenge wasn’t aimed at taking something away; it was about trying to live a life that is “fully alive” and directed towards what is True, Good, and Beautiful. Families chose to focus on what we could be doing with our time and the good habits we could build in the process. Instead of TV time being taken away, we were gaining time to pursue new and fun interests.
So what did you do instead?
Each family approached this challenge uniquely, and adjusted as needed based on their particular family dynamics. Our family chose to (quite literally) unplug the TV to remove the temptation and easy access. We chose to place toys and activities that had been shoved in the basement up to the main living area where they were visible to little ones. We let our children be bored. We sent them outside as often as possible.
Several families adopted a new weekend routine of choosing one corporal or spiritual work of mercy to perform as a family, such as visiting a local cemetery on a nice day to pray for the dead or huddling in the kitchen together making PB&Js for a local shelter. Some groups of families chose to gather more regularly for potlucks or meet at playgrounds after school. My favorite suggestion from last year was sculpting or painting classic works of art. My then-six-year-old daughter spent close to an hour after school one day trying to recreate the Pieta in Play-Doh. It was both sweet and comical.
How did you convince your children?
The icing on the Screen-Free Saints cake was that the students were encouraging each other to succeed in this challenge. It was a prime example of positive peer pressure. At Regina Coeli Academy, the students in grades 1-8 are divided into four “houses” each school year and are challenged throughout the year to earn points for their houses by doing good deeds. Likewise, students could earn house points for substituting their typical screen time for a screen-free activity instead. The points were based on categories that aligned nicely with a well-ordered life. The highest point earnings were for spiritual exercises like reading scripture or the lives of the saints, memorizing a verse of scripture, writing in a prayer journal, or completing a novena. The second tier of points included suggestions like taking a nature walk or a bike ride, practicing an instrument, sewing or crafting, reading to a sibling, learning to cook a meal for the family, or completing a chore that isn’t typically that child’s responsibility. The smallest point earnings were for activities like Legos, fort building, puzzles, and more. The points were tallied after Easter break, and the winning house received a reward. The students took pride in this and complaints were minimal because all of the students were taking this on together.
What was the result? Did you actually last all 46 days?
Families reported both an increase in quality and quantity time spent together. Parents reported less sibling squabbles, more laughs, and better obedience. Faculty reported increased attention spans in the classrooms. Most families completed all 46 days, adjusting as needed for illness or other unforeseen situations.
The greatest surprise for many families, though, seemed to be that the challenge was more difficult for the parents than it was for the children. Screen addiction is often pinned on younger generations as if this is a product of their own doing. In fact, our small experiment seemed to indicate that parents’ addiction to screens may be far greater than that of our kids: both our reliance on screens to occupy our children and our reliance on our own screens as well. The beauty of the Screen-Free Saints Challenge was that it made us parents more aware of how far-reaching our screen addictions might be. Last year, my husband and I decided to purposefully keep our phones in a kitchen cabinet after school and work hours. The first week we found ourselves longingly looking towards that cabinet, wondering who might be texting us, what we might be “missing” or who might be “needing” us in that moment. The following weeks became easier, until eventually we weren’t looking at the cabinet hardly at all. It was liberating. The detachment from our constant connection with the outside world (even our close friends) was better for ourselves, our marriage, and our children. It’s exhausting being constantly available to others. We wound up asking ourselves, why hadn’t we done this sooner? Simple. We hadn’t had the push and we hadn’t had a community of people willing to do this alongside of us to lessen the trepidation.
Hopes for the future
Our family is indebted to the Catholic formation and the classical wisdom that our children have been receiving since partnering with Regina Coeli Academy. In this particular circumstance, we are all the more grateful that school takes the virtue-in-action aspect of its mission to heart, and leads by innovative example. The Screen-Free Saints Challenge was the push that our family needed to expose our reliance on screens and begin to re-order our life towards the Eternal. Granted, I’m not sure that we will ever put our TV on the curb (we do love a good family movie night!) but we are so grateful to have had the opportunity for familial and communal fasting during the screen-free period. I highly recommend any school community in pursuit of true human flourishing to give this challenge a try. Your community will reap both practical and spiritual benefits.
Rest assured, once my nausea and fatigue subside, and I figure out some way of getting two infants to sleep at the same time (help!), I look forward to joining the ranks of Screen-Free Saints once again. I hope you’ll join us too.
Jennifer Swierzbinski is a marketing professional aiding Catholic organizations. Currently a wife and stay-at-home mother of three (with two more on the way), Jennifer spends a good deal of time volunteering for her children’s classical school, Regina Coeli Academy. Prior to her time as a stay-at-home mom, she spent 7 years working for The Catholic University of America where she focused on the strategic planning, founding and implementation of the Busch School of Business.