The New Rules of Dads and Screentime, According to Jesse Tyler Ferguson

YEARS AGO, on a trip to Disneyland, I remember sitting on a bench in awe. It wasn’t being in the Happiest Place on Earth that had me speechless. It was observing a toddler in a stroller watching a video on an iPad. At Disneyland.

Here we were, in a man-made ecosystem literally engineered to promote imagination, stimulation, and joy—and this kid was watching a cartoon. (It wasn’t even a Disney cartoon, which really annoyed me.) My husband, Justin, and I made a vow, then and there, right next to the Dole Whip cart, that when we eventually became dads, we would be, hands down, “no screen time” dads.

Smash cut to July 2020 during a global pandemic: “Wake up, Beckett, Grandma wants to meet you on FaceTime.”

Parents had warned Justin and me that the first few months of a baby’s life are like a press junket—a revolving door of well-wishers who ask you the same questions 500 different times. To complicate matters, Beckett is the first baby on my side of the family, my parents are divorced, and I have siblings in various time zones.

And then there was the technology.

When I called my mom to walk her through downloading WhatsApp (she is an Android user), you would have thought I’d put her into the cockpit of a space shuttle and said, “Now just fly it to the moon!” Thankfully, a neighbor was able to help her figure it out right as I was about to overnight her a new iPhone.

Justin and I made it a practice to have Beckett video-chat with my mom a few times a week. She’s not sure how to reply to a text or click on a link, but she sure did learn how to answer a WhatsApp call when Beckett was awake.

Seeing my mom’s wet eyes as she looks at her first grandchild still hasn’t gotten easier, but she is a trooper, knowing that this is better than nothing (and it won’t be forever). Family has the capacity to love in surprising ways.

Even though my mom hasn’t been able to hold Beckett yet, the sight of him rolled up in the green blanket she crocheted for him is almost as heartwarming for her. Almost.

Beckett, on the other hand, not only recognizes what a screen is but also has a full post-nap, post-milk agenda. (“I’m sorry, Grandpa, your grandson has a busy schedule this afternoon. We can try to squeeze you in tomorrow at 4:30 if you can make yourself available then.”)

I notice now how he clocks my phone when it is in sight. He knows that shiny rectangle is something interesting. If I glance down at it when a text message pops up, his eyes follow it. And I often find myself thinking, This is so weird.

Justin and I look back and laugh about the time we foolishly made that grand proclamation under Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: “Here ye, hear ye! We shall be parents who say nay to devices.” Screen time with family when you can’t see family isn’t screen time. It’s the best connection we have, given the circumstances.

Justin and I have had to embrace the fact that part of being new parents is continuously figuring things out and letting expectations go. And that’s what I’ve ultimately come to understand: No proclamation as a parent is helpful (and especially one made at Disneyland).

If you have a plan for how something is going to be, you also have to be prepared to be wildly disappointed. It’s okay to pivot and change it.

Just know that the new plan will probably change, too.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Men’s Health.

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