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A kid holds an iPad.

For the better part of the last four years, My Lovely Wife and I have enjoyed a weekly afternoon playdate with our grandson, affectionately known around here as The Little Guy. Over the course of six hours, we typically eat a couple of meals together, construct and destroy various types of edifices, act out scenes from his expansive imagination, explore a book or two, draw or paint, and walk to a nearby playground when the weather allows. It can turn into a long haul for Grandma and Grandpa, but we’ve always looked forward to his visits — until his iPad intervened.

I completely understand the allure of digital devices at any age, and TLG and I have occasionally found ourselves engrossed in some video or game (“Practice makes perfect, Grampa!” he reminds me) while lounging on the couch. It’s not my preferred mode of intergenerational engagement, but I had considered it a relatively harmless interlude between more interesting pursuits until a couple of weeks ago when TLG’s attachment to his screen sparked a classic meltdown.

“I WANT MY IPAD!” he wailed while ignoring his lunch. We’d laid down the law about no screens at meals. He was having none of it.

“I WANT MY IPAD!” The tears flowed.

“I’m sorry that makes you sad,” MLW offered, “but we’re not going to have the iPad on the table while we eat.”

“I WANT MY IPAD!” A torrent of tears, confusion, disbelief. I brushed the hair out of his eyes and wiped his cheeks. MLW and I exchanged glances: No way we can cave now.

He eventually calmed down but wouldn’t eat. I suggested we walk to the playground, an invitation — or truce — he morosely accepted. Outdoors, he quickly reverted to the engaged and playful youngster who makes Friday afternoons so magical. He happily roamed the playground for an hour or so, but upon our return home he quickly gravitated to his device. I sidled up to him at one point and asked him if he would come to visit next week without his iPad. “No,” he said, firmly.

“It’s like his dad was with that Game Boy,” I told MLW. He was so attached to the device as a kid that we ultimately had to buy it from him to break the trance.

“We need to talk with his mom and dad about this,” she replied. “You can’t argue with a 4-year-old.”

When they arrived to pick him up, TLG was leaning on the couch, watching a video. “He’s been like that most of the day,” I glumly reported. “I’m not sure he’s interested in visiting anymore.”

He’d had a rough morning, his mom recalled. He’d been playing happily with his cousin when it was time to go, and he was sad and angry when she loaded him into the car. Nevertheless, I noted, the device was becoming a problem. “Let’s take a break for a week and see if that makes a difference.”

Meanwhile, MLW and I huddled over the situation. TLG was growing up, we admitted, and the normal routine may not be as compelling as it had been when he was younger. He barely shows any interest these days in the storybooks we once read together, and the toys in the den are probably more designed for toddlers. Maybe we needed to change things up.

True to form, MLW leapt into action. A few days later, a box showed up on our front steps. Inside was a Marble Run construction set, a kid’s version of bingo, and a Where’s Waldo? book.

Still, it was anyone’s guess whether these newer acquisitions would be enough to distract him from his beloved iPad. And his meltdown over lunch suggested that enforcing limits on his screen time would not be particularly enjoyable. Maybe we’d just have to let things play out and not worry so much.

Friday morning arrived with the two of us pretty much ready to welcome him and his iPad when MLW received a text from his dad: TLG was playing with his cousin and didn’t want to visit. They’d come by in the evening when the extended family planned to gather to mark my 70th birthday.

MLW was a bit relieved. I was slightly crestfallen. Had we driven him away for good?

My spirits lifted that evening when I saw TLG skipping up to the house sans iPad with a big smile on his face. I introduced him to the Marble Run set, which thrilled him in a way I hadn’t dared to imagine. Soon, he and his dad — who recalled playing with a similar kit as a kid — were sitting on the living-room floor constructing increasingly elaborate circuits and cheering the marbles along as they raced from top to bottom.

Later, he led me into the den where he pulled out a box of blocks we’d been ignoring for weeks, and we set about building and destroying towers in the manner of Angry Birds. The laugh I hadn’t heard during his last fraught visit returned with gusto. We had to tear ourselves away when it was time to eat.

“Let’s just be flexible on Fridays,” I told his mom after things had quieted down. “Don’t feel as though you need to bring him over at the normal time if he’s having fun. He can come later in the day if that works better.”

It was getting late and TLG was pretty wound up. He bounded over to say good night.

“See you next Friday,” I said. “I love you!”

“I love you more!” he countered.

“Oh yeah?” We’d played this game before. “Well, I love you more than the whole world!”

“I love you more than the whole universe and everything!”

I wrapped him up in a hug, planted a kiss on his forehead, and sent him on his way. You can’t argue with a 4-year-old.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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