By Jessie Horney
I heard my 7-year-old tell someone that she and her siblings are “grounded from TV right now” and it took me by surprise. How did she know the word “grounded”? Had I used it before? It was true, I recently lost my ever-loving mind at all the bickering and general grumpiness in our family and did the only thing that ever works: I took away TV privileges. But I call it a “screen break,” careful to avoid any sense of punishment, wanting to avoid the idea that it’s my fault they can’t open up Netflix. I prefer framing it as a choice they made by fighting so much. Hearing the word “grounded” made me pause, realizing: one – of course they knew it was a punishment, and two – I didn’t really know why I was so bothered by the idea of a grounding anyways.
The problems with screens and kids are well-documented and difficult to argue against at this point. Screen time creates chaos in their brains, short-circuiting the fresh connections they’re trying to make each day, destroying their attention spans, and quite literally reconfiguring their thought processes with colors, noises, and a speed of movement that they are simply unable to absorb. But let’s not make this about screens, because that soapbox is occupied and also because I actually love TV shows and movies. I took away screens because I know unplugging helps my kids calm down and be their best selves again. It works for me, too. But why would we use the word “grounding” for taking away TV anyways? Is it just a word I learned from my own childhood television families? Am I actually just taking parenting cues from Danny Tanner, the Winslows, and Zack Morris’ moms?
In the middle of this low-key parenting identity crisis, I’m trying to sort out whether or not I’m a mom who grounds people. Here’s the thing: Grounding works. Whether it’s a week without screens, a 10-minute time-out holding hands with the offending sibling, being sent to their rooms for 30 minutes with a stack of books, or a “quiet ride” to church (which means no one is allowed to speak), being grounded from a privilege like screens or playing together or even talking in the car brings my kids back to earth. They settle down. Once their irritation dissipates, they can take a deep breath, quite literally, and start their day over.
We’ve assigned a negative connotation to grounding when it comes to our kids, but think about this: When we describe an adult as “grounded,” we mean it as something likable, something admirable. We mean that person is settled, they know who they are, and they move through the world with certainty and humility. What do we say after we invest in the lives of others, whether on a week-long service trip or an afternoon at the hospital with a friend in crisis? We say: “It was such a grounding experience.” Even taking a trip to the mountains grounds us, right? It’s why we go, why we remove ourselves from the push and pull of daily life, choosing cold morning air, working hard to build a fire, walking instead of driving, putting away our phones and the comparison game of social media and sitting in the quiet — the work, the quiet, the removal, it all centers us. Brings us back to what is true.
Outside of the sitcom door-slamming image it conjures up, the word “grounded” is robust in meaning. Grounded means to stay. To instruct. To settle. And my favorite: It also means found.
Of course, none of these synonyms carry even a hint of anger. When I ground my kids, is it to punish with impunity, to make them feel bad about themselves and what they did? Or do I invite them into the safety of being found? Being seen and settled? Can grounding allow us back into the warmth and certainty of knowing our limits and coming back to earth, feeling the firm dirt beneath our feet, before we go exploring and pushing those limits once again?
My kids live in a world of dizzying speed and loud messages about who they are and what they deserve. I guess maybe I am a mom who grounds people, because I’m a person who believes in the the joy of exploring our limits, even if it means occasional trouble or pain, but I also believe in the peace that comes when we know how to stop. To ground ourselves. To be found and loved, centered, until we’re ready to be sent back out to explore again.
Jessie Horney is a freelance writer and poet. Find her at www.horneymomtellsall.com.