The educator and mom of two shares her thoughts on screen time, the best new items for kids, and more
Jennie Monness isn’t just a regular mom…she’s a cool mom. She’s the mom who’s got the best gear and looks effortlessly chic, but isn’t afraid to tell you that she just changed her top because her kid threw up on her—and that she could really use a drink right now. In short, she’s the type of mom you see at playgroup and think, “I want to be friends with her.” Except you won’t find Jennie at just any playgroup…you’ll find her at Union Square Play, the community she started for people seeking parenting tips, activities for their kids, and just generally to talk about the insanity that is being a mom or dad. We spoke to Jennie about Union Square Play, her online community Mo’Mommies, her thoughts on the dreaded “screen time” conversation, and the products she thinks any new parent should consider splurging on.
KCM: So let’s jump right into the info that every parent wants to know… What are the hottest items for kids and parents on the market right now?
Jennie Monness: One of them is the GoBe Snack Spinner. It’s clear on top and has these compartments, and your kid presses down, it spins, and they open a little door to each snack. I just love that I could put fruits, cookies, or anything there, and it can last hours in the car or if we’re out for the day.
The other one is called the Kibou Bag. It’s a fanny pack, but on the back zipper, it opens up to be a changing pad. It can fit two diapers, wipes, and cream. As a new mom, you feel like you need to bring absolutely everything with you when you don’t actually need most of it. So the fact that this fits on a belt around your waist, it helps train you to be a bit more minimalist.
In terms of toys for learning purposes, are there you think are worth parents splurging on?
I’m obsessed with the Toniebox, a wonderful alternative to screen time. It’s a speaker box and you order different figurines with it—depending on which figure your child puts on top, the box takes on that whole persona. So your child could put Spot the Dog on top, and then the box tells stories about the dog, and it can talk and sing different doggy songs. Then it can also be customized. So I could record my voice and my own songs. So if I’m going on a trip, I can leave a custom Tonie behind. My kids could put it on, and my voice would come out, and say “Hi, it’s Mommy. I already miss you so much and I love you. Here’s our favorite song!” It’s just wonderful. It also has audiobooks, tons of songs, and there’s no screen so it’s all imaginative. The price tag is a bit high, but I think it’s worth it.
The other thing I would recommend is the Pikler Triangle, this low-tech climbing triangle that’s very fun for kids, and I feel is very worth it.
You mentioned screen time. What are your thoughts on that? How much is too much?
I think the response to this question changes on the mental well-being of the parent because we all know that you can’t be much of anything if you don’t feel good yourself. I never thought I’d be a mom who just passed a screen off to her kid under any circumstance…until I became pregnant for the second time. I had a one-and-a-half-year-old and I was grappling with debilitating morning sickness, so I would just put on Daniel Tiger. I told myself, “I’m only doing this to survive morning sickness, just for 15 minutes.” But then I realized that if it’s for your mental wellbeing as a parent, sometimes it’s what you have to do, especially when you’re thoughtful about using it and you have boundaries around it. Especially during Covid! I think the danger of screen time is when we use it as a way of shutting our child down. So for example, if we’re using it when our child is bored or we’re using it because they’re whining, we’re missing an opportunity for a child to be creative, or to connect with our child.
So if your toddler is crying and you’re like, “Oh, just watch this,” how do we help them work through why they’re crying? However, if you as a parent are on a work call, or are going to throw up in the morning, then you have to do what you have to do. I would just warn against the danger of using it as an emotional crutch for children, or of missing an opportunity for creativity in exchange for what can be sort of a brainless experience.
Can you offer some examples of creative alternatives to screen time?
It starts even younger than when kids are old enough to say “I’m bored.” My daughter is three-and-a-half, and she’ll say, “What are we doing now?” I know that’s her way of saying, “I don’t really know what to do with myself.” That’s when we can respond in our own sort of creative way. With kids that little, you can really do anything. Go outside and look for rocks. The other night I said to the kids, let’s sort sprinkles. They loved it. They were eating some, and they decided not to sort them by color. It’s important as kids get a little older to continue thinking creatively. So if your kids are pulling each other’s hair, suggest something like, “let’s build a pillow fort.” If every time we sense they’re bored we show them options of what they can do creatively, they won’t get into the habit of just reaching for a device.
Your background is in education. What did you feel like you weren’t seeing that made you want to start Mo’Mommies?
I was coming from the preschool daycare setting and noticed a real disconnect between educators and parents. I felt like we were picking up these infants and toddlers, asking what they ate, what was in their diaper, and not learning a lot about what was going on to educate and engage these kids. There was just such a disconnect between what was age-appropriate educationally and what the meaningful parts of a group care setting are, which is essentially forming attachments with other people, learning to be away from home, and navigating things like sharing and socializing with other children.
So I just saw that there was just a void there. As I was on my way to becoming a mom, I got pregnant after IVF, I decided that’s what I wanted to focus on. So I started Mo’Mommies with the idea of letting parents know that they shouldn’t just focus on getting their baby to walk or roll over or sit up, and all these things that I felt like parents were obsessed with might be getting in the way of their child’s own development. And then I became a mom a month later, and I was like, “Whoa, Holy crap. Who CARES about all that? This is about surviving.” For me, postpartum was this isolated, isolating stage. So that’s why I started the moms’ groups, and that led to the physical space of Union Square Play. I created both because I felt like there was a gap in terms of how to spend thoughtful time with infants and toddlers while also “educating them,” and then there was the question of, how do you form a community when you’re a new mom? Because you can’t really study things like, how do I survive this anxiety of becoming a mom. All of those nuanced thoughts and feelings can really only be worked through in community with others.
Who are some moms who inspire you?
My own! Not in the conventional sense, where I’m inspired to be the exact mom that she was, but she worked so hard and really put everything else aside for our sake. I think in some ways, and I mean this in the most loving sense, it didn’t set us up to be the most resilient. So when I became a parent, that inspired me to try to wire my children for resilience while also loving them unconditionally. That’s really the crux of how I parent.
I’d also say Janet Lansbury, who has older children, but who’s aligned with me in terms of her educating approach. She has a podcast and blog that have resonated with so many people. They’re just simple ideas—she hasn’t gotten her master’s in education or anything—but it just goes to show that these ideas on respectful parenting can be accessible to people who aren’t necessarily studying early childhood. She is such a strong advocate for respectful parenting, and I love that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.