by December 6, 2012 • 4:52 pm
This weekend we brought home a gorgeous new 23” touchscreen desktop computer. We dropped everything to unbox and set up this beauty, but ever since, the kids have been drawn to it like moths to the flame. Its enormous, shiny surface gleams in a much-trafficked area of our house, beckoning them each time they pass.
Our 6-year-old can’t resist pulling up the weather (every time), and our 9-year-old is seriously addicted to the paint program. We haven’t even had this computer 48 hours, and my husband and I have already had more than one discussion argument with them about how they use it too much. We’ve threatened to unplug it, move it or even (gasp!) return it.
This new “toy” has become a point of contention. And not just between us and the kids—I want to play with it, too. But I don’t want to be hypocritical. I can’t tell the kids they’ve had enough screen time, then jump on, myself, every chance I get.
Which got me thinking about how and when we all tend to introduce new technology into our families, especially since many people’s wish lists are topped by “gadgets.” While that moment of glee when your kid unwraps the smartphone they’ve wanted is thrilling, by the time everyone’s back at work and school, you may find you’ve spent an awful lot of time staring at the top of their head. Or at their slammed bedroom door, after you put your foot down about one too many games of Angry Birds.
Anything new is extra-fun, but there’s something about smartphones, tablets, “tech” stuff that might just be a little too compelling. And maybe not quite the right thing to give to children in the context of gifts and “toys.” Because these devices aren’t toys. Sure, they’re entertaining (I can’t wait for the kids’ bedtime, so I can explore our new desktop’s bells and whistles), but first and foremost, they’re tools—powerful ones. They let us do things we wouldn’t have dreamed of a decade ago. They also distract us from almost everything else we hold dear—particularly each other.
So part of setting a good example, for me, will be picking the right time and place to bring home a “new, shiny thing.” And while that doesn’t have to mean no one will ever find an iPhone under the tree, it does mean that we need to prepare ourselves for gadgets’ effect on our family dynamic. Instead of being surprised by resistance, we can be ready for it. With a little thought—and ground rules—our devices can give us new ways to connect. For instance, if you do give your teen a smartphone, install Words with Friends ahead of time, then challenge her to a match as soon as she signs in. Or download multi-player games to your grade-schooler’s new tablet, so you can all enjoy it.
Above all, though, the key for me to living with devices is deciding—consistently—when to turn them off. As a work-at-home mom who’s structured my career around my kids, I consciously disconnect, every day, from the time I get them from school until they’re in bed. No answering calls or texts. No “quick” finishing touches on client projects. No email. Work—and play—has to wait when I’m with my kids, or else I’m not the mom I want to be.
And it matters. I have to believe that not only do my kids notice that I’m concentrating on them and not on my computer or phone, but also that as they mature, they’ll do the same for their friends and future families. And all because they’ve learned from me that they’re in control of their technology—not the other way around. In the short term, I’d like to think that they’ll return the favor once the novelty of our new computer wears off!
Only time will tell …