(Also known as : Do you actually NEED your (insert tech device here)?)
The answer probably is yes, but not ALL of the time. And certainly not as often as you may think. Unless you are the President of the United States, it probably is okay if your phone goes unanswered for a few hours every day. It probably is okay for you to turn it off, put it aside, and tune in to the real people around you. To have a conversation from start to finish, complete with questions and answers and fragments and tangents. You know what? Your kids, your spouse, your friends – your important people – deserve that.
Phones, tablets, computers, television – all screens. All inanimate objects that are time bandits, and they walk with soft feet so we don't notice their daily raid until we emerge from our screen-enhanced stupor and realize how much time flew away. Not just time, though, but people, too. Where did the people go? Where did the important things go? Because when screens are on, everything else fades into the background. And sometimes, the important people get tired of waiting for their fair share of attention.
I am not so much anti-screen, as I am pro-connection, and even a couple of hours a day on screens severely eats into the time kids need to create these necessary connections in their lives. Not just kids. Big people, too, need to work to foster the connections that help keep them grounded and supported and real. The connections to the people who will be there when they need a helping hand, or an ear. Connections are important, friends, because without them, we fall into a silent, lonely stupor. Sure, a lonely person can still be a productive one, but for what purpose? That one is not happy, not satisfied, not connected. Connections are where we grow and develop; there are many different kinds that we as parents should help foster for our kids.
The first is their relationship to nature, the outdoors. This means allowing a child the time to poke around the yard, the park or the fields and get lost in the simple wonder of it all. Taking a walk with a younger child can either be an exercise in patience as your little one stops to examine every root, rock and mud puddle, or it can be a reminder for you to slow down and notice these same amazing things. As we grow up, we grow away from seeing the beauty that is all around us, in forms such as the first morning rays from the sun hitting the tree in the yard, or the birds hopping around looking for a spare bug or two. Do you see these gestures of nature? Or are you too busy? Watch your child if you need a lesson or two to remember all the amazing things that go on around you.
Another connection is with friends and in play. This is part of helping a child to connect with those he meets outside of the home, and helps to develop his independent persona. Your child is an amazing person; they connect with people in a way that you should appreciate. This is part of the reason I dearly love to take part in school trips. As a chaperon, I get to see the ‘school’ side of my kids that in many ways is so different than the person they are at home. They have their own mind, and troop of friends, and ability to influence or interact with their friends. Best of all, I learn things about my kids when I see them with their friends. I see how much of what I give them that they apply with others, or reform as their own.
A third vital connection is to family and home life. This is where the child we nourish considers ‘home’ to be a safe and nurturing place, where they know they are cherished, and secure. Out in the world, they fight the good fight, they grow and they learn; inside? They can relax and know they can drop their guard and let things just be because they are forever safe, and family is surrounding them so they are loved and certain. Safe.
A fourth connection is to one's self and the values each of us chooses to guide our lives. This is our slowly emerging sense of inner true north rather than the magnetic north of pop culture and what market driven forces tell a kid they must have in order to be somebody and be accepted. The harder the sell, the more important it is that they know what is true and real and important. What are their values? They need to know, or they will be tempted to turn to something shiny, flashing and new.
There are other connections that are of importance, sure, but one thing know for sure: screens are connection-killers. The time you are giving to your screens is like time you’ve dropped or thrown away. Sort of like the difference between owning and leasing a car: one you are investing in something that you will have as your own afterwars. The other? Time invested in something that is simply gone at the end of the allotted period. Are all screens bad? No. In a way, they are the key to staying connected. So much depends, though, on how we let our screens define our time. How much importance do you give to your phone? Your video games? Your computer programs? How much time do you devote to the people physically around you?
One could argue that devices keep us connected. And sure, they do, especially for those of us who live far from our families. We rely on Facebook, email and iMessage to keep in touch with those we love and hold dear. But apps, my friends, are designed to grab your attention and keep it … and they are very effective at this. They aren’t going to nag at you, or talk back to you, or be angry about doing homework or eating their broccoli or ask you to do the dishes. These apps, these screens, are going to give you simplified positive feedback and reassurements that make your brain (or at least the primitive part of it) happy.
And just as they make you – a big person who should know better – happy, they will do the same for your kids. Your kids are in their formative years, developing their own habits and abilities. And they mimic your actions. They are walking around with ear buds in 24/7, and talking in SMS-speak, and thinking in sound-bites and twitter fragments. Life exists because it is noted on Facebook. Their connections are defined by how many likes they get, and they can tell you exactly how many friends it says so on their profile page.
Is that real? I’ll tell you what’s real, my friends. People are. Friends, family and the grass and trees and the breeze that blows the dandelion puffs. The book you hold in your hand to read the bedtime story. The chatter from the back of the car during carpool. The silly songs the kids make up and the light sabre battle in the front yard in dimming light of early evening. That’s all real. And to enjoy it, you have to put the phone down.