Unplugging: People First, Things Second

Parenting consciously and making decisions that mirror your heart and innermost values take guts, no matter what the issue is. They require an unwavering commitment to your family’s well-being, in both the short and long term, as well as weathering the disapproval of your children. As we know, it’s harder to say no than to say yes — particularly when that no goes against the norm of our culture. Your kids are not likely to celebrate the establishment of media guidelines, and you may find any rules difficult to follow as well. When we’re overworked and exhausted, the electronic babysitter is easy to turn to and always available. Yet as we’ve seen, this seemingly harmless choice can develop into a negative habit that can create an ocean of disconnection, frazzled nerves and minds, and an ongoing barrier to true intimacy.

So begin with baby steps. Invite in self-compassion. Cultivate a sense of curiosity: What would happen if I became less plugged in? How can I model this for my kids? What are some half measures and partial steps I could try? What fun things could I replace screen time with? When are the most important times when I want my family unplugged (for example, during dinner or on Sundays)?

Sit down with your partner, or with your entire family, including the kids, and discuss everyone’s priorities and values — what is most important for your family? What is essential for each individual and for the entire family’s emotional well-being? Make a list; this may include unscheduled time, physical activity, playing in nature, eating dinner together, not feeling rushed, making time for creative or free play, and so on.

Then, take a look at your schedule. How are you using your waking hours? Outside of work and school, how many “free” hours does each person have, and how much time does the family have together? For most families, this may amount to only three to four hours of free time together a day. Many families find that once they’ve identified and scheduled what’s really important to them, there’s not much time left for TV, Internet surfing, and video games.

Here are some of the ways families are taming the technology dragon. Perhaps one of these ideas will resonate as you develop media guidelines for your family. Give yourself the freedom to experiment, discarding what doesn’t work and keeping what does:

  • If you watch TV every night, try giving it up for one night a week. Then progressively add more TV-free nights each week (until you reach three or four), and instead enjoy music, reading, time outdoors, or playing games on those evenings.
  • If your habit is to often or always have the TV on as background noise, replace this with a classical music station. (My family finds this to be really calming in the morning and at dinnertime.)
  • Some families allow their kids to have screen time only on the weekends — establish a total number of hours (say, two to five) that your kids can spend however they like from Friday to Sunday.
  • Ditch the cable and only use the TV for watching family-friendly movies, either through a subscription service or by checking DVDs out of the library. Then, make a regular occasion of “family movie night” — reserve one night of the week for watching a movie you can all talk about afterward.
  • Allow for one hour of educationally oriented screen time a day, and schedule this time for when Mom and Dad need it the most, such as while cooking dinner, replying to emails, and so on.
  • Maintain a land line and answering machine at home. This way you can screen phone calls without interrupting precious family time.
  • Insist that all cell phones and electronics be turned off during meals and whenever the family is enjoying time together.
  • For the parents: abstain from getting online before work in the morning or after work in the evenings. These are natural family-gathering and transition times each day, so make your priority being present for your kids and for each other as a couple. Talk, connect, and share the day’s events.
  • Consider making electronics off-limits during everyday car rides around town. Let your child sit quietly and “get bored” looking out the window, or use travel time as an ideal moment for talking about school, friends, and what’s going on in your child’s life.
  • Avoid temptation by not getting a smart phone. These gadgets are a slippery slope, and how much do you really need all that they do? Instead, get a regular, basic cell phone with texting (you’d be surprised how many are choosing this!).
  • Move the TV from the family room, or the center of your house, to an upstairs guest room. It’s interesting to see how viewing habits change, and usually lessen, when the TV is in an out-of-the-way spot.
  • Make one weekend day entirely, 100 percent unplugged, with no media and no phone calls at all until a certain hour in the evening. Reserve this day for 100 percent family time, and make it fun: go hiking or to museums, make fancy all-day meals, visit friends or relatives, or go swimming. Initially, long stretches of unstructured time may seem hard to fill, but propose this as an experiment and give your family’s collective creativity a chance. Your older kids might continue to complain, but I bet they will secretly like it!

As parents, we need to change our own mindsets and behaviors and really take charge of the technologies in our homes. It’s like eating. You need a balanced diet. You don’t want to raise your kids on junk food, and you don’t want their whole worlds to revolve around screen time. The earlier you create healthy habits in this arena, the better. I’ve found looking at our media diet and paying close attention to what types of messages, images, and themes we’re consuming can be helpful.

Jana shared, “My kids and I had gotten into a habit — really a slump — of watching the same programs on TV every week. They weren’t great shows; it was just ‘what we did.’ One night we all ended up playing soccer in the backyard instead of being glued to the screen. I was surprised at how much better we all slept that night and how much happier everyone seemed in the morning. It really got me thinking about how I want to change our habits around TV — not only when we watch it, but what we watch.”

Plus, once the complaining dies down and kids accept a new routine, you may be surprised by what you find. My brother, a thirty-seven-year-old technology hound and dad of two, recently discovered his three-year-old son actually loves going to the library — just as much as he used to like playing Angry Birds on dad’s smart phone. Baby steps.

In fact, all the families I’ve known and coached that have made a conscious decision to set up media-use guidelines, instill boundaries, and in general “consume” less media have found this has made a huge impact on their personal well-being and on their family’s sense of peace and harmony.

Excerpted from Nurturing the Soul of Your Family ©2013 Renée Peterson Trudeau. Published with permission of New World Library.

Renée Peterson Trudeau is an internationally recognized transformational coach, speaker, catalyst, founder and president of Career Strategists, and the author of two award-winning books The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate and Re-Balance Your Life and Nurturing the Soul of Your Family: 10 Ways to Reconnect and Find Peace in Everyday Life.

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