You know those point-A-to-point-B drives where you arrive at your destination and realize you were completely zoned out the entire time? We are so plugged in all day, every day, that there isn’t much these days that gets our full attention. Even as I write this, I’m catching up on a podcast while bouncing back and forth between a couple of text chains and making my grocery list. None of these things will get my full attention until I get on a roll writing this blog.
Last weekend, I watched my 9-year-old daughter walk into the kitchen, eyes glued to her iPad, headphones on. Without taking her eyes off the screen for longer than a couple of seconds, she grabbed the supplies for a bowl of cereal and made it, nearly one-handed and on muscle memory. As she stood at the counter to eat, not even bothering to sit down at the table. I made a comment along the lines of, “Why don’t you sit down?” only to realize she couldn’t hear me. So, I had some fun with that, “How about double the allowance this week? … We’re getting you another kitten … Want to go shopping?”
Later that night, my husband and I were discussing our kids and screens and the good old days before the internet (an opening phrase to a dusty story that always elicits eyerolls from our kids). We talked about how we are probably not setting the best example of being present — note he said this as we each had smart phones in hand and the TV on, streaming something mindless that we’ve seen a zillion times. He jokingly said something like: At least our son once had our undivided attention because he was born before we bought our first iPhones. But, as I love to do (only kidding … mostly), I told him he was wrong. I remember getting that first iPhone days before Jack was born. And I was glued to it immediately — social media, photos, email all in-hand without the hassle of walking into the office to use the desktop computer.
Now, I don’t want to mislead anyone. Years ago, that phone got me through more late-night feedings than I can count. It’s the reason I have an obnoxious number of photos of my precious family and all the places we’ve ventured together. It’s the reason I no longer have to print pages of MapQuest to get where I’m going. It’s my tip calculator, my pocket dictionary, and my lifeline to friends that the Marine Corps brings me to and then drags me away from kicking and screaming. It’s how I stay in touch with family because I am the absolute worst at making time for phone calls. It’s essentially how we all do anything anymore.
But I’m not the greatest at turning it off. Maybe it’s the stubborn “I’m a grown-up, I do what I want,” mentality, or maybe I feel the need to make up for lost time, having not acquired this magical distraction until adulthood. No matter the rationale, I know the only way to remedy the constant distraction —whether from this tiny screen or any of the many other things demanding my attention on any given day — is intention. I need to train myself to intentionally set screen-free hours. I need to intentionally put the phone down during meals and conversations, if not for my own mental well-being, then for my kids.
We know they’re always watching. They don’t buy this do as I say, not as I do business. And they don’t have the benefit of knowing firsthand how blissfully simple pre-internet, pre-smart phone times were. So, it’s up to us to model being present. It isn’t going to be an overnight change. It’s going to be tough, and it’s highly likely I’m going to cheat and throw some adult-size temper tantrums. But the end goal is raising kids who know how to interact off of screens, who describe things in ways other than comparing them to materials in Minecraft, and who look up, slow down and just be every once in a while, in a world where multitasking and instant gratification are the new normal.
Here’s what I’m proposing for my own quest to model being present:
- Eyes up when someone is speaking to me, especially my kids and husband. First, I acknowledge that parents get interrupted 7,000 times a day on average. So, my thought is to ask the person seeking my attention if they could wait one second so I can make sure I give them my full attention. And I will attempt to say it in my Mary Poppins voice, not my raspy Batman voice. I will expect the same from the three above-mentioned people.
- No phones at the breakfast or dinner table. This should be easy, right? We mostly do it already anyway for dinner, but it’s the kids on the weekends with their screens eating breakfast alone that has got to go.
- One screen at a time. This one might crush me. I get so bored watching TV and movies, that I just need something else to busy my hands. It might be time to get back into crochet or something that doesn’t lead to doomscrolling and me just leaning over and showing my husband reels every 30 seconds.
- Do not disturb hours. To be fair we already do this, but after the weight of number three, I need a win. Our kids’ iPads turn off at 8 p.m., and they must dock them on the charger in my office. My husband and I have “do not disturb” hours programed on our phones, which helps with texts and calls. But admittedly, we both need to be better at taking the hint and putting the phones down at bedtime to sleep — not so much for being present in the moment, but to have enough sleep to be present the next day.
- Experience more, post less. Again, a little cheat, I already do this for the most part, on the daily, but it’s when we’re experiencing something new and amazing when I just have to have the perfect instant shot. Pictures can still happen, but they shouldn’t trump the experience.
- Keep work separate. I know, COVID generation, but for the most part, work is no longer tightly woven into home life, even for teleworkers. But, keeping work out of home life and home out of work life (as much as possible — because, you know, life) is worth the effort. My kids should never think that work comes before them, so the goal is to prove that every day with my actions.
- Active listening. If I’m going to keep my kids’ attention longer than a screen, I’m going to need to engage. Screens aside, actively listening, asking questions, and reacting to what they tell me is also an important part of being present.
Am I going to achieve these every day? Probably not — in fact, I find myself more distracted than ever as we near this PCS, sell one house, buy another, research schools, and maintain regular life (work, cleaning house, making dinner, etc.). But another important lesson I want my kids to see is that not everything comes easily. Intention has to be there. We have to discipline ourselves sometimes — yes kids, even grownups need discipline.