Tech-Free Time

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by Jill Spivack, LCSW

As I reflect back on the last 14 years since I had my first child, I love to reminisce most about the early days of raising my kids.  These were special times I can still remember as if it were yesterday, from feeding the ducks at the local pond with my son to cuddling up and reading a book with my daughter in her room, having time stand still with no distraction at all except maybe the birds chirping outside her window.  Best times of my life.

Flash forward to current times.  I am back at work running moms groups and working in my private practice.  My kids are now 12 and 14 years old and in middle school.  Since the time I was a new mother, technology use has taken off like wildfire.  As opposed to the pager option I had, we now have email, texting, laptops, cell phones, earpieces, Bluetooth and other stuff I’m probably not even aware of.  This multitude of tech stuff is always at our disposal no matter what time it is, where we are, whom we’re with and what we’re doing.  And boy, are these gadgets addictive!  It’s hard to have a full conversation or run to the bathroom without feeling that pull to check email, just one more time.

When I look back at the early days of my motherhood, I realize I was given the unexpected gift of being present with my young children. My tech-free life allowed me magical moments I’ll savor forever.

But, I wonder how that is for young parents today.  With the expectation that everyone will be available at a moment’s notice, how do young moms create space with their babies or young children to be present and live in the moment?  How do they stroll through a beautiful park or feed the ducks at the pond with their children without their email alert buzzing or their phone ringing?  How does it feel for the child who is trying to point out the green duck to mom to be asked to wait “just one more minute” so mommy can finish her text or call?  How do children feel when their father is on his cell phone at the soccer game?  Do they feel valued?  Are they disappointed?  Based on the research I’ve been looking at, the answer is yes.  Knowing that young children need a language-rich environment to thrive, how are our kids being affected by all of this?  Have we gotten to the point where kids have to compete with technology as if it’s another sibling?  Technology rivalry?  I swear, this stuff is so addictive, there is going to be a need for technology rehab!

It’s so hard to disengage from it all.  Especially when parents are trying to keep their adult brain stimulated and/or professional work flowing smoothly. Yet, as a generation who is coping with this stuff for the first time ever, we MUST do this.  If we as a generation of parents aren’t careful with our technology absorption, we may really regret our choices later in life.  And our kids feel it too.  Many of us know the feeling of talking to our husbands while they’re simultaneously checking an email.  We don’t feel very valued and aren’t even sure we are heard when someone is immersed in technology. Yet, it is so easy to do that with our kids during the course of a long day.

Knowing that gadgets are here to stay (and that’s OK!), here are a few ideas of how to get this a bit more under control so we can save our family lives.

  • First, raise your consciousness around the need to connect with your family on a quality level.  In addition to making your own commitment to doing so, talk very seriously to your spouse about the importance of being present with your kids and one another at least some of the time.
  • Enforce “No Tech” times in your family.  OK to use this stuff some of the time for sure, but during family meals, when driving to school, during your child’s bedtime routine, or when you come home for work and before the kids go to bed, turn the phone off and let your voicemail pick up your house phone.
  • Be a positive role model with technology: tell kids why you don’t use the phone/tv/computer at dinner by explaining, “Family time is really important and I want to hear everything you’re saying.  People who are calling us (or texting me) can wait. Our time together is the most important thing right now.”  Children will feel valued and connected to their family which is shown to decrease the likelihood of future problems with depression, anxiety, drug use, teen pregnancy and the like.  In addition, they will use this as a model for their own lives moving forward in social or familial relationships.
  • Protect yourself from people who aren’t yet conscious of these values!  Put a message on your outgoing email response saying “I don’t check my phone between the hours of 5 and 8 pm as I am with my children but will respond within 24 hours” or let important clients and colleagues know when you can and cannot talk.  It’s surprising how, once you set boundaries, people can live with those boundaries with NO problem!

Clearly, there will be times when we as parents need to be distracted or otherwise disengaged from our children. It’s actually good for children NOT to have our attention at every waking moment.  Down time encourages self-sufficiency, frustration tolerance and patience.  However, if we expect that from our children ALL of the time – where even though we are “with them” we aren’t really mentally “with them” – they lack the kind of engaged parenting that helps them to feel important and truly connected to us.  They begin to act out as a result of feeling unimportant.  And for us as parents, if we don’t stay in the moment some of the time, we may look back when our children fly the nest and wonder if maybe we should have taken it all in before it was too late.

Jill Spivack is a psychotherapist with a specialty in pediatric sleep disorders and parenting. Currently a co-owner of Sleepy Planet, Jill provides sleep consultations, leads groups for first and second-time mothers and lectures on sleep and other parenting topics.  Jill is also a contributor to She is the mother of two children.

The Mother Company aims to support parents and their children, providing thought-provoking web content and products based in social and emotional learning for children ages 3-6. Check out the first episode of our DVD series,“Ruby’s Studio: The Feelings Show”, which teaches kids about how to express their feelings. We want to be a parenting tool for you!

Posted in: Expert Advice, Learn, Modern Parenting

Comments (7)

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  6. Dalene

    My son is also 14, so I too experienced a basically tech-free time when he was young. I remember the fun times when we would go off in the stroller for long walks and I would point things out to him and we would “talk.” I see a lot of young mothers and nannies these days who are either on their phones or texting instead of interacting with the child. I think it’s sad that they are missing the opportunity to engage with the child, as well as teach. I wonder what studies in the future will tell us about those children and their cognitive abilities. I can’t help but think that seeing the adults around them buried in gadgets from day 1 will have some detrimental effect.

  7. janetlansbury

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I completely agree and identify with it so much. I was alerted to it on Twitter by my friend and associate Lisa Sunbury and, coincidentally, your name happened to come up in my RIE parent/infant class today(!) when a mom named Dawnia recommended you as a sleep specialist.

    My children are 18, 14 and 9, and I am fairly new to blogging and was previously very “low-tech”. (I write about Magda Gerber and the RIE philosphy.) My family and I agree that I shouldn’t have a Blackberry or Smartphone because the temptation to check in and get sucked in, as I do sometimes at my home computer, would be too great. I’m finding it hard to create boundaries, even though I am very aware that my children still need my undivided attention periodically as they did when they were infants and toddlers.

    You’re probably read the recent study (reported in the New York Times) of 300 children who complained about their parents using technology while watching them play sports, during mealtimes and in the car after school pick-ups. This is an inconvenient, but very real problem, and I truly believe it effects OUR quality of life, not just our children’s.