Parenting a four year old is all about teaching impulse control.
I am patiently explaining to my son over a board game that he cannot scan all the cards to find the one that allows him to rocket his game piece ahead. This is Candy Land and there are rules here. He needs to draw cards blindly, and in order. He seems to be getting it when my phone buzzes with a text message from a friend, and I immediately pick it up to respond.
Smart phone. Dumb parent. With this much information and distraction at our fingertips, who can resist?
For a long time, Randy and I tried to ignore our phones from 6-8pm on work nights, but we quickly forgot ourselves. First came minor trespasses, like a check of weather or some Pandora on the dock. But as work bled into home life, we found ourselves answering e-mails after dinner or getting a quick RSVP off to a neglected friend.
No, Robin, you cannot get up from the table until you are excused. Now let me check Facebook quickly while you doddle over your broccoli.
In response to a recent and unexpected bout of bad behavior, we took a moment for reflection and revisited our own ground rules, priorities and bad examples. Life steers off the tracks periodically. We use these little bottom-out moments as a chance to reboot our parenting, and occasionally our personhood.
Our new idea this time? Phone Free Sundays. It is our family day after all. Why not strip away the distractions? We may place or receive a call, or even check the weather or hours for the museum or orchard or restaurant we plan to visit together. But otherwise, no texting, no social media, no e-mail, no web surfing.
We feel a little bit Amish at first, and the day stretches out before us with a big sky sort of expansiveness. In practice, there is plenty to fill our time, and not the cleaning and errand running we reserve for Saturdays. There are art projects to conquer and meals to prepare. Plans to hatch and songs to sing. Bubbles to blow and train cars to push. Gardens to weed and trails to hike.
We have never been TV people, but I miss my little screen. It has become a sad sort of default for me. When I want to veg out, it is where I go now, sometimes instead of book. One night, too restless and zonked to read, I find myself watching snippets of Louis CK on youtube. He rants persuasively. You will never watch those videos of the moments you missed with your kids, he tells me. You shoot them to share on Facebook, but you aren’t actually there, living them.
Inspired, I turn off my phone. I actually power off the damn thing. I have the same feeling I got on those first screen-free Sunday evenings, after Robin was in bed and the house was quiet. Like a disembodied soul, unconnected. Randy went digital a couple years ago, so I am unequipped to read his books now, and too busy to get to the library for some paper ones.
Later, as insomnia hits, I resist the temptation to fire up the laptop and scratch the shell of this essay into my journal instead. You know, the paper kind. I think of all the ways my phone has made me dumb and dull. I can’t spell anymore, and my typing has gone to hell; auto correct has made me lazy. I don’t need to remember anything or search my knowledge banks to recall information when I have the worldwide web in my pocket. I am doomed to early onset dementia, preceded—I can only hope—by a good decade or two of bad spelling.
Still I am a lot better off than most. I am young enough to embrace the technology but old enough to have grown up without it. I understand boundaries and don’t hit up Zillow to see what my friends paid for their houses, or interrupt an intimate conversation to fact check on my phone. I have basic competencies that many 20-somethings lack. I can read a map, for instance. And calculate a restaurant tip in my head.
I can listen.
I want to raise Robin with this discipline, with these skills and sensitivities.
So I pledge to never put family life on hold, or even on vibrate. Instagram can wait. The only image I want to see is my son on his balance bike, following my direction to come in for supper, though he really wants to do another lap in the alley.