Last weekend, I packed up all five of my kids and drove east for 2.5 hours to a ranch owned by some family friends. They invited us to spend the weekend for my son Liam’s 9th birthday.
The kids were eagerly anticipating all the new things they were going to experience, from fishing to four-wheelers. Meanwhile, I was eagerly anticipating the fulfillment of a promise I had made — to turn my phone off and put it in a closet for a whole weekend.
It was almost scary how excited I was about the prospect of unchaining myself from my phone, the tiny workspace I carry in my pocket that clamors for my attention all day and night. It’s been particularly challenging to set boundaries and block time out this summer, since I was juggling the kids being home with some extra work. Predictably, both the kids and the work got short-changed and by the time August rolled around, I was burned out. Even more, I was disappointed. Our summer was chaotic, yet boring — we didn’t go anywhere, didn’t do much at all besides play outside and swim. But the real problem was that my attention was constantly split. I was always trying to work and be with the kids, so I was never 100% with them. Honestly, I felt like I hardly spent any time with them at all. So the prospect of a distraction-free weekend soaking up time with my children was like Christmas.
It was just as magical as Christmas, too. For two blissful days, I had no idea what time it was. I had long conversations with my kids about anything and everything, and interruptions came in the form of adventure — like the 5-lb bass the birthday boy caught — and not distraction. On the drive home, my kids started asking about what each one of them were like when I was pregnant with them … a weird subject, I grant you. But for 30 solid minutes they laughed so hard at stories of which one used to jam her foot in my ribcage and which one used my bladder as a punching bag that tears were streaming down their faces.
When we pulled up at home, they all asked if we could do this every weekend. “Guys, we can’t go out to the ranch every weekend,” I started to say. But then my teenage daughter clarified: “Can we do tech-free weekends? Or tech-free Saturdays?”
“YES!” I said, wholeheartedly. I had needed that time to connect with my kids every bit as much as they did, even though I knew the actual execution of tech-free time would be tricky. So I’ve been brainstorming, and I’ve come up with 4 easy and effective ways to keep technology from coming between me and my kids:
1Make an iPhone home
If your iPhone lives in your pocket (or worse, your hand) you need to give it a home. And you can’t just designate any of the many chargers in various rooms the iPhone home–that kind of defeats the purpose. Make a space in one of the central hubs of your house (ours is in the kitchen, natch) and create a place where the phones live. Explain to your kids that this is where phones and iPads live from now on, unless you’re actively using them. No more carrying phones in pockets or in hands — if it isn’t being used right that moment, it has to be in the iPhone home.
I confess that this was 100% a rule to manage my own habits, and that fact was not lost on them. They spent a while eagerly anticipating future moments of telling me to put my iPhone back at home — which brings me to step 2…
2Ask your kids for help
We all need accountability, and there’s no shame in making it a family project. Have a conversation with your kids about what kind of tech boundaries you should set as a family and how to best hold each other accountable in a loving way. If your job is one where after-hours calls or emergencies sometimes happen and tech rules might have to be broken in these situations, explain that to your kids in advance so you don’t get frustrated in the moment. The last thing you want to do is set rules and agree on accountability, only to break them yourself. So be practical, and talk it over with your kids.
Set a time (ideally each day) that all screens get turned off and docked. Again, be practical here — I actually ended up deciding against a daily power-down time, since I know that on certain weeknights I absolutely have to use my phone to finish work for the next morning after the kids go to bed. I didn’t want to set the precedent of using the phone after power-down time, so we decided on a weekend power-down time of 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.
We also added the element of a power-on time in the mornings. I have a bad habit of making breakfast with one hand and answering emails with the other, but those few minutes each morning are sometimes the only ones I get with my kids all day. So we decided to keep all screens powered off until everyone walked out the door for school, protecting that first hour of the morning for family.
4Screen free zones
Make screens off-limits in certain areas of your home. This is crucial — if your iPhone home is, for example, on the dining room table, you can kiss dinnertime conversations goodbye. Ditto for family movie nights, or storytime. Any rooms or spaces that your family regularly uses to spend quality time together should be protected at all costs, and power-down time doesn’t cover it. Set a hard and fast ban on screens in these spaces and come up with a family procedure for enforcing it.
Losing screen privileges for an hour is what we settled on … and I’ll make another confession: I forgot about the rule and broke it on day 1. Guess where my phone and iPad went? Yup. Home. Just like ET. Luckily it wasn’t a work day, but even if it were, I don’t have the kind of job where an hour lag in response time usually makes much of a difference, which is why we settled on that time frame.
Above all, don’t make any of these overly complicated. Keep it simple, keep it practical, keep it attainable, and then agree as a family to stick to this. Most kids will be thrilled, but even resistant teens can be won over if you explain that by setting these limits, you’re saying to each other that your family and your relationships with each other come first. You’re showing your kids that they are precious to you, that time with them is worth protecting and prioritizing regardless of the cost. And as long as you’re practical at the outset, I guarantee that you’ll find the cost is far surpassed by the joy of rediscovering your relationships with your children.
Is getting rid of our kids’ smartphones really the answer?
How our devices are making life less happy