Brad was home one evening, watching his kids as they played. It had been a hard day at his job as a human resource officer at his company. He was kicking back on the sofa with his iPad when his two young sons asked if they could play in his home office.
“We want to play Go to Work,” four-year old Jordan explained.
Brad said okay, telling his boys not to mess up his files or play on the computer. Jordan and his younger brother Tyson scampered into the room with the toys they used as office equipment.
As Brad browsed his favorite sites, his sons argued over the details of their “office.”
And then the noise from his office faded, and soon it was quiet. Too quiet.
“Every parent knows too much silence is a bad sign,” Brad says. He got up to investigate.
Jordan and Tyson were both sitting at his desk, their small bodies crammed together in his office chair. Jordon had a book in hand, but he wasn’t reading it. Instead, he was using it like an iPad, his little fingers touching and scrolling on the imaginary screen. Three-year old Tyson was typing on an imaginary laptop.
“It was cute, because that’s exactly what I do at work,” Brad says. “But then it made me a little sad because it’s how they often look when they play, as well. And then I realized: wow, that’s what I look like too when I’m relaxing at home, really.”
Brad wonders if this is such a healthy, thriving example to set for their kids. “It just made me question what kind of future we’re setting up kids for,” he says. “And what kind of example I’m giving my sons as their father.”
Brad remembers when he played at work as a kid. “We did stuff like be firemen, chop wood as farmers,” he says. “Even when we played at office work, we were up and about, having meetings and making fake products to sell. But mostly we played at fixing cars, because that’s what my own dad did for a living.”
Brad imitated his dad in other ways. “When my dad had leisure time, he went boating or played pool or bowled with his friends,” he says. “So that’s what we played at as kids, too. My kids were doing the same thing — imitating dad — but it looked ten times more boring because I was ten times more boring.”
Instead, Jordan and Tyson picked up on Brad’s other habits. Brad noticed how their play time was so electronics-centered. Even their imaginative play — like games of pretending and making up stories — featured tech heavily.
“It wasn’t even like they were playing sci-fi types of stories,” Brad says. “They’d be pretending to visit a city, and if they got lost, they were like, ‘Let’s look it up on Waze!’ And then they would take out their pretend iPhones.”
Even in real life, they were dependent on an app or a phone. “If they didn’t know something, they’d ask someone to look it up on the Internet,” Brad notes. “They didn’t even try to guess or reason out an answer.”
His kids preferred to sprawl on the sofa with a video game instead of playing outside or indulging in games of imagination. Most of their arguments and negotiations were over how much time they got to spend on the iPad. At restaurants they would entertain themselves with their parents’ iPhone.
Of course, many parents worry over the increasing screen time that children indulge in — a study this year discovered that one-in-three babies can swipe and use a touchscreen device even before they can walk, according to CBS News.
Like a lot of parents, Brad knew that increased screen time wasn’t good for his kids. He worries about how electronics will affect his sons’ ability to concentrate, sleep and focus. He also worries about how his kids’ love of games and the iPad makes them sedentary, making them prone to obesity later in life.
What bothered Brad most was the attitude that his kids had towards electronics — “a near obsession,” he says. “There’s more to life than some app on an iPad, right?”
Brad warned his kids about the dangers of too much screentime, and occasionally would lecture them on using the iPad too much. As a punishment, he took away his boys’ electronics — which only made them clamor for them more.
One day, though, his kids decided to talk back. Brad told them at a restaurant that they couldn’t play with his iPhone, and instead had to sit and make conversation. Jordan got upset, and demanded to know why.
“Because it’s rude,” Brad answered.
A few minutes later, the boys seemed settled down by coloring their menus. Relaxing for a moment, Brad took out his iPhone to check his e-mail. Jordan, of course, noticed. “You’re being rude, Daddy,” the boy noted.
At first Brad had a reflexive moment of annoyance — just who was the parent here? But then he realized Jordan was right. He was being rude — and setting a bad example for the son he had just upbraided for wanting to use his iPhone at the table.
“Of course, it’s a ‘duh’ realization, that your behavior influences your child more than your words,” Brad says. “But you realize just how automatic some of your behavior is. It’s so automated you don’t even think about it anymore — but your kids sure notice it.”
Brad realized that he needed more than lip service — he needed to embody the way he wanted his kids to relate to technology and devices. And that meant changing his own habits around electronics.
Brad began with what he thinks of as “basic etiquette,” as he calls it. “Basic manners stuff, like not being on the phone or tablet when you’re together as a family,” he says.
He made sure to point out when he was doing. “I made it a deliberate choice,” he says. “If they were trying to talk to me, I’d make sure to say, ‘Okay, let me put my phone away so I can focus on you.’ I think it made them feel their importance, and also understand my reasoning.”
He next tried to tackle his tendency to take out his iPhone every time he had a problem to solve. This was a harder habit to break, he says.
“You don’t realize just how much you use your phone for everything,” he says. “I’d do everything from take pictures of lists so that I didn’t have to rewrite them, ask Siri for directions or to look up random information, or open up Maps or Waze to get directions.”
On some level, even he balked at trying to change this aspect of his tech usage. “Isn’t that what tech is for?” he says. “To solve problems?”
But there’s a fine line between convenience and dependence, he says. “At some point, you won’t have service or your battery will be low…and then where will you be left?” he points out.
So Brad put away Maps and instead began asking people for directions, for instance. “We took a family trip to Chicago, and while we did a lot of research on places to go, and printed out all the information, we still got lost,” he says. “I was very, very tempted to bust out an app — and occasionally we did — but I still tried to ask people for directions.”
Brad found it embarrassing, but letting go of Maps as a crutch paid off. “We interacted more with our surroundings, and had some nice conversations with people we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Brad said. They learned about quirky museums and shops, as well as off-the-grid restaurants.
“At one point, we were just wandering around in this funky neighborhood, just me and the boys, and we really just explored and wandered,” he says. “That wouldn’ve have happened if we just found where we needed to go with an app.”
His boys got into the spirit of getting lost, he says, and said the whole weekend had been “an adventure,” according to Brad. “They saw talking to people and getting lost occasionally as fun and challenging, and so I took on that attitude as well. I think it made the trip more memorable for them. That’s what it’s all about — creating good memories for your kids.”
And finally, Brad decided to stop working from home so much. Like many other Americans, Brad worked at all hours, checking into e-mail on his phone all the time.
But when Brad actually reflected on this habit, he realized that he wasn’t even more productive at work because of it. “I actually rarely got more done because of answering e-mail at all hours of the day or doing work at home,” he says. “It was more of a psychological crutch, a way to not be surprised when I walked into work the next morning.”
Brad decided to cut it out as much as possible. “I made a few rules for myself: no checking e-mail if I’m with people I know and don’t get an express request to look something up on it by them,” he says. “I gave myself one hour on Sunday evening to work, and developed a system of tasks that were more about setting up my week instead of trying to catch up from the last one.”
In order to train the people he worked with over his new routine, he set up autoresponders saying he would answer e-mails received on the weekend on Monday — and any real emergencies were invited to call him on his cell phone. “Eventually, everyone got the hint,” Brad says.
It wasn’t easy — “I felt kind of like a slacker,” Brad says — but as he relaxed into his new routine, he found himself less stressed and more present. It rubbed off on Jordan and Tyson, who seemed much less “high-strung,” according to Brad. “You realize they take their emotional cues from you. If you’re tense and preoccupied, they’ll be stressed and clingy. But if you’re calm and at ease, they tend to be, as well.”
Overall, Brad says he tried to shift from an attitude where devices were a privilege, not a right, even for him.
“It’s so easy to just mindlessly pick up your phone for everything, whether it’s keeping yourself occupied at the waiting room at the doctor to looking up basic information,” he says. “Yes, sometimes the convenience is needed, but once I slowed down on using the iPhone, I felt more connected to the world and the people in it. It’s healthier for me — and I hope my kids see that and pick up on it when they’re older and starting to use phones and tablets more.”
No one has ever said parenting was an easy job. The idea of caring for and shaping the characters and personalities of the kids growing up in their care is intimidating to many.
But few parents truly understand how much raising children changes them, forcing them to grow and evolve so that they themselves serve as good role models for their sons and daughters.
Brad thought long and hard about what he was modeling for Tyson and Jordan, and decided to change his behavior around electronics in order to show them what a healthy way of using them was.
That said, Brad says thinking more consciously about what he was modeling for his sons made life better for everyone, not just his kids.
After tackling his relationship to technology, he went on to make other changes in his life: he increased healthy life measures like exercise, nutritious eating and better sleep habits, for example. He made it a point to get outside more. He got more involved with his church, and is trying to do more community service with his family.
“As parents, we want the best for our kids,” Brad says. “It’s easy to pay lip service to the values, but it’s much more powerful when you yourself are a living example of your values in action.”
“I want my kids to be conscious and thoughtful, aware of themselves and their power of their actions on others,” he continues. “And so I’ve got to do that myself. You embody the things you champion. That’s what being a good dad means to me.” ♦