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Family Talk: Be intentional with communicating, spending time with family

Families can intentionally lay down digital devices and spend time communicating and spending time with each other. [THINKSTOCK PHOTO]

Families can intentionally lay down digital devices and spend time communicating and spending time with each other. [THINKSTOCK PHOTO]

A middle school in upstate New York — land of my birth — had a problem. The dean of Holbrooke Middle School described it like this: “Students don't seem to be making friendships as before. They make acquaintances but their connections seem superficial.”

The dean contacted consultant Sherry Turkle, who discovered the problem was deeper than described.

When Turkle talked to the teachers, she learned it was a struggle to get children to talk to one another in class. They had a hard time talking directly with teachers. They sat in the dining hall and constantly looked at their smartphones and not at one another.

The students had lost practice in what Turkle calls “the empathic arts — learning to make eye contact, to listen, and to attend to others.” Their obsessive reliance on their cellphones made them less connected to, and empathetic with, one another.

What Turkle saw at Holbrooke she also sees in families. Smartphones and computers are causing a disintegration of intimacy, empathy and conversation. This is troublesome in schools, but it is downright dangerous in families.

Turkle has a proposed solution. Each family can create a device-free “sacred space” and choose to cultivate the daily habits of family conversation.

One mom described in Turkle's book, "Reclaiming Conversation," insisted that all family matters had to be discussed in person, face to face. Mom would play board games with the children to prompt conversations over the board game. This mom even did the unthinkable and banned electronics in the bedrooms of everyone (even hers!) Each night, the whole family's phones, tablets and laptops went to a docking station where they charged overnight. The teenage daughter said she was not happy about putting her phone in the dock, but she admired what her mom was doing: Assuring good sleep and good conversation happens.

Cellphones were not prevalent when my children were younger. I didn't struggle with this problem, but I have deep empathy for those parents who do. It's good to know there is help.

Books abound. Titles like "Media Moms & Digital Dads: A Fact-Not-Fear Approach to Parenting in the Digital Age." Or "Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive in Their Digital World." There are even apps that can be installed on your child's phone that help you monitor and restrict. Maybe there should also be an app to control parental overuse of digital devices. In order to have quality family conversations, moms and dads need to control their usage as much as the kids.

I like Turkle's idea about creating a “sacred space.” And I have an idea of my own to add. Be intentional in your efforts to have family, face-to-face conversations. Be intentional about sitting down for family meals. Without phones. Find creative ways to talk, really talk, with your family members. Be intentional about creating real world, not digital world, conversation.

Author John Maxwell says, “Everything worthwhile is uphill. Most people have uphill hopes but have downhill habits. The only way to break downhill habits is to get intentional.” Break the downhill digital habit and be intentional about family conversations.

Jim Priest is CEO of Sunbeam Family Services and can be reached at jpriest@sunbeamfamilyservices.org.

Jim Priest

Jim Priest is the CEO of Sunbeam Family Services, a 108-year-old nonprofit that provides a range of social services to support Oklahoma's most vulnerable people, including early childhood education, counseling, foster care and senior services. Jim... Read more ›

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