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Connecting with Your Kids Offline

Time to Unplug?

For my parents' generation, the enemies that were rotting our brains and transforming us into gibbering simpletons were telephones and television.

Today, it's iPhones and Facebook. But we all know that for every study that claims technology is shredding the social fabric, there's another that says tech tools enhance our ability to make and maintain connections.

This is definitely the case for our family. Thanks to high-speed Internet access, my wife and I were able to move 3,000 miles from our big-city jobs to a small town where we could spend more quality time with our kids and far fewer hours at the office. Technology is what allows my wife to work from home as a freelance writer (including as a tech columnist for Family Circle) while making sure our sixth grader puts down the cell phone long enough to finish her homework. And if on some days we text or Skype each other more than we talk, at least we are exchanging ideas—and generally staying on the same wavelength.

The fact is, tech both isolates and connects modern families. It can give the false illusion of friendship, but it also provides access to social circles far beyond the confines of our schools, churches, offices and neighborhoods.

As parents, we know there need to be limits. And it's up to us to enforce them. Which is why in a few weeks our family will hike to the top of a 6,600 foot peak in the Great Smoky Mountains. We'll be staying at a lodge where there is no cell phone reception, no Internet, not even electricity. For three days we'll have just trees, air, kerosene lamps and food brought up the mountain on the backs of llamas. It will be the longest we all have been unplugged since, well, possibly ever.

Will we survive? It's unclear. But if we do, we'll be sure to put it all on Facebook.

Four Ways to Keep Tech from Taking Over Family Life

  • Play bad cop. It can be hard to set limits on tech use, especially with tweens and teens who are so savvy about it. But it's necessary: Kids who live in households where parents have established firm limits spend three fewer hours a day glued to a screen, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
  • Designate technology-free zones. Create rooms where everyone has to check their cell phones and computers at the door (parents included), says Vanessa Van Petten of website Radical Parenting. Or institute times when no tech use is allowed, such as Sunday mornings, after 9 p.m. on school nights or during meals.
  • Make your kids see eye-to-eye—literally. When kids are talking to someone, enforce the "eye-color rule," says author Michele Borba. They should be able to identify the eye color of the person with whom they are speaking. This will train them to stop looking at their phones and start focusing on the person in front of them.
  • Do tech together. Take TVs out of kids' bedrooms and instead watch in the living room as a family (assuming you can all agree on a show). If your kids have a Facebook account, you should get one too—and ask them to accept you as a friend. Are they texting every waking hour of the day? Let them know you can text too, even if your thumbs aren't quite as nimble.

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.