I recently made a shocking discovery about myself: almost every single moment I spend “playing” with my son T. rex, my phone is in my hand or within arm’s reach. As most of you know, T. rex has been a screen-free baby since he was born (and will remain so until he’s at least three years of age), and while the use of technology is one of the parenting points I’m most passionate about, I realised that I had failed to turn the same lens of scrutiny onto myself.
One of the first few things babies reach out to grab are our phones, because they seem like such captivating objects. The amount of attention we give our devices – whether it’s answering WhatsApp messages or checking Instagram – around our children, demonstrates to them how they should relate to technology. So I asked myself, “If I truly want my son to have a healthy relationship with technology in the future, shouldn’t that start with me?” If I’m always on the phone, it’s very likely he will grow up thinking that staying connected on a smartphone is something seriously important in life – not exactly on my list of things I want to impart to my kids. And as someone who believes in protecting my family from the harmful effects of technology, I knew I had to change my own behaviour first.
The book that finally convinced me to put my phone away was The Big Disconnect by Catherine Steiner-Adair EdD. Her research really made me look closely at my own relationship with technology, and the way in which being constantly online was affecting my real life connection to my child. I kept track of how often my husband was on his phone around our son (and gave him an earful about it every time), because I wanted to observe how pervasive our behaviour really was.
Rachel Macy Stafford, author of Hands Free Mama: A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters, advises to try going one day a week with no technology, and get your husband to cut down too. So I decided to give it a shot without my phone for one day. I changed my chat status to “Only able to answer messages after 7pm,” and left my home phone number for emergencies). I didn’t expect how hard it was going to be at first (a sign of how serious the problem/addiction was); and then the most miraculous thing happened: I became truly present.
My mind cleared from all the emails, group chats, and clutter that normally comes in on my phone – and I could focus completely on whatever I was doing with T. rex. Simple things like blowing bubbles outside, feeding him lunch, or just going for a walk, felt like totally different experiences without my phone. I think we’ve all felt the same disconnect; when someone we are trying to have a conversation keeps getting distracted by their phone; it’s the same in a parent and child relationship. Without the disconnect, I noticed only what was happening right in front of me… and it was amazing.
After that breakthrough, I was fully converted. I’ve now adopted new habits, such as only answering all my emails and messages at night, once T. rex is asleep, and leaving my phone out of reach as much as possible during the day. Best of all, the need to churn out instant replies to all the people I’m constantly connected to – has all but disappeared. Of course I’m still social online, posting photos from our day and conversing with friends through chat; I’m just more mindful about it.
I recommend fasting from technology for just one day, if only to free your mind from all the useless distractions of the digital world, and gain a fresh perspective on your life and the people in it. On top of all the benefits being screen-free will give you as a parent, your baby is the one who will reap the most positive results from all your time off-line, without technology getting in the way of your quality time together.
I’ve come to the conclusion that being on the phone is like not being there at all, and as I move into the New Year, the first habit I’m hoping to spread and share with others is the simple act of putting your phone away. Because it’s more than just about modeling how to have a healthy relationship with technology to your child; it’s about being a parent who’s truly connected and present for all the moments that really matter.
Michelle Lim-Chua is a banana born in New York City, who fell in love with a boy from Melaka and became a mama of one.
Image Credits: Getty Images & Allie Arnold Illustrations