You may have seen the commercial on TV. A dad comes home, weary after a hard day of work. He goes from room to room to check in on various members of the family. One kid is plugged into his music. A couple more are playing a video game. His wife is on the computer. No one says hello. So he goes into the basement and throws the switch to cut off the power in the house. Black out. Shift scenes. He’s grilling hotdogs and the whole family is having fun around the picnic table in the yard. “How come the neighbors’ lights are still on?” asks one observant kid. Dad just shrugs. A voiceover says, “Our hotdogs: A great way to reconnect with your family.” Cut!
Marketing execs are paid big bucks to figure out how to tap into shared human experience that resonates. The ad is a testament to an increasing sense of general longing for connection in the middle of electronic connectivity. Hotdogs with family around a picnic table, talking and laughing together, speaks to the basic human need to gather those we love around us, to share our stories, to be “us” for awhile. “Yeah,” we think to ourselves. “That’s what’s missing. I think I’ll have another hotdog.”
Those of us who are of grandparenting age remember a time when there was one phone in the house that may even have been on a party line. We had to wait in line, not only behind our siblings and parents but also behind the chatty neighbor who was constantly on the phone. Fast-forward only 50 years and every family member has his or her own phone. Parents remember when TV shows happened at a particular time on a particular day. If you wanted to see the current episode of your favorite sitcom, you had to hope that the rest of the family agreed. Fast-forward only 25 years and each member of the family can access any show at any time on their individual computer.
Grandparents and parents developed skills in negotiation and compromise because they had to share. They have memories of the feelings of warmth and togetherness that come with shared experience because it was a natural part of daily life. Those memories are a touchstone for what “family” means. Will this next generation even get it?
Not if we don’t start cutting off the power.
This is not to malign the use of electronics. Indeed, I’m using a computer now to write this story. It’s to affirm that “everything,” in the words of my wise grandmother, “has its place.” One of the great challenges faced by parents today is figuring out how to balance what the newest and latest technology can do for us as individuals with what is needed by the family. Parents who still have memories of the family intimacy that came naturally with having to manage daily life are now charged with creating opportunities for that same shared experience. It’s not a small thing.
Let’s face it. We’re all too busy. Many of us are tired and stressed. It’s just plain easier to let everyone go off into their own corners after supper. Everyone seems happy enough to be texting, Facebooking, playing video games, or watching on-demand TV. We like to get lost in our email and social media as much as the next guy. Oops! It’s suddenly 8:00 or 9:00 and time to get everyone off to bed. Where did the evening go? The result of this slide into the media zone is that the average American child spends only three to five minutes per day in meaningful conversation with a parent! Surely we can do better than that.
How to reconnect (with or without hotdogs):
- Have dinner together as many nights a week as you can – with no devices allowed during dinner time for kids or for adults. That means no TV, no cell phone calls, no texting. Study after study affirms that kids who share mealtimes with their parents feel more connected with family members, have stronger self-esteem, do better in school, have fewer behavior problems and generally do better in life. Parents benefit too. Conversation, jokes, and sharing is what having a family is all about. Without it, family life can just feel like work.
- Limit the use of electronics during certain times of the day or week. One family I know declares Friday night as an electronics Sabbath. Instead of using devices, they get out the board games, go for a hike, throw a Frisbee around or bake cookies. It’s not about religion, they say. It’s a word that connotes the sacredness of family time.
- Use media together. Playing video games with the kids, researching information together, and or making a family call to relatives on Skype are only a few ways that parents can share experiences using electronics and model appropriate use of technology.
- Limit your own time on devices when kids are awake and around. Engage with the children, not the Web. We parents can have the illusion of being home and available when we’re really not – either really home or really available – if we’re caught up in social media or paying the bills online. Our kids need both our physical and our emotional presence. They need play times, story times, homework supervision time, and just plain hanging out with the folks time.
- Get off the couch. Texting and emailing are making couch potatoes out of parents as well as the kids. Yes, we’re tired at the end of the day. But the fact is that if we just make ourselves get up and get going after dinner, usually a second wind kicks in. Get off the couch and get the kids moving too. Fight childhood obesity with a dose of fun. Keep yourself from becoming a candidate for The Biggest Loser while you’re at it.
Family intimacy and warmth comes from really knowing and understanding each other. We need it. Our kids need it. But it can only happen when family members have regular time interacting with each other. Making sure that it happens is a new responsibility for parents and one that we have to take very seriously.
Dr. Marie’s book, Tending the Family Heart, is a lighthearted and practical manual for parents that offers lots of practical ways to connect family members with each other. Hotdogs are optional.