Recently, while waiting for a traffic light to turn green, I glanced over at the car next to me and noticed an incredibly sad scene. A mom was driving with three kids. It had the potential to be a great family outing, except for one thing. Each person in the van was engaged in his or her own electronic activity, except the youngest, who was glued to something on the ceiling. Only after the light turned green did I see that he too was into his own electronics; He was focused on his own DVD screen.
Mom on her phone; teen texting on her phone. One child with ear phones listening to something and the youngest glued to a DVD. This was a family so close to each other in proximity yet miles apart in relationship building.
As I pulled away I was reminded of a Father’s Day television interview my son and I did together years ago. The talk show host asked Robey what he thought made us so close as father and son. One of his answers surprised me.
Robey began, “One of the reasons my whole family is close is probably because we have spent so much time in the car together. We lived forty-five minutes from school and we talked all the way to and from school each day. We never even car-pooled like other parents. It was just us.”
When Robey and I walked out of that interview I asked him about his comment. He never seemed to enjoy those conversations in the car. In fact, I remember him looking totally bored or asleep. Now years after those drives to school, he was talking like they were life changing.
“Sometimes I did sleep,” he said, “but sometimes I just shut my eyes so I didn’t have to talk. I sometimes wondered why we didn’t carpool like other kids, but after a while I was glad it was just us. It was just our family time where I could talk or just listen. I needed those times, especially in middle school.”
Years after those drives to school I was getting a little affirmation for fighting the battle to keep interruptions out of our family time together. Back then I wondered if it was a total waste of time when we decided to turn off everything and talk as we drove to school.
But there was more than this affirmation a few years later. There’s also information. A recent study from the University of Michigan found that people actually learn better after periods of being cut off from outside interruption. Staying in constant contact even while standing in lines or riding on busses could hamper a person’s ability to process information and new ideas.
Our children need time unplugged in order to learn to think. They also need this time so that they can actually plug into family relationships rather than developing the habit of being distracted from these much need relationships.
In order to turn your family time on you’ve got to turn the distractions off … even the good ones … even the ones that have become habitual parts of your personal lifestyle. For some reason we have taught our children that it’s a good thing to be constantly available or entertained. Contact with anyone who calls, texts or tweets, is a diversion from what our children really need – a relationship with family members.
As leaders we need to become intentional about the way we use our precious minutes when family members are together. Time spent in the same room or car doesn’t necessarily mean time spent together unless the leader gets intentional about it.
There are things busy people have to do such as driving to different venues. But there are things we don’t have to do such as allow interrupts to distract us from becoming the family we all want to be.
Years ago I was meeting with a family in my office. I had forgotten to turn my phone off and it rang. I immediately turned it off and apologized to the family, stating, “I’m very sorry I let this interrupt our time together.” Should I do any less for my own family?
Dr. Bob Barnes is the president of Sheridan House Family Ministries. He and his wife, Rosemary, are authors and speakers on marriage and family issues.