Family Time Means Togetherness

Unplug to make the most of together-time opportunities.

by Thomas Litchford, Navy spouse

Is there any more boring phrase in the English language than “quality time”? It’s so steeped in images of agonizing tedium – endless little league doubleheaders, teatime with Dolly and Mr. Bear, Sesame Street on Ice – that it’s almost impossible to say the words with a straight face.

And yet, for military families, quality time is an essential, if elusive, component of a healthy, supportive and nurturing home front. Any time we get to spend with our families in between deployments, training evolutions and inspections is precious time, and we shouldn’t waste it.

The trouble is, our children aren’t toasters, and quality time is not something we can achieve with superior materials and engineering. We need a new definition, and maybe a new label.

Redefining Quality Time
What are we really talking about when we talk about quality time (QT)? At its most basic, QT is simply about spending undistracted time with your family. It doesn’t have to be super-stimulating or creatively productive; you just have to put down the Blackberry, log-off of Facebook and turn off the TV.

In a New York Times article, “The Risks of Parenting While Plugged In,” by Julie Scelfo, Dr. Sherry Turkle is quoted to say, “Over and over, kids raised the same three examples of feeling hurt and not wanting to show it when their mom or dad would be on their devices instead of paying attention to them: at meals, during pickup after either school or an extracurricular activity and during sports events.”

Study after study has shown that multitasking is a myth. The human brain cannot pay attention to two things at the same time. Just as texting while you drive compromises your ability to respond to brake lights, reading status updates makes it hard to respond with anything more than grunts of “uh-huh” and “OK” when your kids are trying to tell you about what Barbie and the Transformers have been up to all afternoon.

A Proposed Name Change
And so I propose we adopt a new term: “unplugged time.” The great thing about unplugged time is that it can happen anywhere: in the kitchen while you’re making dinner, in the car on the way to the hardware store. It doesn’t have to be “special” time – in fact, the more normal the setting, the better. It alleviates the pressure to engage in really meaningful character-building activities

In his essay “The Myth of ‘Quality Time,’ ” family therapist Terry Real writes, “There’s a world of difference between chatting with your kids and making an appointment for ice cream and asking, ‘So … how are you doing?’ That’s not talking to a kid, that’s talking to an adult.”

In other words, resist the urge to schedule your unplugged time on your Outlook calendar and send e-mail invitations and detailed agendas to your spouse and children. Undistracted, meaningful family time is not something you can schedule into your busy life. It has to become a habit. Then it will just happen by accident, and when somebody asks what you have planned for the weekend, you’ll never again have to wince and utter the words, “I have to spend some quality time with the kids.” Instead you can say, “I don’t have any plans. I’m just going to unplug.”

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