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I made my smartphone less useful, and it made me a better parent


I need a little space from my smartphone.

I love the thing, and it definitely makes the logistics of parenting easier. But more often than not, I find myself staring, scrolling and tapping when I should probably pay attention to what’s happening around me. Sometimes I pick up my phone out of habit, but I also reach for it when I need a distraction from the annoyance, anxiety or boredom of parenting. I enjoy the ability to escape, but the ever-present option makes it harder for me to stay present with, and connected to, my kids. And the more time I spend on my phone, the more I’m modeling the very habit I don’t want my girls to develop when they get their first distraction devices in a few years.

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Easy enough, right? Just don’t look at the phone. But that hasn’t worked out so well. It is always with me, so relying on sheer willpower is about as effective as sending an alcoholic into a bar and telling them not to drink. My GPS, podcast and calendar apps are so useful that I’m not willing to switch back to a less plugged-in option. But I have found that making my current one less appealing makes it easier for me to not pick it up in the first place, or to spend less time on it when I do succumb.

Here’s how I’ve made my phone less useful, and in turn, redirected my attention where it needs to be.

Turn off the notifications. My phone doesn’t ding, buzz or light up for anything other than a phone call or text message. I don’t need my attention to be yanked over to it every time an email, Facebook message, or news headline comes in.

Use the “Do Not Disturb” and “Sleep” modes liberally. I turn this feature on when I’m at work or with my daughters, so only the most important calls (from my parents, husband, or the girls’ school) come through. I also set my phone to automatically go into Sleep mode every night from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

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Delete the most addictive apps. Be honest with yourself. What are the apps that really draw you in, unnecessarily? For me, it was Facebook and my favorite crossword puzzles. I can still access them through the Web browser, but it’s a lot less convenient and I’m much less likely to get sucked in. Keep only the apps you need.

Pretend your smartphone is an old-fashioned phone when you’re home. When we were kids, if the phone rang, we stopped what we were doing and walked over to answer it. We didn’t walk around the house with the phone in our hand, trying to do three other things while having a conversation. Leave your smartphone where you might have put a wired phone, and only head over to it when you need it for a call or text.

Have something else to stare at or flip through. Your kids don’t always need your attention, and getting a little space when you can will help you be more present when they do need you. Smartphones grab our attention with a ferocity that just doesn’t happen with distractions such as books, magazines, knitting, or in my husband’s case, the ukulele. You’ll find it easier to come back to the present moment if you’ve been enjoying something less addictive than a constantly updating screen.

Don’t take your phone to bed. Not only will the bright screen make it harder for you to fall and stay asleep, but having it with you at night will only tempt you, and reinforce the very habit you’re trying to break.

Putting down the phone is hard. Fortunately, the moment you realize you’re staring at it again is the moment you can make the choice to put it down again. The more you get some space from your phone, the more you’ll be able to stay present for your kids when you want — and need — to be.

Carla Naumburg, PhD, is a parent coach and the author of two books on parenting. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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