Hands Free Kids: Less Device, More Real Life

hands free kids #Handsfreemama

I want my children to spend less time on digital devices.

I want them to see beyond the electronic screen.

I want them know what life feels like in their hands, not through a keyboard.

I want all these things for my children living in a digital age, but there is more …

I want these things to occur not because I took away the device … not because I forced them to go outside … and not because I put restrictions on tech use.

I want my children to seek real life moments and real life connections because they want it for themselves, not because I said so.

Not long ago, I would have thought this notion was ridiculous, unrealistic, and downright impossible. Setting boundaries and physically removing the devices were the only way to control my children’s tech use at one point in time. And although these measures are still needed from time to time, I am seeing hope for a future Hands Free generation.

But I had to let go.

Yes, me. I had to let go.

This Hands Free journey I am on continues to challenge me and stretch me in ways that are not always comfortable or convenient. But further letting go has resulted in a hope for the future that I couldn’t fathom before.

The best way to explain how my letting go has allowed for my children’s letting go is through images and words. What you are about to see may make you feel slightly uncomfortable. Please know that I am right there with you. But as always on this Hands Free journey, it is necessary to look beyond the mess and mayhem to see what really matters.

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What a “Hands Free” Summer Looks Like

Summer vacation is fast approaching here in the U.S. And while my children cannot wait to have some significant time off from school, I’ve been noticing a slight wave of angst growing in the pit of my stomach. As my requests for writing and speaking increase, I find myself wondering how I will accomplish my work while maintaining my commitment to being a present and lovingly connected parent to my children.

Because here’s the thing: When I started writing this blog 18 months ago, I made a promise to myself. I vowed to be the real deal—meaning whether I am being “Hands Free” or writing about being “Hands Free,” I promised to be open, honest, and authentic about my successes and shortcomings on this journey to grasp what really matters.

Simply stated, there is no faking “Hands Free;” there is no half-way “Hands Free.” Either I’m distracted or I’m present. Trying to mentally and emotionally exist in two places at once is like trying to live life with one hand. And I tried that for two long, draining years—it doesn’t work. I have found that I can only grasp what really matters in life with two free hands and one committed heart.

So with that said, I’ve come to a decision about summer. And I share it with you because we all have responsibilities that beg for our time, attention, and energy.

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Give It A Rest

The birthday of the United States (a.k.a. The Fourth of July) is right around the corner.

Americans will spend the day celebrating our independence with fireworks, cookouts, and being with family.

Yet, most of us will still be dependent…and not just a little dependent…very dependent.

I am referring to our dependence on technology, specifically the phone and the Internet.

Being “connected” (via our phone or computer) has become our number one source of stimulation, yet it is also our downtime.

Being “connected” is our work, yet it is also our play.

Being “connected” is how we use time more efficiently, yet it is also how we kill time.

Being “connected” is how we associate, yet it is also how we detach.

Being “connected” is just a way of life…like eating and sleeping; it’s just what we do.

Dependent?

Oh yes, indeed.

Now at this point, some of you are probably thinking, “I know people like that, but that is not me; I don’t have a problem with excessive use of my phone or the Internet.”

I ask that you continue reading, for three reasons:

1) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for awareness.

2) On the Hands Free journey, there is always room for improvement.

3) On the Hands Free journey, you often discover you’ve been missing something.

Which is exactly what happened to me.

Despite the fact that I have spent almost an entire year reducing both external and internal distraction in my life, I was still missing a major piece of the grasping what matters puzzle.

And I didn’t even realize it.

This is my story…

Several weeks ago, my daughter got an aquarium for her eighth birthday. You might remember the post, “Tipping The Scales,” which explained how she chose to forgo gifts and a birthday party to become a full-fledged ichthyologist.

The aquarium was brought home a few days before her birthday and my husband was kind enough to assist her in the complicated set-up process.  Granted, my daughter had done extensive research about the fish themselves, but there were many things she had yet to learn about creating an environment that would keep them alive.

Yes, come to find out, fish are fragile; they die easily…especially in the first initial hours of their new tank.

Are you kidding me? All this trouble, and there’s still a 99% chance they will die.

The young salesman at the fish store was wealth of knowledge, but the more he talked about purifiers, filtration systems, bacteria, residual ozone, ammonia, and waste, the more I dreamed about the simplicity of a cute, cuddly cat.

As you can probably tell by now, I am not really into creatures that do not have fur. If I am going to put forth time, effort, and money into keeping something alive, I want to be able to hold it and cuddle with it. (Call me crazy.)

But my daughter had chosen fish with every ounce of her being. And through every Fish List she created and every fish fact she rattled off, I Saw Promise. I saw her grasping her own Hands Free version of “what really matters,” even though it was not my version of what really matters.

But that did not mean I was going to clean the aquarium.

In fact, I wasn’t really planning on having much to do with the fish at all. That was her dad’s “thing,” so I kindly stepped aside and allowed that “bonding experience” to occur.

So as Brad the Salesman continued to educate and suggest overpriced necessary aquarium supplies to the eager learners, my youngest daughter and I ventured to the other side of the pet store where animals with fur were located.

Three hours later we were home, standing in front of our very own aquarium. The water had been treated and the fish had been freed from their bags. (Don’t freak out, Fish Advocates of the World, this was after the bags had been properly “floated.”)

I really can’t tell you what was happening in the fish tank because my focus was on the faces of my children.

Pure and utter joy…

Delight and amazement…

Wonder and bliss…

Happiness…good old-fashioned happiness…

If grasping what really matters had an expression, I think it might look like this…

I was so grateful that I had not allowed my aversion of slimy, furless creatures to prevent this moment from occurring.

(But I still was not about to change my mind about cleaning the tank.)

Within a few hours of the aquarium coming to life, our leather ottoman had a new location. It was no longer situated in front of the chair with which it matched. It had a new home directly in front of the fish tank, which happened to be in the natural walkway of our family room. (I know because I tripped over it not once, but twice, while walking through late at night and have a large bruise on my shin to prove it.)

When I decided to leave the ottoman in its new location, I had a mini Hands Free celebration in my head. These are the moments when I know I am making progress in my effort to let go of distraction (and perfection) to grasp what really matters.

I refer to these momentous achievements as, “Hands Free Baby Steps.”

In years past, having the ottoman in front of the fish tank would have bugged me. I would have to push it back to its proper place time and time again. Now, it doesn’t bother me at all. OK, maybe a tiny bit. Well, let’s just say, I can live with it. And that’s progress.

But there’s more…

What is even greater progress than allowing the ottoman to remain in front of the fish tank is the fact that I find myself sitting there. A lot.

I find myself sitting there when the children are not even around.

I find myself sitting there when I have many things to do.

I find myself sitting there when I was originally on my way to doing something else.

I find myself JUST sitting there (and not because I am checking to make sure my “furless friends” are still alive, although I do that, too).

Just.Sitting.There.

Although this is my daughter, this is exactly what I look like when I am sitting, just sitting, at the fish tank.

That, my friends, is unusual behavior for me….sitting, that is.

And for the first time in probably several years, I am sitting there thinking about nothing. And when I mean nothing, I mean I am not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, or two hours from now. There is no thought of the past or the future; I am in the NOW.

I am completely lost in the motion of the colorful fish, their tiny tails effortlessly flittering them from one side of the tank to the other.

And as they are suspended in serenity, I watch their little mouths open and their delicate gills flutter. How calming it is to watch fish breathe.

At times, I even find it hard to pull myself away from this captivating presentation of beautiful nothingness.

I felt the need to explain this atypical behavior to myself. I was convinced that I must have just embraced the fish (as much as you can embrace anything without fur, that is).

But then I was enlightened.

Several kind readers of my blog sent me a link to an article on CNN.com entitled, “Does life online give you ‘popcorn brain’?” by Elizabeth Cohen.

I would strongly suggest reading the whole article, but here I will share two lines that were particularly powerful for me:

“The worry is that life online is giving us what researcher, David Levy, calls ‘popcorn brain’ –– a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.”

And then this line, “We can’t just sit quietly and wait for a bus, and that is too bad because our brains need that down time to rest, to process things.”

The article goes on to explain how long-term Internet usage can actual cause physical changes in the stucture of our brain. And not in a good way.

Oh my. Popcorn brain. That term is disturbing to me…but a frighteningly accurate description of my thinking process in my waking hours.

In my spare moments, which are far and few between, I do feel a need to check my phone or the Internet to see what’s been “happening” while I have been away.

And even though I have been putting forth more and more effort to live in the moment and focus the precious people that stand before me, my mind still has the tendency to wander, to be in “planning mode,” even when I am still.

So I ask myself: When DOES my brain have a chance to rest?

I could only think of one place.

When I am sitting in front of the fish tank.

No wonder I keep finding myself there.

After I had a few days to process the “Popcorn Brain” article and consider my severe negligence of resting my brain, I found myself thinking about my dad.

I still have vivid memories from my middle school years of my dad’s after work tradition.

Dad would change out of his office attire, then he would go to the formal sitting room of our house and lie down on the floor in complete silence. (The carpet was actually lime green, which alone is a fact not easily forgotten.)

My dad’s hands would rest upon his chest, yet he would not close his eyes. He would just simply lie there and think.

As an easily annoyed thirteen-year-old, I found his habit odd; I thought it was very weird. It looked like the most boring activity in the whole world. I honestly could not fathom what he could possibly be thinking about, and why he had been doing this for as long as I could remember.

Even now when he comes to visit my family for a weeklong stay, there is always a time period each afternoon where I see him sitting in a comfy chair on my back porch. I assume he is asleep, but he’s not. He is awake. His eyes are blinking. He is watching the trees in the ravine behind my house. He is listening to the birds perched upon the deck. And he has the most content, peaceful smile on his face, just like they did twenty years ago when he stretched himself out on the lime green carpet.

And now I know.

He’s resting his brain.

He’s processing life.

And I am not questioning that behavior anymore. You won’t catch me calling it “weird” or “strange.”

Because he is the only 72 year-old I know who looks like he’s younger than 50.

He is as sharp as a tack.

He is of healthy body, mind and soul.

He is focused, relaxed, and engaged.

He is “with it.”

And if there is anyone who has lived his life epitomizing the meaning of grasping what really matters, it is my dad.

There’s something to be said for being independent of technology, cell phone usage, daily distraction, and mental stimulation…even if it is only for a few minutes each day.

Giving your brain a rest creates a pause. And in that pause you can catch your breath.

Because we all know what happens we stop breathing.

We stop living.

Just ask a fish.

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Are you interested in having some independence from distraction and mental stimulation? I am, too. As members of The Hands Free Revolution, let’s make Independence Day truly a day of independence.

This Fourth of July, turn off your computer, shut down your phone. Give your brain a rest.

How?

Feed fish in the lake…
Catch a lightning bug in your hand…
Stare into the light of a sparkler….
Look into the eyes of a loved one…
Watch a gorgeous sunset…
Feel the rain on your face…

Take a moment to rest your mind, body and soul. Because the most restorative breaths are the ones taken in the pauses of life.

*If you think this is a worthy message, please share it. In your hands, this message has the chance to make July 4th truly a day of independence for many.

The Steps Toward Home

This week I’ve described how making small steps to let go of distraction is an effective way to begin living a Hands Free life.

In Monday’s post, “The Steps of a Hero,” I described the progress that occurred in the life of one of my devoted readers from NYC.  And maybe when he read the post, he viewed progress he had not yet realized.

I hope so.

Why? Because a critical part of the Hands Free transformation process is to acknowledge and appreciate your own personal progress. To look back and say, “Look how far I have come!” or “Look where I once was and where I am now.”

Doing this enables you to see the way in which small steps become lasting habits and life-changing routines, all of which allow a person to grasp what really matters.

I have discovered that I most often see evidence of my own Hands Free progress when I am not looking for it. Such an experience happened to me recently that I feel is worthy of sharing.

This is my story…

As you may recall, I recently took a week off from publishing my blog in honor of my children’s spring break vacation.

Because my Breakdown Breakthrough occurred in July 2010, this was my first ever Hands Free Vacation. I knew it was a good sign that I decided I would not try to publish posts during the week. A year ago, I would have pressured myself into figuring out a way to get those post published, regardless of the cost.

Another good sign was what occurred on the morning of departure. Or perhaps I should say, what did NOT occur on the morning of departure.

Normally, I am stressed out in a frantic rush to get everything packed…compulsively trying not to forget a single thing. And the simple fact of the matter is this: When you are stressed out while packing, you tend to pack stress. You tend to leave the driveway with stress written all over your face; it drips from your words, and churns in the pit of your stomach for hours.

But this time, things were different. Thank God, things were different.

On the morning of my first ever Hands Free vacation we leisurely ate breakfast. We slowly packed the car. I didn’t make constant calculations such as, “If we leave right now, we will get there at four o’clock.” Instead of playing games with time, I actually heard my Hands Free inner voice say, “And remember, if you forget something, you can just pick it up at the store when you get there.”

(Have I mentioned that sometimes I wonder who this rational, (semi) laid back person is living inside my body?)

I was actually smiling as we pulled out of the driveway.  I felt lighter not wearing stress and having not packed stress.

Upon arriving at our vacation place, I was relaxed. I was grateful. I was happy. I had my family surrounding me, and there was nothing that I “had” to do.

Each day I took a long run or walk on the gorgeous beach that has been my home away from home since I was thirteen-years-old.  But instead of feeling the need to cover a certain amount of miles in a certain amount of time, as I did in the vacations of the past five years, I savored the journey. I patiently looked for dolphins.  I jotted notes in the little writing book I carried. I looked for unusual shell “treasures” to take my daughters.

And I reminisced about the hundreds of walks I had taken on this sand with my sister and my mom since I was a teenager.

My mom recently told me I did not develop my compulsive, type A personality until I went to college. So it makes sense that as a teenager my favorite pastime at the beach was saving live sand dollars that had washed up on shore. I couldn’t bear to see a helpless sand dollar withering in the sun. Regardless of how long it took or how many times I had to stop along my run, I put every washed up sand dollar that I passed back into the water.

But over the years, I had stopped saving the sand dollars. In fact, I had stopped noticing them at all. I had become so driven that I only focused on the path ahead and stopped savoring the journey along the way.

But on the last day of my first Hands Free vacation something happened. And it made me realize my days of delighting in the journey were not over. In one clarifying moment, I saw my progress; I saw just how far I had come.

As I ran along the vast flat sand, something caught my eye in a tide pool. At first, I ran past it, but found that I could not continue running until I turned around.

I realized it was a starfish, and it was missing a ray (limb). It looked like it was dead, but I felt compelled to be certain.

Despite having to get my running shoes wet, I waded in and reached for it.

The first thing I did was turn the little guy over. I was expecting to see no movement.

But amazingly enough, its tiny tube feet waved at me.

Although it looked like it had been violently churned in saltwater or perhaps was the partial snack of a small predator, it was alive. And it was fighting to survive.

As I held that resilient critter in my hand, I suddenly realized just how far I have come on my Hands Free journey.

Nine months ago this was me, struggling to breath in the chaos and upheaval that I had created for myself. I had gotten so far from home, so far from the joy in my soul that makes me feel alive and whole.

As I looked at this forlorn creature and whispered, “Don’t worry. I will save you,” tears rolled slowly down my cheeks. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the life-changing moment I had experienced last July. The One who cares for me had lifted me up from my displacement and placed me gently back home, just as I was about to do for this starfish.

And now, nine months later, here I stood in the tranquility of the sunlight, just having experienced my first ever Hands Free vacation.

My hands that were once holding tightly to distraction were now free to…

Built sandcastles with my children

Color pictures of princesses

Hold the hands of the people I love the most in this world

My mind that was once consumed with an excessive to-do list was now free to…

Memorize the beautiful expressions of my daughters’ joyful faces

Describe my most favorite memories of vacations on this very beach

Express gratitude for every God-given gift in my life

My eyes that were once transfixed solely on the task ahead were now free to…

Observe every vibrant hue in the flowers along the bike trail

Gaze patiently into the blue water until a majestic dolphin leapt with joy

Count every freckle on the precious noses of my children

Instead of feeling like I am always running late,

Instead of feeling like I can’t quite catch my breath,

Instead of feeling depleted and empty,

Instead of feeling lost with no direction,

Instead of feeling as if each day is a blur,

Instead of feeling half alive…

I am free to laugh,

Free to play,

Free to celebrate,

Free to let go,

Free to breath,

and free to exhale,

I am finally free to live.

And as I gently placed this beautiful creature back into the calm, sanctuary of his water home, I realized my progress. I realized that nine months of Hands Free “baby steps” had taken me somewhere.

Those small steps toward living a Hands Free life had taken me home.

Have you noticed any progress you’ve made on your own journey to live Hands Free? If so, I would love it if you leave a comment or send me an email. And if you are just arriving at this place, I just happen to have a list. See yesterday’s post, “Where To Begin,” and just pick a step. You may be surprised how far one small step can take you on your quest to be Hands Free.  Join “The Hands Free Revolution.” We are just getting started and there’s so much life to grasp!

Where To Begin?

My seven-year-old sang "The Itsy Bitsy Spider" to two beautiful babies when our family recently volunteered at a group home.

Yesterday I described the Hands Free transformation of one of my loyal readers. Through a series of what he refers to as, “little steps,” he has covered monumental ground.

Although he and I have different backgrounds and live very different lives, we both share the desire to grasp what really matters.

In order to do so, we both started this journey by taking the first step.

And today I want to erase any doubt in your mind that you are not equipped to take this step.

I want to impress upon you that anyone who wants to be Hands Free can be Hands Free. Regardless if you are high-strung Type A or low-key Type B (or somewhere in between), a Hands Free life is within your grasp.

So today is a List Day.

You may know by now that I am a list maker. Lists are powerful. Lists serve as reminders. Lists are powerful reminders that tend to stick with you far longer than long-winded paragraphs.  And if this Hands Free Mama hopes that if anything sticks with you in today’s entry, it something, just ONE thing, from The List.

I will be overjoyed if one person reads the following list and says, “That’s it? That is how I begin to go Hands Free? Well, I can do that. In fact, I am going to start today.”

So to that person, and anyone else who is interested in seeing what a Hands Free Step looks like, here is my ever-growing list (with links to further information on how each can be played out).

Little Steps That Equate To Big Steps Towards A Hands Free Life:

-Go to the local library as family and leave your phone in the car.

-When driving, place your phone in the glove box.

-Do a household chore WITH your child (i.e.; folding laundry, doing dishes, cooking or baking).

-Create a Saturday morning ritual like making pancakes or going to IHOP.

-Turn phone to “all notifications off” when you are with your family.

-Sing along with the radio or a CD instead of talking on the phone.

-Enjoy the peaceful solitude of your inner thoughts.

-Keep a small notebook with you to jot down great ideas, the dreams for your life, and special memories.

-Encourage someone.

-Stick up for someone.

-Have a “tech cleanse” for a day, two days, a whole week…maybe a lifetime.

-Think through accepting new commitments and determine if they coincide with what really matters to you.

-Go outside your comfort zone to join your child in something he or she loves to do.

-Spend the day with your family and do not look at the clock once.

-Turn off your computer from the time your children get home from school until they go to bed.

-Ask your child to make a sign to place on your computer. One dear reader shared that her daughter’s sign says, “Do not use, until you snuggle“.

-Make cookies or muffins with a loved one, and then give them away.

-Let your child bake or cook dinner without fear of making a mess or following a recipe.

-Share a favorite childhood memory with someone you love.

-Allow yourself to simply think with no distractions.

-Read the Bible.

-Give yourself Five Good Minutes of meditation a day.

-Read a bedtime story to your child.

-Have “talk time” with your child at bedtime.

-Go on a nature hike looking for usual and beautiful sights like clouds and bird nests.

-Ask your parent a question about his or her early years and then listen, really listen.

-Close your laptop when your loved one walks into the room.

-When your child or spouse walks in a room, greet him or her with happiness and eye contact.

-Every night think of five things you are thankful for with your child.

-Express gratitude to someone who was (or is) an angel in your life.

-Do something you loved as a child, like sew or play an instrument.

-Find a volunteer opportunity to do as a family.

-Write a love note to your child just because.

Ask your child, “What do you want to do today?” and then do it.

-Practice waiting joyfully.

-Contact that person who keeps popping into your head time and time again…there’s a reason he or she keeps coming to mind. Find out what that reason is.

-Sit down on the couch and cuddle with your child or significant other. (Remember this line? “No matter how much she wants to, needs to, or would love to….my child cannot kiss a moving target.)

Well, that is the end of the list for now. But with each day that I strive to go Hands Free, a new idea arises. And believe me, I will write about it.

To those of you who previously joined me on this journey, I know you have your own Hands Free “baby steps” to add to the list (and I would love to hear them).

To those who are just arriving at this place, now you have a starting point. Your Hands Free journey begins today. Simply choose something from the list that appeals to you then watch as something beautiful, something unexpected, unfolds before your eyes.

With each “baby step” you grasp a piece of what really matters within your hand. And there is nothing little about that.

Do you have any Hands Free baby steps to share? If so, leave a comment or send me an email.  And if not, you know what to do. Read the list again, circle it, star it, and invite someone to join you as you take your first step into a life worth living. Better yet, share the list with someone you love. Invite them to be your Hands Free partner, and take the step together.