RL Community—You Know, Face to Face

Mothers with babies in the partk

Do you access your community through a screen? With more screen access, both parents and children are making their social ties online. Online social networks, though, don’t teach our children the same lessons that face-to-face communities do. This is more than just a need for natural play beyond the screen.

For their normal development, your children do need participation in a robust, face-to-face community.

Within the field of child development, there is a lot of research on community. In what kind of communities do children and families thrive? The research is often related to learning and school. Ultimately, though, research shows that the community in which a child grows shapes the child’s understanding of society. A local community is, for the child, society in microcosm.

Thinking more broadly about what the whole family, not just the child, needs, community is our support system, where we participate and share experiences. We weave our safety net from our community.

We can certainly get a shadow of that support and participation from our online social networks, but those usually consist of ties to people that we are connected to outside the network. A community, online or offline, is a more robust social structure that grows around a common interest. Even when we participate in genuine communities online, they don’t have the richness, complexity, or resilience that face-to-face communities can have. Online ties are weaker.

You probably have points of reference for participation in face-to-face communities that your children will not because they will grow up in a far more screen-mediated world. They won’t realize how deep social connections can be unless they experience those connections. Your children do need the experience of those face-to-face relationships.

Even if you don’t feel a burning desire for community in this moment, you build now for the future. That is how a safety net works.

Finding – or Building – Your Tribe

Every once in a while, I mention an article in Mothering years ago, “Finding Your Tribe,” because this article was a trigger for me about 15 years ago. I was in graduate school, living far away from my family and my husband’s family, and I didn’t really have much of a social life outside of school. One my first child was born, I spent time with other local homebirthers who had shared the same midwife. When I read that article in Mothering, I realized that the people I was spending time with, these other new parents, were my tribe. Just that realization and my dawning understanding of how important it was to have a strong community helped me to cherish this group of families even more.

I mention the article often because I keep hoping that you will find a similar group of people who support you in your parenting journey. Whether you realize it or not, it will help you and your children.

Maybe you already have a community you can strengthen. If you have friends nearby, you’ve got the pieces ready to be matched together.

If you don’t have a group already and you aren’t sure where to start to find a community, especially if you are new to an area, you might just have to plant the seeds yourself and help community grow. Weak social ties can grow to become strong social ties.

You could start a group around your children and just keep inviting new people until you start to build stronger relationships and a core group pulls together. That core group can grow to become a community.

Ideas for groups around children:

  • Play group for crawlers.
  • Game day for children of all ages, with different games each week.
  • Project group for mothers with baby play on the side.
  • Baby yoga and social time for mothers.

If you already have strong interests, you can strengthen your ties with those who share your interests. My family is friends with a family that is very connected to renaissance fairs. They spend months a year dressed up, painting faces, and participating with their tribe. Their youngest child was born at the fair. Their closest friends are with the fair. When one group of their friends started a new fair, they went, too, and they are spending their summer at the new fair building making a lot of connections and gradually strengthening ties.

Whatever the interests you build around, you build community by strengthening ties and building genuine relationships within that group.

Your children will learn how the world works from their ties within a complex community. It is worth the discipline and effort to pull back from predominantly weak ties of screen time to build strong ties within a face-to-face community.

For an example of one family’s experiment in seeking connections beyond their screens by unplugging for six months, read Susan Maushart’s The Winter of our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale (2011).

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Unplugging Kids

Children playing around a television

Whether you’ve noticed your kids have too much screen time or you are just trying to avoid that in the future, how do you go about unplugging your children?

Why Worry about Screen Time?

We’re surrounded by symptoms that cause us to worry about kids who are plugged in all of the time to electronics. Childhood obesity is alarming. I don’t know that we can blame screens for obesity, but surely there is some impact when 2- to 5-year old children spend an average of 32 hours a week with the television on. Think about that. If my kids and your kids aren’t watching at all at that age, does that mean there are kids watching 64 hours a week?

I personally find passive consumption of ideas alarming. I want critical thinkers. I’m the mother who pauses documentaries to give long explanations. Even when we do watch television now that my children are older, it’s an active pursuit of ideas. We all have to have our say, and sometimes the conversation overtakes the television, and we ride the waves of ideas. TV can be a starting point rather than the end.

But, my children didn’t watch television much as young children because I wanted to shape their understanding of the world. Frankly, I wanted to avoid the chop-chop-chop editing that interrupts one’s thoughts. It turns out, there is a positive correlation between concentration, which leads to better learning, and taking walks, for example. You don’t get that from passive consumption of television—even the kind on public television that is supposedly good for you. (Sesame Street still has fewer cuts per minute than commercial television, though.)

As parents, we want our kids physically and mentally active. So, we look for a better way to keep them engaged than plugging them in.

What Can You Do About Electronics?

First, a DON’T. Don’t use the television or computer as a babysitter. Turning on cartoons or a video is easy with babies and toddlers, but it creates habits for you and expectations for your children.

So, what is the DO instead?

  • Plan ahead quiet, engaging activities, like play dough or drawing, and save those for a routine quiet time.
  • Watch the world out the window or from the porch. My son had a once-a-week routine of sitting and waiting for the garbage truck. It was the highlight of his week when he was about 3-years old. Put up a bird feeder, and you have something interesting to watch without it being passive.
  • Read or tell stories. Save a long story for the time of day when you most need everything to be a bit more calm. We started reading The Hobbit to my children when they were 2- and 5-years old. They don’t need to understand it all. They just want to be engaged.
  • Play board games or card games, if you have enough people around to make it fun.
  • Play with puzzles, if you just have the two of you. We carry a big variety of board games that start at around age 4 and puzzles that are appropriate for toddlers.
  • Listen to music, either the kind you can sing along to or the kind you can dance along to—or maybe the kind you can drift off to.

There is plenty to do. If you know you need helping thinking up activities, buy a book that gives you a list. We have a lot of books that might help, including Playful Parenting, Imagine Childhood (25 projects), and many more on our parenting bookshelf.

Set the Pattern Right

Start when they are very young with interesting outdoor activities. Don’t make those outdoor activities optional. You are creating your family, and you get to decide “this is just something our family does.” If your family creates patterns of outdoor activities and hands-on activities, it will remain just what you do as your children get older and are more exposed to screen time at friends’ houses.

Does It Have to Be Negative?

I am reluctant to use the negative. Why call them UNplugged kids or screen-free kids, as if everything has to be in reference to a plug or a screen? Do that, and the plug is there in mind even when you do manage to get the children into nature or exploring with their hands. Why not hands-on kids, on-their-feet kids, or outdoor kids? At bynature.ca we raise Nature Kids!

That’s just a caution that too much focus on the negative holds on to the negative rather than the activities you want to replace the negative.

How to Encourage Your Kids to Sneak a Peak at the Screen

I do know that forbidding my kids to do something that their friends do freely is a way to encourage them to keep secrets. We don’t do that. So, I found that exposure with my voice in their head was a better approach than exposure with their peers’ voices.

In the end, it just takes making life beyond the screen more interesting, more compelling than the screen. I’m not trying to make that sound easy, either.

I have a fairly new teenager who has gradually put more and more of his alone time into Minecraft, which I don’t mind in moderation, but I worry that he has fewer hand-on activities (“Hey, how about doing a project out of Make Magazine.”) and outdoor activities (“Have you reserved a golf time for this week?”). So, he and I talk about this. He points out to me that he spends hours a day playing piano, saxophone, and drums. He is reading several novels. He uses his computer for online classes and writing. I still think it’s too much time, but I make it a conversation we have, an awareness we share. He told me that he would be happy to do other things if he could find something that interests him.

There is the rub. I can’t force his interest. At his age, parental force is more likely to result in anti-interest. So, I continue to scatter beautiful baubles along his path, hoping he picks them up here and there. I trust that his low-screen diet of the first twelve or so years will have created stronger patterns than the pull of a not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been video game.

You do what works for your family. Just remember to set the patterns early as an active, engaged family, and trust that your children will find their way toward their own interests in an overwhelmingly plugged-in world.

Resources

Image © Samrat35 | Dreamstime.com - Child’s Play Photo