THE BLOG

The Sustainable Family: Turning Tech Into an Ally for Closeness, Creativity and Community

08/20/2013 05:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 20, 2013
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There was a little backup in the Whole Foods café where you stack your tray and sort your trash into the different receptacles for recyclable and non-recyclable trash. The mom and dad and their gaggle of young children looked like a page from Make Way for Ducklings. As the parents sorted the lunch debris from their own trays, the children craned to see what went where so they could do it for themselves. A small lesson in sustainable living, all it took was parents showing how it's done.

Parents teach by example all the time and that stood out in so many poignant moments in my travels and research for The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. I wrote the book because we are in a time of transition between "back in the day" when smartphones and virtual reality were science fiction, and today, when we are living the dream -- and the nightmare it can become when tech overwhelms us or erodes our relationships.

Technology can be complicated, but deciding that we want the healthiest, most meaningful and sustainable lives for our children and families isn't complicated at all. It's going to mean different things at different ages and it's going to look different as technology continues to shape-shift before our eyes. But instead of focusing on the debate over tech -- it's promise and its pitfalls -- we need more conversation about what our families need to be sustainable in an age when technology has the potential to undermine humanity in the most everyday ways.

The good news is that, unlike dwindling reserves of some natural resources, we have everything we need to create thriving human ecosystems. I say this as a therapist who sees on an intimate scale the way families, the original renewable resource, can adapt and grow and flourish. It is never too late to update family attitudes or patterns that aren't working as you'd like.

In decades of work with happy families and with struggling ones, I have seen certain shared qualities that exemplify what I call "the sustainable family." This is a family that has created a fabric of connectivity that is strong and many layered, enabling it to meet a crisis without unraveling. It is flexible, not brittle, its tensile strength forged by time spent together. It values family life above life online and understands that you cannot create a sustainable quality of family togetherness unless you make it a priority.

In sustainable families, tech can be used in a wide range of excellent ways but the primacy of being fully present for one another without a media interface is at its foundation. Sustainability is about cherishing the finite time you have with your children, not taking for granted that you or they will always be there, open and willing to be with you. This means stepping up to manage the use of media and tech, even removing it when necessary. It means being conscious of the ways you are avoiding family engagement by your own screen behaviors.

To create the sustainable family the basic question to ask yourself is this: What values do I want my children to end up with as adults, and am I living the lifestyle and teaching the lessons that embody these values? No negative judgments allowed here.

Here are seven principles to help you guide your thinking:

1. The sustainable family recognizes the pervasive presence of tech in today's world and develops a family philosophy about using it that reflects and supports the family's values and well being. The family has its own ways -- tech and tech-free -- of hanging out, messing around, and being present with one another.

2. The sustainable family encourages play. In this "crazy busy" world families need to play together. In interviewing children for my book, I was surprised by how often kids of all ages talked about how meaningful it is to them to have fun as a family. Throwing snowballs at a tree, skipping stones across a creek, playing charades, cards, or board games, baking cookies or a "mystery casserole" for a potluck -- it doesn't have to be fancy, it just has to involve full on family.

3. A sustainable family nourishes meaningful connection and thoughtful conversation that shares feelings, values, expectations, and optimism. Family is the language lab of the digital age. Children's tech-connected socializing has taken them out of face-to-face conversations and limited their opportunities to build the basic skills for real streaming dialogue and interpersonal communication. Online posting and texting has come to define life experience but costly because it allows us to objectify ourselves -- endlessly editing or manipulating text and images to create a desired effect. Since family requires interaction in real time, it's everyone's home school for social and emotional learning.

4. In the sustainable family, members encourage independence and individual interests. The more we understand and genuinely appreciate each member of our family, the safer and stronger our family is for each and all. Being family does not mean that we are all alike, that we all love to read or work out or hike. It may turn out that way, but don't expect it -- and don't press for it. In a sustainable family, it's okay to be ourselves with our own unique temperaments, senses of humor, vulnerabilities, passions.

5. The sustainable family has built-in mechanisms for healthy disagreement. Parents set limits, act thoughtfully with parental authority, and do the hard parenting work of demonstrating accountability, authority, openness, and transparency. Kids want their parents to set limits, be clear, transparent, and flexible but not endlessly so. A teenage girl once remarked to me that she wished her mother would be less accommodating about making exceptions to family rules. "It's just really hard for me to say no to my friends, and I could use the help," she told me. Sustainability is not a static thing; it is a practice. When challenges present themselves, when family members disappoint or offend one another, so does the opportunity to practice.

6. The sustainable family has values, wisdom, a link to past and future, and some common language. As families grow and develop, as children become adults with partners, sustaining a family becomes a move toward interdependence. The sustainable family is open, adaptive, inclusive, tolerant, and flexible. It is always a work in progress.

7. Sustainable families provide experiences off line in which children can experience and cultivate an inner life, solitude, and connection to nature. Solitude, deep thinking, stillness, contentment, and a soulful feeling of gratitude cannot be found online. Whether in the sanctuary of the forest, a holy place, or a poem, sustainable families cultivate this capacity for peace and nourish this appetite for spirituality. Instead of plugging in the earbuds, find your inner GPS, Google search your own life experience, plug into your soul. Children need time tech-free to develop this internal relationship with their selves, with deep reflective thinking, to learn that being alone is not necessarily boring, lonely, or scary.

Sustainability is about the long-term maintenance of well-being, which has environmental, economic, social, and spiritual dimensions. Ultimately, the sustainable family is about stewardship. As parents we are stewards of our children, and our children are stewards of the future. Our challenge as technology continues to open new worlds of possibility is to not let new apps obliterate old truths. Children need our attention; children flourish in families that work hard at the hard work of being a family. As we face the ongoing challenge to become the large global family we so desperately need to be, we need to bring humanity and technology together on a smaller scale in our own homes so our children learn how to live in this new world.

Tech can be a tool that strengthens or dilutes family connection. When family members "fly solo" spending too much time pursuing their singular lives online with their out-of-family social networks, family cohesion erodes. As parents, the only way to help our families develop a mindful relationship with technology is to protect and cultivate the purely human dimension of family.