08/18/2014 04:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Can We Get Our Children Off Their iPhones and Spend Some Time Together?

Our family just spent a lovely weekend at my home with my sister-in-law and her children. Because our children are getting older, each one seems to have an iPad, iPhone or some other electronic gadget attached to their hand at all times. I noticed that when we were all together talking, some of the kids would zone out of the conversation and start looking at their phones or computers. Several times I had to say nicely, "Excuse me, but your uncle or cousin was telling you a story." Often the response was, "Oh, I'm just texting my friend from camp -- one minute." I also saw all the children sitting together, each one on an electronic device, not speaking to each other. Later, my parents joined us all for dinner and even my dad got out his iPhone to post comments on a sports blog, leaving the conversation for 15 minutes. All of these electronic distractions created a gap between all of us that was never there before. I honestly felt that we barely spent any time together, even though we were physically together all weekend. It seemed like other people had been with us in the house, people I could not see and did not invite, but who surely had plenty of our attention!

When the extended family left, in an effort to make my children understand the importance of being in the moment and giving attention to the people we are spending time with, I shared a Tolstoy story with them. Here is a synopsis of the story:

The thought came to a certain King that he would never fail if he knew three things. These three things were:

When is the best time to do each thing?
Who are the most important people to work with?
What is the most important thing to do at all times?

Many educated men attempted to answer the King's questions, but they all came up with different answers. The King decided that he must ask a wise hermit in a nearby village. The hermit, however, would only see common folk, so the King disguised himself as a peasant, left his guards behind, and went to see the hermit. The hermit was digging flower beds when the King arrived. The King asked his three questions, but the hermit only went on digging rather laboriously. The king offered to dig for the hermit for a while. After digging for some time, the King again asked his questions. Before the hermit could answer, another man emerged from the woods. He was bleeding from a terrible stomach wound. The King tended to him, and they all stayed the night in the hermit's hut. By the next day the wounded man was doing better, but was incredulous at the care he had received. The man confessed that he knew who the King was, and that the King had executed his brother and seized his property. He had come to kill the King, but the King's guards had wounded him. The man pledged allegiance to the King, and he went on his way. The King asked the hermit again for his answers, and the hermit responded that he had just had his questions answered.

"Do you not see?" replied the hermit. "If you had not pitied my weakness yesterday, and had not dug these beds for me, but had gone your way, that man would have attacked you, and you would have repented of not having stayed with me. So the most important time was when you were digging the beds. I was the most important man. And to do me good was your most important business. Afterwards, when that wounded man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business. Remember then: there is only one time that is important --Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are with, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with anyone else. And the most important affair is to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!"

All of us can become distracted about the future, or an email or text, and our thoughts leave the present and the ones we are with. I think we believe there is always another time when we can focus on the people that are around us if our minds are elsewhere that day. Yet, who knows what our future holds and the moment that is so precious is often traded for a video game or Facebook feed.

Also, how can we know if the people we are with, especially teenagers who rarely tell us what is going on, need us in a way that only our pure attention can satisfy? Maybe the moment is all we'll get to be together or to make a difference so the person in front of us knows they are loved. Even if our teenagers or other loved ones might not always share their most intimate secrets, Maybe the love we share when we are really present together will make a difference when they feel stuck or they are suffering about something in their lives. A difference that can be quite profound during a difficult time.

If we can make NOW the most important moment, and the person we are with the most important person, and what we are doing the most important thing, we will be led to more meaningful and fulfilling lives with one another. Being in the NOW, we are present to give and receive the true gift of life -- LOVE.

I am happy to say my children set down their devices and listened to the story. They heard me, were with me, and maybe, just maybe, they will bring these ideas, and not their gadgets, to our next family gathering!