What you can learn by NOT throwing your child out of a window

A few years ago I found myself comparing vacation plans with a colleague — a single guy about a decade older than me. His upcoming vacation? A month-long backpacking trip to Hawaii, totally off the grid. When I marvelled at his bravery, he offered this wisdom: “Every year, try to do something that pushes you beyond what you think you can do.”

I chewed on this interesting bit of advice for a couple of weeks. On the one hand, I could see its value as a personal and professional growth strategy. On the other hand, something about it just didn’t sit right.

Finally, it hit me: as a parent, I have to push beyond what I think I can do every single day. I get home from a draining day of work, with only enough energy to throw myself into a chair and (if I’m lucky) mix a drink for myself….but I muster the strength to help with a forgotten homework assignment, herd the offspring into the bath, and drive hard towards bedtime. I am sick with the flu, and want to do nothing but commune with the toilet, but I tamp down my own queasiness between pukes so I can comfort my daughter while she has hers. I am at the grocery store with a six-year-old who is pitching a fit because I won’t buy him a lollipop, and instead of doing what every cell in my body is screaming at me to do — namely, telling him to f**k off, and walking out of the store — I have to pick up said six-year-old, hauling him to the car as gently as possible.

Today is one of the days where I’m particularly aware of the effort it takes to pull off these daily acts of self-discipline…to push beyond the level of energy, compassion and restraint I think I have, and find new reserves. As parents, we don’t need to run triathlons or guest star on Fear Factor in order to discover our hidden depths. These little people we have invited into our lives — along with elderly parents, dying spouses, and every other dependent human to whom we feel bound by love and compassion — are here as a daily challenge to push us beyond what we think we can do.

Recognizing and valuing that push as part of the benefit of parenthood — rather than as the steep price we pay for deciding to have kids in the first place — has helped me struggle less with its demands. And on days like today, when it still feels like it might be too hard, I try to remember: these little f**ckers are saving me from a month of backpacking.

Stop sibling conflict with a tech-inspired solution

Are you tired of listening to your kids argue? Does it seem like a single ill-timed comment can ignite a cascade of escalating attacks and complaints? Are you sick of playing referee?
Tim Cook on an iPhone
This weekend we came up with an innovative strategy for stopping the sibling conflict cycle. To implement this plan, you need:

1. One or more iPhones
2. Two or more conflict-prone children who are familiar with said iPhone
3. A household in which Apple CEO Tim Cook is a familiar character

Still with me? If you’re one of the seven people in the world who answered yes, then here’s our story.

We told the kids Tim Cook asked us to beta test the next generation of Apple voice recognition. It can synthesize someone’s voice, and block what they’re actually saying, and replace it with the phrase of your choice.

Apple thinks this can be a powerful tool for conflict resolution and for business, we explained. But since they don’t want to test it only for making conflicts go away, they made us promise that just as often, we’d use the tech to create conflicts.

So if you hear your sister saying something nasty, assume it’s actually our beta technology, synthesizing her voice and blocking out what she is really saying. And if your brother says something rude, it’s probably just a synthesized comment coming from the iPhone.

I’ll admit it: the kids were skeptical. But they were intrigued enough to run some tests, and quickly became more interested in the logic of our supposed alpha test than they were in responding to successive taunts. As is so often the case, their skepticism had to do battle with the kid inclination to fully buy into any imaginary scenario.

So on reflection, I should probably add a fourth item to my list of ingredients:

4. A dedicated savings fund for your children’s future psychotherapy.

Your online relationships: Top posts of 2011

This week I’m sharing my favourite posts of 2011. Today, I’m rounding up my top posts on living with social media: from how to navigate social media with your kids, to online romance, to the online challenges and opportunities for personal growth and happiness.

  1. Facebooking the kids: 12 Dos & Don’ts: Facebook can be a great way to share your family news with a small circle of friends — if you’re smart about using privacy settings. This post rounds up the recommendations from my series on Facebooking the kids.
  2. Social media for the 28th day: 9 tech tips for easier periods: Even if you’re not part of the menstruating population, this post may help you think about how you can adapt a tech routing to cope with any aspect of your life. And if you do  have periods — well, seriously, you’ve got to read this post.
  3. Internet tunes: Craiglist Hookup – Missed Connections: This year I started collecting songs about social media, and blogging my favourites. This song about falling in love via Craigslist is one of the songs that has lodged in my head. It’s awesome.
  4. The Lonely Princess: A social media fairy tale: If you’re looking for a bedtime story that will help you explain social media to your little ones, introduce them to the Lonely Princess.
  5. Creating a family social media policy: The ongoing conversation in our home about how to use social media — and in particular, how to do so in a way that is both safe and enjoyable for our kids — has helped us evolve a de facto social media policy governing how we engage with social media as a family. I decided it was time to go from de facto to actual, recorded policy. Use our policy as a jumping-off point for your own.
  6. 8 ways to beat the urgency trap in online communications: If 2011 felt like the year social media speeded everything up, it’s not too late to slow down the pace.
  7. Facebook dating: 8 tips for pickup artists (or how to avoid them): Did you know that Facebook has become a dating move? Yes, really. Here’s how it works — and how to avoid becoming a casualty.
  8. The 10 best tips on how to write an online dating profile: In my continued, vicarious adventure into online dating, I cast a wide net for great online advice that could help me write a compelling dating profile for a dear friend.
  9. 6 solutions to the sadness of social media: Is social media making us sad? On the UK’s Channel 4 News website, Benjamin Cohen is concerned that social media is changing the nature of friendship, and has adjusted his use of social media in response: I’ve stopped sharing as much, full stop….I’m not suggesting that everyone else should do the same, but I’m suggesting
  10. Leaning into online struggles: This fall was rough, but it got easier once I remembered to “lean in”: to give into the challenges instead of struggling against them. Here’s how you can apply the same principle to your life online.
  11. 9 ways the Internet can cheer your mood when you’re feeling sad:  Feeling blue? The Internet can help. Really.

Are you a parent traveling on business? Here are 15 tips for taking the kids

When I first wrote this post in October 2006, LilPnut was only a few months old, and didn’t even have his twitter handle yet. (Who can blame him? Twitter had barely been invented.) Almost five years later we have lots more experience traveling with the kids, and are much less ambitious about integrating business and personal travel. (Partly because it’s harder to keep a 5-year-old quiet, even in the era of iPads.) But I still had a couple new tips to add here, and I think the rest of the post is as relevant as ever, especially to parents with younger children.

I’ve recently become an adventurer in the world of business travel with baby — in this case, our son, now almost 4 months old. He’s now attended three different conferences, and from these experiences I’ve gleaned a few bits of wisdom that I wanted to capture and share:

  1. Think twice. Business travel is WAY easier without a kid, so don’t undertake it unless you really need to. That said, don’t let the challenges of business travel dissuade you from doing what’s best for your own work and family — particularly if traveling with your child will allow you to continue providing the benefits of breastfeeding.
  2. Start small. My first conference-with-kid experience was an informal, local, one-day event (let’s hear it for BarCamp Vancouver!) that let me alpha test our baby’s ability to quietly endure a meeting before I braved taking him on the road.
  3. Know your kid. Think about whether he or she can be quiet in meetings, and also whether you can meet her needs (for food, entertainment, and attention) while in a business setting. I happen to have a very easy and quiet baby, but I sure wouldn’t bring my three-year-old to one of these things. And since kids are constantly changing, you need to re-think your kid’s road-worthiness before each and every trip.
  4. Defer to your colleagues. If you’re attending a conference or client meeting with your kid, make sure to put your colleagues’ comfort first. Identify a location where you can nurse or entertain your kid if he starts to cry or disturb the proceedings.
  5. Buddy up. At the last conference I attended I was lucky to have a buddy — the lovely Katrin Verclas — who jumped in to lend a hand. Katrin volunteered to hold the baby at a few key moments, including dinnertime (my first two-handed dinner in months!!) Having the support of a buddy made all the difference to my experience.
  6. Forewarned is forearmed. Let meeting organizers or clients know if you’ll be bringing your kid, and give them a chance to tell you if their setting is not child friendly. When I attended the fabulous Online Community Summit, I checked with conference organizers before registering; their welcoming attitude helped me feel comfortable about participating. After the success of that venture, I didn’t worry about forewarning the folks at the Blog Business Summit; they’ve been fantastically accommodating, but I’m sure they’d have appreciated a chance to consider the challenges in advance.
  7. Scale your expectations. If you attend a conference with your kid, be prepared to miss big chunks of presentations and social events so that you can step out and attend to your kid’s needs.
  8. Scale your budget. Be prepared to spend more money than you usually would to make your trip as easy as possible — stay at the nearest hotel, get valet parking, order room service. And if you’re evaluating whether a conference or client visit is worth undertaking with child, consider not whether the event is worth the cost in and of itself – consider if it will still be worth the cost of a no-expense-spared approach, even if you miss half the conference sessions.
  9. Your kid is part of your presentation. Whenever you attend a conference or client meeting, you think about your self-presentation. When you’re attending with a kid, your kid becomes part of that presentation. So make sure your kid has a clean face, clean clothes, and behaves well.
  10. Connect with your kid. Don’t forget to interact with him. or there’s no point in having him along.
  11. Connect with your colleagues. If you travel with a well-behaved kid, you’ll find that many of your colleagues will be warm and welcoming — particularly the other parents in the room. Make the most of this chance to connect with colleagues on a personal level: one of the things I’ve enjoyed about traveling with my baby is the chance to hear from other parents about their own experiences juggling work and family. How else would I have left a business blogging summit with the URL of a great attachment parenting blog? I’ve really appreciated hearing from other moms who remember the challenges of life with a new baby, and whose support — whether it’s holding the baby so I can use the bathroom, or cheering me on for trying this juggling act — remind me that I’m not the only woman out there trying to combine work and motherhood.
  12. Accept non-acceptance. While the vast majority of your colleagues are likely to be encouraging and supportive, some people may not be happy to see a baby at a business event. Accept that some people aren’t going to like seeing your baby, the same way they might not like what you’ve got to say or what you’re wearing. Anticipate those reactions, and know in advance which accommodations you’re willing to make for others. But don’t let concern about other people’s reactions push you into sharing more information about your circumstances than you feel comfortable disclosing, or into a decision that jeopardizes your child’s well-being or your professional or personal integrity.
  13. UPDATE: Draw a line between work and family time. Combining family travel with business travel can be a great (and economical) experience, but it works best when you are very clear about how and when to draw the line. Maybe you’re unavailable to your family for the first three days of a conference, but the next ten days are family time; maybe mornings are for meetings and afternoons are for kids and fun. Just make sure that you, your spouse and your colleagues are all agreed on those limits beforehand, and that you communicate the expectations to your kids.
  14. UPDATE: Make room for your family. We’ve had terrific success lining up housing swaps in four different cities, mostly using Craigslist. Unlike a conference or business hotel — which may be only marginally welcoming to children, and crawling with colleagues who will give you the hairy eyeball if your kids go tearing down a hallway — a home exchange ensures your family has a home base while you’re on the road. If you can swap with a family that has similarly-aged kids, you’re likely to land in a setting that is well set-up for your needs.
  15. Cheer yourself on. When I first started using my laptop at conferences, about ten years ago, people used to ask me to put it away — they found the key tapping disturbing. Ten years later, everyone has their laptops out to take meeting notes (or check their e-mail!) That culture shift happened gradually — and a similar culture shift has to happen around children. The more that thoughtful parents include their well-behaved children in their professional lives, the more we’ll break down the cultural wall that separates the public and private spheres — a wall that has historically served to keep women and men in separate worlds. So give yourself a cheer for bringing baby along: you’re not just helping your family or business, you’re helping make our culture stronger, healthier and more human.

Originally published October 27, 2006.

What’s really hurting your relationships?

Today’s paper has an article about how hard it is to preserve tight family relationships in a world where we have so many other relationships. It offered 10 signs your friendships might be hurting your family relationships:

  1. You can’t get through a meal without having a friend join you.
  2. You enjoy talking with more than one friend at a time.
  3. You often think about other friends while you are with your family.
  4. You sleep with a teddy bear that reminds you of one of your friends, and you like to think about the good times you’ve had with your friends while you’re falling asleep.
  5. You enjoy having your friends come over for a visit before you’ve gotten up and dressed for the day.
  6. You’ve argued with a loved one about how much time you spend with your friends.
  7. You are a great listener, so you always look your friends in the eye when they are talking, even if you are driving at the time.
  8. You no longer go outside with your friends, and instead spend time with them at home or a café.
  9. You never tell your friends that you’re unavailable to them.
  10. When you spend time with your family, each of them likes to bring along a friend.

OK, that’s not how the Wall Street Journal put it. Their story, Your BlackBerry or Your Wife, is yet another dose of hand-wringing about life online, but with the added bonus of a sexist title. And their extraordinarily nuanced diagnostic tool wasn’t about the way your outside friendships affect your family, but rather, the 10 Signs Your Devices Are Hurting Your Relationships:

  1. You can’t get through a meal without emailing, texting or talking on the phone.
  2. You look at more than one screen at a time, checking email while watching television, for example.
  3. You regularly email or text, other than for something urgent, while your partner or another family member is with you.
  4. You sleep with your phone near you, and you check your email or texts while in bed.
  5. You log onto your computer while in bed.
  6. You have had an argument with a loved one about your use of technology.
  7. You text or email while driving.
  8. You no longer go outside for fun.
  9. You never turn off your phone.
  10. When you spend time with your family—a meal, a drive, hanging out—each person is looking at a different screen.

With the exception of #7 — which is no less stupid than looking a passenger in the eye while you’re driving — these troubling signs are only troubling because we’re still getting used to the idea of online. But recognize online for what it is — a new venue and way of creating and maintaining relationships — and you realize that what we’re mostly talking about are the choices people make around how and when to connect with people who don’t happen to be in the same room.

For now, it still feels uncomfortable to us, a lot of the time. And that’s ok; just as it’s ok to ask your partner, or your kid, or your mom to put down the phone and pay attention to you because it just doesn’t feel good to you when they are engaging with someone else while they’re talking to you. (The same way you might tell your kid to stop interrupting you while you’re talking with your spouse at the dinner table.)

But just because we are still finding our e-legs — establishing our comfort around how and where to fit online life into our offline existences — doesn’t mean that the urge to go online is a sign of some kind of pathology. It’s mostly a sign of one thing: a desire to connect.

So the next time someone in your family picks up the phone or the computer or the iPad while at the dinner table, why don’t you offer to connect with them instead. And I’m pretty sure that criticizing their tech choices won’t be the way to do it.

What we look like when we plug in

We all see them. Perhaps we are among the guilty ones. We see them at restaurants: Families at dinner; each member plugged into his or her iPad, iPhone or iPod. We see them at work: Colleagues texting and checking statuses on social networking sites while simultaneously attempting to engage in a conversation with a co-worker.

So says Dave Wendland over on Harold’s Kids at Burson-Marsteller. It’s the kick-off to a blog post that calls for attention to our face-to-face relationships, even as we plunge more deeply into life online. The themes Wendland raises are now familiar — though I’m delighted he pointed me to Jay Dolan! — but I can’t think of  a single “we’re too plugged in” cri de coeur that has hit me as hard as the sentences above. Maybe because they describe our family, and our work life, and I desperately want to believe that it doesn’t have to be such a sad story.

Family movie night: The 2×2

Like everything in life, the conundrum that is Family Movie Night can be reduced to a 2×2 table. Common Sense Media has solved a lot of our household media selection challenges, but it’s yet to resolve this one.

Movie selection criteria
Your kids will find this movie

Appropriate

Inappropriate

Interesting Movies with animals that can talk South Park
Uninteresting Movies with animals that can’t talk Anything you actually
want to watch on a Saturday night

A techsperiment that puts family tech use in a new light

Last week we conducted a techsperiment on eliminating gadgets from our family time: we swore off using iPhones, iPads and computers from the time we got home (5 or 6) until the time the kids were asleep (8 or 9). We did pretty well during the week, and discovered that our family time was more enjoyable and our kids asleep much earlier when we stayed offline for a few focused hours.

But our weekend was another story. Friday night saw us home late and geeking out; Sunday night we were back online again. And the kids stayed up much later as a result.

What I’m supposed to say now is that we’ve seen the light. We’ve looked the big, bad technology monster square in the face, and seen the terrible perverting effect it’s having on our family life and sleep hygiene. Now that we now the truth we’re buying a safe with a timed lock, and putting all our devices into it each night so that we won’t be tempted to go online until the kids fall asleep.

The truth is that I couldn’t live with my devices in a lock box. I plugged in on Friday night because I was feeling cranky and stressed out, and messing around on my computer is my favourite way to unwind. I plugged in on Sunday evening so that I could meet a Monday deadline and still get to bed on time myself.

In real life there are days that are stressful, there are days with deadlines and there are days when the Tony Awards are on and you have to track the Twitter stream in real time. Categorical rules about when we can and can’t be online aren’t going to work for our family, in which the web is not (just) a distraction, but a part of our professional and social lives.

But our techsperiment gave us the structure we needed to step back and look truthfully at the impact tech has on our evenings at home. Consciously going without the net for a just a few hours a night turned out to be mostly better for us and for our kids. So while we’ll allow for some lapses, we will stick with a new norm: no devices during family evenings.

And we’ll also embrace a new tool, which is to use techspermiments as a way of evaluating the role of social media and tech tools in our daily life. I’ll keep you posted on our next adventure.

For Oprah.com: Should you get an iPad for kids?

This post originally appeared on Oprah.com.

At 5 a.m. on April 3, I became the fifth person—and the first woman—in line outside the Apple store in Bellevue, Washington. By the time Apple store employees started handing out coffee and cookies, we front-of-the-liners were old friends. When a store employee announced we were allowed to buy only one iPad each, and not the rumored two, I wasn’t worried: My husband raced over with our kids so he could buy the second iPad for himself.

But what about Steve, standing right behind me? We’d never met before, but he’d shared his excitement about bringing a couple of iPads back to his office full of video game developers. He looked positively panic-stricken by the news he could buy only one.

As soon as my husband and kids arrived, I flagged down one of the store employees: “Excuse me, but do my kids count toward my iPads-per-person? Because their Uncle Steve here had hoped to buy an iPad for them.”

The employee agreed that yes, my kids counted as full, iPad-worthy citizens, and that “Uncle” Steve should feel free to buy an extra iPad for them. We made our iPad purchases as a brief, fictional family: me, my husband, and my pseudo-brother-in-law Steve, who was thus able to buy his two iPads.

If you’re feeling shocked that I would lie in an Apple store—my personal equivalent to lying in church—rest assured, I have been amply and appropriately punished. Perhaps it was the kids overhearing me say that we might get them their own iPads, or it was the eager way we handed our new ones over to create a whine-free drive back across the border to Vancouver—whatever it was, the kids now seemingly have their own iPads: ours.

Oh sure, I get to take the iPad to work while they’re at school. But it’s not really a work computer. It’s more of a kick-back, lie-on-the-sofa gadget. And no sooner do I kick back with the iPad than a couple of hands—usually dirty or sticky—pry it away from me.

More than a month into our life as a two-child, two-iPad family, I’ve come to appreciate this machine as perhaps the perfect kid computer. It’s kid-sized, unlike a desktop that looms too large, or a laptop that’s too big for a little lap. It’s intuitive, especially for kids who’ve been using their parents’ iPhones for the past couple of years. And best of all, it’s tactile: Getting rid of the mouse and replacing it with a touch screen gives kids the sense of immediacy that is missing from other tech toys.

Yet I still have misgivings about handing over a $700 machine to a 4- and a 6-year-old. Quite apart from the possibility that our kids will turn the iPads into a couple of very expensive paperweights, I worry about the impact of yet another screen in our already screen-infested house. We’ve got two TVs (each hooked up to a cable box, PVR and computer), three iPhones, a Wii and a PlayStation: Do our kids really need one more device to keep them info-tained?

If you’re considering an iPad—or other device—for your kids, here are some questions to consider first:

Which on-screen activities will this replace?
The Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that the average American child consumes almost 11 hours of media per day, fitting that into about 7.5 hours of actual screen time thanks to multitasking. Unless your kid has a couple more hands than mine does, you probably can’t get them to multitask a lot more than they are now, so adding another device into the mix will see that whopping 7.5 hours extend even further to accommodate yet another distraction. In our home, we’ve tried to keep the total amount of screen time more or less constant by turning off the TV whenever we see that both kids have their noses buried in an iPad.

How will I control my kids’ use of this device?
If it were as easy to find a pen in our house as it is to find a computer, I expect our oldest kid would already have written her first novel. At this point it feels like every surface of our house is covered with some kind of computing device: a pile of game controllers on the ottoman, a couple of laptops on the dining room table, iPads on the sofa and iPhones scattered across the coffee table. While it’s reassuring to know I’m never more than 30 seconds away from finding Wikipedia’s answer to the question of whether dogs can eat dogwood trees, the ubiquity of our computing devices also makes it very hard to patrol the kids’ tech time. Our best ally has been the password protection built into the iPads, iPhones and computers: While it’s a tiny bit inconvenient to enter a password every time we want to use our own machines, it means the kids can’t play with an iPad without first asking us to unlock it. Just don’t let the kids see the password as you’re typing.

How can this device promote more family interaction?
My daughter has only recently started to read, so I was surprised to find her peering over my shoulder as I played a game of Chicktionary, an iPad word-search game that attaches letters to animated chickens. Sure enough, she found some words of her own, and Chicktionary has now turned into an activity we can enjoy together—while working on her language skills. It’s hard for two people to simultaneously play with a single phone, but it’s easy for two kids (or a kid and an adult) to share an iPad. I try to invest in devices and software that encourage the kids to play together, or that provide us with new activities we can do as a family.

How much will we spend on software?
Early in the life of my iPad, our 4-year-old son pressed “buy” on a $10 word-processing app. “I thought about it and thought about it,” he told me. “And then I downloaded it.” Touched as I was by his concern for my text-editing environment, I could foresee feeling a lot less touched if his next executive decision involved the $299 medical database now available from Lexi. You can lock your kids out of the App Store by using the Restrictions option in the iPad’s settings, but that won’t resolve the constant whining for new games. So we’ve followed the advice of Common Sense Media and told our kids that iPad purchases have to come out of their allowance, which they can use to buy iTunes Store gift cards.

Will this distract us from spending time together?
With all the worrying about how much time our kids spend onscreen, it’s easy to overlook our own screen obsession. One of the things I love about the iPad is that, unlike a laptop screen, it doesn’t put a physical barrier between me and the kids if I’m surfing the web while they’re watching TV next to me on the sofa. But precisely because it’s so unobtrusive, it’s easy for the iPad to add to my current level of distraction as a parent: If I can snuggle up beside my son while catching up on Facebook, I can pretend I’m parenting rather than geeking out. But I have heard about some parents who actually pay attention to the kids sitting next to them, possibly even interacting without the presence of a TV, computer or gaming device. Who are these parents, you ask? I’m not sure. But I bet you don’t meet them at 5 a.m. in line outside the Apple Store.

My latest for Oprah.com: Is an iPad Right for Your Family?

“I got an iPad!” my daughter announces to a friend.

“No honey, I got an iPad,” I remind her.

The argument over who the iPad belongs to is just one of the many wrinkles in our new life as The iPad Family. Self-serve movie watching, GodFinger addiction, bedtime stories that read themselves — these are just a few of the issues we’ve had to confront since the iPads joined our family.

Learn the five questions to ask before your family goes to the Apple Store in my latest post for Oprah.com, Is an iPad right for your family?