Digital Distractions on a Road Trip Mean A Calmer, Curse-Free Mom

Mar 21

Do you ever have the urge to tell your child to shut the @#$% up? If you have kids, like mine, who are comfortable yelling back at their parents without a care in the wind about the consequences, then it’s very likely you have the odd inclination to blurt an epithet-filled request to close their traps. Not that you should ever follow through on that urge… But having just returned from a road trip where our SUV travelled over 3,000 km, I can attest to the need for self-control when confined to small inescapable spaces with children on board. There’s no harm in helping yourself out, though, by including a bevy of the latest digital distractions to stem your frustrations.

With three boys between the ages of 7 and 11, maintaining a semblance of peace and quiet can be like shouting for a ceasefire amid a cacophony of gun fire. Although my husband and I always try to ignore the early rumblings of a sibling stand-off, we hate to risk the likelihood of blood on the upholstery if we were to allow the fights to take their natural course.

The road trip is the one time in my life when I am truly grateful for my boys’ addictive obsession with video games. In fact, I’ve been known to deny their favourite pastime for weeks leading up to our departure date to ensure their need to fill up on lost time will remain insatiable the entire car ride. Of course, I do force them to take breaks from their mini screens periodically. After all, isn’t part of a road trip experience actually looking out the window once in a while? Look kids! Cows! Look kids! Horses! Look kids! A bridge. Okay, maybe it’s not that thrilling an experience, but that’s just the way road trips work, right?

During our latest March Break excursion that carried us from Toronto to Florida (and back), I’ve never relied more heavily on digital entertainment. Thanks to the many hand held devices and their accompanying car adapters, we had no batteries die on us  with their accompanying woeful moans. It turns out, I’m not alone in my accumulation of tangled cords that litter my vehicle. According to The NPD Group, people like me spent more than $170 million in 2011 on products that integrate portable devices in the car.

Recent Canadian statistics indicate that 93% of households with two or more other people have Internet access compared to only 58% of those living alone having online access. While no reason is given for this discrepancy, I can’t help but consider the possibility that part of the reason may be that our screens provide us with a reprieve from our household companions (even those we love can irritate the heck out of us). No surprise, then, that we crave that same sense of solitude in our packed minivans.

Some may lament the end of family sing-alongs (the ol’ 100-bottle-of-beer-on-the-wall is a goody) and family games like 20 questions or I Spy. However, I can honestly say that the digital entertainment has not created invisible cubicles in our car, keeping us emotionally separate. While we may not sing about crashing beer bottles, it’s not unlikely to see us fist pumping together to Party Rock Anthem or whatever other song my sons select from my iPhone’s playlist.

Despite my best efforts, the boys still have their squabbles (they’re usually over whose turn it is to play with the one coveted video game). But the fights are less frequent than they used to be leaving the driver less distracted, and everyone generally more content. Furthermore, if I can cut back on the number of times I have to bite my tongue from saying, well… you know, then those small screens will always be welcome passengers on my road trips.

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Mar 02

I have a varied past in how I’ve dealt with video games in my household of three boys. By varied, I mean I used to have a slew of threats that I would yell at various times during the day at any one of my boys when they could not pry their glazed eyes from a screen. I was regularly exhausted and emotionally spent from the constant effort I exerted in trying to tame the digital beast that could hypnotize my kids to ignore all sounds emitted from their mother’s mouth.

Over the past year, I have experienced a major change in how I deal with my kids and the digital barrier between us. I came to recognize two important truths. The first of those was that technology never moves backward. That is, screen technology – and all the unsavoury habits that come with it – is here to stay. It didn’t matter how much I wished it away, digital tech was not going to suddenly disappear from our lives. Once I accepted this, I changed my strategy from trying to deny its growing influence in our family to trying to work its existence into our lives in a way that could actually benefit us (or at the very least, not tear us apart).

The next truth, and the more important of the two, was learning the true definition of listening. Ironically, it was a marriage counsellor who taught me how to listen. I soon discovered that it requires far more effort than I’d ever thought. After practicing this intense attentiveness with my husband (which requires a post all its own), I transferred my nascent skill to the relationships with my children.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with technology? The answer is simple: a disproportionate amount of our family rivalries were focused on how we related to the screen. The kids were playing too many video games, I was fighting with them to turn it off, I was on my laptop when they tried to chat with me, I was worried they’d be exposed to “bad things” online. All these scraps converged into an upheaval of continuous frustrations. We each craved our screen time on our own terms, and yet we’d never sat down to think about why or how it was affecting us, much less talk about it.

Communication – that is, face to face communication – was non-existent. Ironically, the need to listen to one another is more essential than ever in the digital age. For example, it helped me share my concerns about the dangers of the internet, which in turn helped my kids be more careful online, which of course led to fewer frustrations. As a screen-obsessed society, parents need to be that much more cognizant of their efforts to verbally talk and quietly listen (not interrupt) while looking at one another (not the TV, laptop, or iPod screen). Listening, I’ve learned, does not count when one person is distracted by a YouTube video of piano-playing cats.

I finally implemented a no-video game rule from Monday to Thursday after discussing my reasons with the boys. They begrudgingly accepted it. The cutbacks on video gaming then freed up time for my boys to talk to me about their day. I also make a conscious effort to stop rattling at my keyboard when one of my sons walks into my office to talk to me. I turn from my screen and listen to his latest announcement. I’ve realized that the topic doesn’t matter. What matters is that he knows I am interested. I am listening.

The screaming and threats that once echoed against the walls of our home have diminished (not disappeared, I’m no saint) and I am working harder than ever at carving out time to discuss any number of issues that we struggle with regularly – from squabbling at bedtime to spending too much time texting friends. The point is: kids will talk if they know their parents will listen.

The prevalence of social media provides parents and kids a new way of communicating. However, we need to beware of our reliance on these platforms. The now famous video of a dad shooting bullet holes into his daughter’s laptop provides a cautionary tale for families who allow the one-sided communication of social media to voice their frustrations. Granted, if the daughter had openly voiced her grievances (whether they were valid or not) she’d likely have found herself in trouble anyways (and I don’t think there’s much reason to believe that their father-daughter relationship is grounded in honest and open communication), but perhaps they’d have had a better chance of resolving their problems within a day than in a drawn-out fiasco that involved millions of viewers worldwide. That’s the power of listening.

The reality is that parenting is hard, freaking work. Adding a digital component that tends to loosen, rather than tighten, the ties that bind only adds to the difficult task that we parents face every day. That’s why I am a firm believer in the practice of listening. I say start young, while they still love to share their ideas and experiences (however silly and seemingly unimportant). I’m hoping that as my oldest son heads into his teens (gulp), he will not stray too far me. And, maybe, just maybe, when I feel like smashing his iPod to pieces, I can gently share my feelings with him before listening to him explain why he so desperately needs to check his texts every ten minutes.

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TED’s Ads Worth Spreading Prove Commercials Can Inspire Goodness

Feb 28

TED just announced the 10 winners of the second Ads Worth Spreading challenge. The contest celebrates advertisements that “communicate ideas with consumers in the same way that TED wants to communicate with its audience.” In other words: Inspire positive change among individuals, communities, and eventually society. Based on these entries, the screen can, indeed, help make the world a better place for our kids and our families.

These two are among my favourites:

The first one is an ad for Chipotle. The message is rather Lorax-ish in nature. A pig farmer grows his business to industrial proportions only to realize he has made a grave mistake, and thankfully, mends his way by embracing a more ecological approach to living. Beautiful music and inspiring animation. This ad proves that a company can advertise effectively while still promoting a positive message for society.

This next ad, by Sharpie, is another favourite of mine. In our technologically-driven households and communities, this commercial celebrates the raw creative genius of one young man who illustrates beautiful works of art on coffee cups. I could have done without the focus on his plans to travel aimlessly across the world, but the ad’s ability to inspire us all to pursue our individuality through art is admirable.

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Commercials for Lucky Charms Right on Your Kitchen Table

Feb 28

I remember reading cereal boxes over and over as a child. I can’t recall any specific reason why I did it, other than it was sitting right in front of me as I slurped my milk-soaked Shreddies. Back then the boxes touted health benefits, which were apparently interesting enough for me to read over and over and over again. Today, I see my kids equally engaged with their cereal boxes. However, the backside is more likely to be illustrated with quizzes, mazes, and scrambled words than nutritional information.

The cereal box is, in fact, one of the most widely read mediums according to General Mills’ Chief Marketing Officer, Mark Addicks. The average person reviews his or her cereal box 12 times. Not surprisingly, the company plans to further take advantage of this branding opportunity by using the newest digital technologies available to create more interactivity. Very likely, this will be most appealing for the youngest marketing segment – kids.

According to a USA Today article, General Mills is considering the addition of QR (quick response) codes to cereal boxes, as well as creating apps for their top brands. With the use of an iPhone, cereal eaters may be able to point to a logo for some sort of entertainment. Needless to say, the motivation is to provide pure entertainment, not nutritional know-how (not particularly surprising since one of their top sellers is Lucky Charms, a food product that is clearly short on nutritional bragging rights). General Mills and Kellogg’s are eager to look beyond the traditional 30-second TV spots by providing videos and games that can be turned on only inches from your cereal-munching face.

What does this mean for parents? Here are a few of my predictions:

  1. Your kids will beg even harder for the “fun” boxes (think: unnaturally bright-coloured morsels of sugary shapes) as you peruse the grocery aisles.
  2. They will fight over who gets to use Mom’s iPhone to watch the game or video.
  3. New breakfast table entertainment will slow down the morning routine the way television programs have a tendency to do. “Wait – I’m almost done playing this game! One more minute.”
  4. Kids lose yet another opportunity for good old fashioned reading – even if it is back-of-the-box fluff, it’s a nice break from animation.
  5. The brands that health-conscious parents least want their kids to eat will be more enticing than ever to their young ones.
  6. More brand brainwashing for kids during a morning ritual that is typically a wonderful time to chat among the family.
  7. Parents will feel more urgency to teach their children to be critical of videos and games provided by brands.

Okay, clearly I’m not a fan of the interactive cereal box. When one considers the enormous potential of a medium that is read almost a dozen times, it’s hard to fathom that the best we can do is give kids more cartoons to encourage them to eat more sugar-laden cereal. I have an idea: how about an interactive box that encourages kids to study for school, listen to their parents, and eat their fruits and vegetables? Now, that’s a box I’d keep on my table all day long.

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Top Ten Reasons Why Watching the Academy Awards Ceremony is Irritating

Feb 27

I joined the millions of viewers last night who tuned in to watch the Oscar Night unfold. My main motivation for watching was to view the starlets’ dresses and enjoy emcee veteran, Billy Crystal, perform his opening monologue (which did not disappoint).

However, once the red carpet scene ended and the awarding of golden statuettes began, my familiar irritation at the most ridiculous display of self-congratulation on the planet returned. I had to turn the channel almost immediately, returning only during commercial breaks from another TV show, to catch the odd glimpse of a celebrity spewing the merits of Hollywood production.

As a parent who encourages my children to think critically about the media surrounding them (particularly movies), I would be remiss to ignore the opportunity to apply this approach to one of the year’s most-viewed television events.

Here, in a nutshell are the ten aspects I find most irritating about the Oscars:

  1. Gratuitous ass-kissing on the red carpet by interviewers. At least when Joan Rivers ran the red carpet, she delivered the odd kick in the pants.
  2. That stars exhibit full denial of the fact that most movies they make stink. Of the top 10 grossing films in theatres now, eight have received horrible reviews on Rottentomatoes.com.
  3. Feigned humility during acceptance speeches. Just boast and get it over with.
  4. Announcing the “Designer” of every dress. Who cares? Unless I can get it 40% off at Banana Republic, I’m not interested.
  5. Seeing Robert Downey Jr. at the Oscars. If there’s ever a guarantee that a movie will be terrible, it’s him starring in it.
  6. I can’t enjoy eating potato chips while watching skinny beautiful women glide across the stage.
  7. The overarching feeling that the awards being handed out are for the Nobel Peace Prize. But they’re not.
  8. The awards ceremony is painfully long, boring, and lacking substance. Not unlike the movie, Meet Joe Black.
  9. Seeing Adam Sandler featured at the Oscars. (See #5).
  10. The ironic realization that I’ll never be refunded for all the time and money I’ve wasted on bad movies as I lose more precious hours from my life watching Hollywood be congratulated for their contribution to my wastefulness.

I find every year, I watch less and less of this overblown spectacle of Hollywood egotism. However, that being said, I will probably never be able to fully resist the thrill of watching glitzy gals sashay down the red carpet. After all, it’s fun! I only wish we’d get a little more sass from the interviewers. With a three-hour lockdown on criticism during the ceremony, itself, would it be so bad to commiserate with the viewers at home who want nothing more than to slam a few starlets?

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Kids Can Be a Scientist in 3-Minute Video for $250 Prize

Feb 21

Parents and kids! This very cool contest, sponsored by invites kids to create their own YouTube video that explores an important issue facing society today. It can relate to health, the environment, world hunger, or any other issue that you think is important.

Just come up with a problem. Turn it into a question. And brainstorm your own solution. Then, through a 3-minute video, propose a creative, original  and scientific solution to your problem. This fun project is a great opportunity to encourage innovative thinking and inquiry-based scientific learning. And, best of all – it makes science fun!

YOU COULD WIN $250 IN CASH AND PRIZES!

Kids must be between the ages of 6 and 18 years old. The finished video must be uploaded with the title “2012: Science Can Fix That” onto YouTube by March 31st, 2012.

The video entries received are judged based on: concept originality; quality of the solution to the problem; creativity and imagination; scientific truth, ability to inspire; and adherence to the contest rules.

More about the contest is .

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