Put Down Your Phone and Speak to Your Kids

From the Anash.org Inbox: Spending time with our kids is a high priority for all of us. But how many of us actually connect with our children, instead of constantly giving a glance back at our phones?

By Emmett Gilles and Avi Dagan

If asked, how many of us would say that spending time with our children is a top priority? Wouldn’t we leap at the opportunity to pause the busy rush of daily life and spend quality time with each precious child?

Let’s make that wish a reality. Effective immediately, at no cost. But how? The answer is simple: Be fully present at home. Understanding what that means requires some explanation. 

Start with a simple example. You get home from work before bedtime. It’s been a long day, and after dinner you sit down with your kids for a few minutes before bed. As they wind down, you check your phone for new messages or emails. You’re still there with them, right? They’ll understand that this is a momentary interruption – just duty calling.

The harsh truth is: No. You’re not fully there. And while “just checking” may take a moment, it breaks the precious flow of attention and connection that occurs between you and your child when you are fully invested in every moment of playing, reading, bathing, and putting them to bed. Further, checking often leads to more checking, and doesn’t end until you find something else on the phone that holds your attention. Where did that wish for more quality time go?

Let’s not forget: the stakes are sky-high. A parent’s obligation to think about his children’s chinuch and improve it however he can is comparable to the mitzvah of tefillin – which must be observed every day without fail. (See the Hayom Yom for Chof-Beis Teves.) When a phone or anything else tugs our attention away from our children and their education, the time dedicated to our highest calling as parents passes like a day without tefillin. Yet we struggle to set aside the distractions. How can that be?​​

To better understand, let’s reflect on an insight shared by Rabbi Dovid Moshe Lieberman A”H. In Parshas Yisro, Hashem commands Moshe to “ascend the mountain and be there”: עֲלֵה אֵלַי הָהָרָה – וֶהְיֵה-שָׁם.  (Shemos 24:12:1).

Why did Hashem have to tell Moshe to be there after ascending to the top of Har Sinai? Where else would Moshe be? What Hashem was telling Moshe, answers R’ Lieberman, is that simply to be there physically is not enough. You have to be present in every aspect: spiritually engaged, mentally focused, and emotionally attuned. What’s more, you yourself must show up unconditionally. Receptiveness, concentration, and caring are prerequisites, but the primary task is to fully engage from your core, which includes parts of you that do not seem perfectly aligned. 

If Hashem had to remind Moshe of this on Har Sinai, how much more so do we need the reminder as parents!

Fortunately, in our generation we too have a Moshe Rabbeinu. Consider a universal feature of the experiences of all those who merited to receive a dollar from or have a private audience with the Rebbe. In that brief moment – with hundreds already passed and hundreds more in line, not to mention the broader concerns of the Jewish people and world affairs in which the Rebbe was intimately involved – the Rebbe gave each person his absolute and undivided attention. One might even say the Rebbe gave each person something of himself, a touching of souls so raw and intense that those brief encounters changed lives in ways we continue to discover. 

Indeed, the Rebbe’s view of “success in time” relies on a person’s ability to focus entirely on the task at hand, without any distraction or disturbance from past or future considerations. (See the sicha of Chof Shvat, 1970, in which the Rebbe describes this concept as passed down from the Rebbe Maharash, using the Frierdiker Rebbe and the Rashba as examples.) The Rebbe taught us this concept for success in all aspects of life. Above all, we should apply it in matters of chinuch, given the central importance of Jewish education in general and in particular of a parent’s responsibility to be concerned with the upbringing and education of his own children. 

Now comes the hardest part – and the key. How can we translate this understanding and the Rebbe’s example into concrete changes in our daily habits, reshaping the way we spend time with our families? Here’s a practical step and the focus of this campaign: When you come home from work, put your phone down in a safe place and leave it there until your children are asleep. (Alternatively, consider enabling a setting on the phone that will minimize distractions.) That healthy boundary keeps the distractions at bay when being fully present is most essential. Challenge yourself to try it for a week or a month, and then build upwards.

Such practical steps are essential. Still, remember that they are merely a way of positioning ourselves to accomplish the ultimate goal, which is to set aside all our other concerns and be unequivocally present with our children. Then we are best equipped to show them the love and care we feel, educate them joyfully in Torah and mitzvot, and teach them the key to success in life: being fully present, especially when it matters most. 

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