Device Free in Disney

Janell Burley Hofmann, February 19, 2014

Recently, I was facilitating a parent workshop on building tech-healthy families. It was a roundtable discussion and we were really able to dig into specific examples, challenges and strategies around technology and parenting. Later that night, I started thinking about their stories, their families. Some were parenting the very young, others teens, some even grandchildren and grown children. But the one point we returned to again and again was the tech invasion. Every parent consistently expressed frustration about the struggle to find balance. I start to think about my own children, our patterns and struggles around technology. I think about myself and despite my heightened awareness on tech behaviors, I know I often feel deeply attached to my devices. I think of my seven year old who asks me to stop texting (repeatedly) because she has a question. I think about my eleven year old who begs me not to share any pictures of our outings because they’re private. I think about my husband’s frustration as I scroll through my phone at the onset of any down time. And even though we have designated times that are tech free, like meals, special adventures, family visits, the separation is always brief and the reintroduction of devices is full on. I start to wonder how deep the attachment has become. I feel a sharp urge to break free, even for a bit. What can I do right now to deliberately give my full attention? 

I immediately think of our family vacation to Disney World scheduled for the following week. What would it feel like to be device free in Disney? Is it even possible? Could I get our entire family of seven on board and if not, would I accept the challenge solo? Now standing on the other side of this mission, I feel slightly embarrassed at how much emotional toil this decision took. When I mention it to my husband, he’s quick to squash it. While I’d be the one picture taking, sharing on social networking, looping family in on group texts, and checking emails, he has stored boarding passes, dining reservations, accommodations info, emergency contacts, and the itinerary all on his phone.  His phone is the lifeline to our trip. My phone is the lifeline to our world outside of the trip. We talk it through. We are equally uncomfortable, but for different reasons. We sleep on it. He calls me from work the next morning and says he’s printed everything we’ll need. He’s all in. I notify my colleagues. They applaud it. Then I begin to tell our family and friends. Shockingly, I am met with resistance. They worry that the decision is in haste, “Not even one phone for emergencies?” They see it as a punishment that impacts them too, “I want you to see pictures of the kids. I want to hear about the trip. It’s not fair!” Everyone wants to know “the point”. We process it with them. We will be ok, traveling while be disconnected – even in emergencies – is not new. Constant contact and updates are not required for traveling, but we link them to Disney’s professional picture taking service throughout the parks, so they can follow the trip here and there. They don’t love the decision, but they begin to accept it. Privately, I start to wonder if we are being irrational and stubborn.  Will we regret this? 

I am relieved and reassured when our four youngest children cheer and celebrate at the announcement of “The No Phone Zone” in Disney. But our next and perhaps greatest obstacle awaits us, our fourteen year old son. Right away, he digs his heels in. He argues (accurately) that he isn’t obsessed with his phone anyway, he has healthy tech behaviors, he wants his music, he wants to keep in touch with his friends. It won’t invade the trip, on this he is firm. We decide to let it sit for a few days. He asks some questions about our motivation. We talk about being present, giving our full attention, what it means to be truly away and truly together. I see him softening, but I don’t push it. I want it to be his decision. I don’t want to force this on him. And for a while, despite the paradox, I start to think that he will be the exception if his phone means this much. He wakes up the day before the trip and with certainty offers to join our challenge. I am thrilled for our family, by now the idea of a hands free vacation has become exciting and a great relief to me. 

We pack a folder full of important papers. We print addresses for postcards and a list of critical phone numbers. We leave family and neighbors the hotel landline. We buy the kids watches. We stuff books, drawing supplies and a deck of cards into backpacks. We leave behind what we would have packed: three iPhones, two Kindles, two iPods. At first, it is the physical habit we notice. A lull at the airport, sitting on a bench, lying across the hotel bed, we all want to reach for our phones. The kids keep us distracted while waiting in line by teaching us hand-clapping games they learned at summer camp. We snooze on the bus rides instead of scroll. We talk to the people around us, listen to the buzzing sounds of crowds and enjoy whatever quiet moments we can find. More than once, upon realizing we are tech-free, Disney cast members whisper to us “I wish more families would do this.” 

I find freedom in the moments I would have forced a picture, “smile – stay still – stop it – cooperate”. Instead, we capture the moments that feel really special and call them “mind pictures” – fireworks from the top of a roller coaster, fresh face paint, silly hats and sunglasses, night swimming. During breakfast one morning, my eleven year old son jumped out of his seat and wrapped his arms tight around a character. His genuine enthusiasm in this moment shocked me and for a second I wished I could have captured it with a picture. But I was forced to pause, to hold and soak in the innocence, the purity – not through a lens to then share and explain to others, but a point of view all my own. 

We start to make observations – a family watching a movie on the iPad during dinner, a girl walking through a gorgeous wildlife trail while playing Candy Crush, babies in strollers playing on iPhones, the unbelievable amount of selfies (even in the crowded bathrooms!). It’s hard to observe without standing in judgment, but I do want my family to take notice, to see what we’re trying to preserve.  But we also understand that it is so easy to default to the technology, how slippery that slope really is – a quick text turns into conversation, a few minutes of gaming into a constant struggle every few minutes, an email is concerning and distracts from the present moment. Eliminating the option feels so liberating. 

There are challenges: we want to cancel a dinner reservation timely so there is not a charge, we split up and need to meet, we change our plans, we want to Google who won the youth basketball playoffs in our town, we wonder what time Opening Ceremonies to the Olympics begins. But there are solutions (though often less convenient) to all of these scenarios and we always find a way to make it work or at least enjoy the challenge of not knowing for a while. And the truth is, there are times having our phones would have caused more chaos. Without them we are forced to keep it simple, meet at designated times, stay the course.  Within the first day, I can’t imagine tending to my phone – “Where is it? Is it wet? Is it safe?” – with the intensity it often requires. Mid-week we all agree that our decision has strengthened the trip.  My oldest son and I miss the social connection the most, the younger kids and my husband don’t miss a thing. All together, we welcome the space. 

Most days, we celebrate all the ways the technology brings the world’s most fabulous things to us – right into our pockets – so we never have to look too far. But, as I listen to families – including my own – crave more time, more engaged moments, more balance, I feel grateful that we chose to drop out of our vast network and drop in to the true connection with each other. And even though it was temporary and imperfect, it was beautiful and it was ours. In every sense of the word we went away and I can’t wait to do it again.

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