When our children are little, it can be reasonably easy to create the kinds of rhythms and forms in our homelife which support their growth and which nurture our family relationships. Having sit-down meals together, saying a verse or blessing at meals, making time for bedtime stories, creating space for cuddle time in the afternoon...all these things support our family relationships. And when we've had a bad day or a child is being especially difficult, our familiar "rituals" (for lack of a better word) provide meaning and warmth.
As children get older, however, it becomes much more challenging to sustain and create such forms. The outer world calls more and more - and this is quite literal if one has allowed one's children unrestricted access to computers, cell phone, and other forms of electronic communication. This is an issue that one needs to think about way before one might expect - and if anything, this issue will grow in the future, not diminish! "Conventional" parents give their children such things at incredibly early ages (why on earth does an 8 year old need her own cell phone?!) and so if your child has friends who use these things, it will become an issue in your home.
My basic "line" on this issue is "don't do it" for those with children under 14. Just say no. No computer. No cell phone (ok - I know that's a hard one for those who do not have land lines). No hand-held texting contraptions.
So the point of what I want to address here is how to deal with this issue with our high school aged sons and daughters. It is indeed time for them to deal with the wonderful world of instant-everything and find their way. They need to have internet access for their school work and they need to have ways to communicate with their friends. But they do not need to be without boundaries. Nor do they need parental wilting to allow their communication devices to impinge on family relationships.
Here's an example. A friend of mine told me about the situation in her home. Her 16 year old daughter has a cell phone as well as her own computer. This young lady and her sister both go to high school - so they need to get up, get dressed, eat their breakfasts and get themselves generally organized for the day. They also need to spend time with their mother, talking about the day ahead and generally having a calm and peaceful start to the day. But my friends' daughter has taken to e-mailing her friends in the morning as well as texting back and forth with her boyfriend. This has the result of taking away from the family time in the morning which my friend feels is crucial to a healthy start for her children's day. How to deal with this?
One issue here that makes this especially tricky is that my friend has already put some limitations on her daughter's computer and cell phone time (ie no texting at 2am!! Uh - sounds like a reasonable boundary to me!!) and this girl will definitely view any further boundaries as "mom getting at me." Well, I am not one to shy from suggesting strong-arm tactics with children and teens when necessary - they sometimes need something hard to push against as well as a loving and metaphorical kick in the pants - but here it seemed counter to what my friend was trying to achieve to enter into a conflict with her girl. The point is that she wants her daughter to appreciate those precious moments in the morning where the heart of the family is valued - by each member of the family. If she just banned phone and computer use before school, the girl will just be sulky (at best) and not exactly be in the right place to benefit from family togetherness before each member starts her own day.
So what I suggested to my friend was that she announce to both daughters that she felt that since they were all so busy and often did not have meal times together at night, that she wanted to make a special effort at breakfast for the three of them. She was going to get up a bit earlier than usual and fix a hot breakfast for them all - wouldn't that be nice now that it's getting colder? - and wanted to know how the girls would like to make this a special time, just for the three of them. I encouraged her to think about lighting a special candle; getting the girls to collect flowers or make a special effort to make the table nice: and even for them to take turns choosing something inspirational to read aloud to the others to make that start of day extra special.
My hope (my friend hasn't tried this yet) is that her girls, who are definitely people who appreciate and respond to beauty and love and who will undoubtedly be enthusiastic about this, will really take this up and help their mother deepen their relationship to this important part of the heart of their home and family life. My hope is that the girls will clearly feel how important this is - and that this will translate into them in themselves not wanting to disrupt their family mornings by outside interruptions ie by texting their friends and so on.
It can be so easy to let our forms and rhythms slip when our children are older. To some extent this is natural and to some extent it is fine....but only if the core is solid. And that core needs to be continually renewed and enlivened by our conscious attention to how we nurture and support the heart of our home. Teens are sensitive to this - often way more than they let on. And the way to really kindle warmth in our homelife is to keep boundaries clear and to involve teens in our efforts. Our ensouled and warmth-filled homelives are a gift to our children - let us protect this gift and not allow the unending pull of everyday life to encroach upon it.