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Smartphones, Parenting, and Struggling to Set a Good Example

The children play with an iPad during a ceremony. Image courtesy of Henrique Gasper
The children play with an iPad during a ceremony. Image courtesy of Henrique Gasper

Finding a balance between practicing mindfulness and using my smartphone (often too much) has been a challenge for me. Although I am aware of the preciousness of this human rebirth with its abundance of potential, I often find myself spaced out, flicking through endless virtual threads. Each day when I wake up I try to remember and rejoice at how precious this day is, but too often it doesn’t take long before I find myself scrolling through random images on my phone, at times an image of someone I hardly know who is on holiday on the other side of the world, an image of a plate of food, a ceremony, the list goes on. My daughter may come bouncing over, asking, “Who’s that? Where’s that?” When she approaches me I usually put down the phone to engage with her, but in the next moment she has picked it up and is scrolling through just as I was just a moment earlier.

Earlier this year, during the breaks between the ceremonies at Khadro Ling, I would often come home to a house full of Dharma kids. The teenagers and pre-teens would be on their cell phones and the younger children would be sharing, or sometimes fighting over, iPads and other tablets. My husband cautioned them: “This is not the Wi-Fi lounge, and no violent video games are allowed!” Soon after that. Amaya started asking, “How old do I have to be to have my own phone?”

Another day, Leela picked up a flat wooden toy and sat hunched over poking at it. She then exclaimed, “Look, I’m mommy working!” If we want our children to grow up more conscientious, kind, and focused then we must reflect on our own use of smartphones and tablets and try to set a good example. I tell myself that to teach healthy habits in terms of technology, I must start by adjusting my own.

Our smartphones have almost become extensions of our bodies; if forgotten somewhere, we feel as if we are missing something essential to our being. Often during an evening meditation session, I find myself with the urge to press that singular button. It takes discipline to keep a daily meditation practice while raising a family, and now I find that it is my smartphone habits that are adding another challenge. It makes me wonder how the next generation will manage?

Maybe smartphones will have lost their novelty, but their distractive properties are something to consider. Not too long ago, it was considered taboo to leave your children plopped down in front of the television all day, and new parents would confidently state, “I will never do that.” That is, until you find yourself putting on a cartoon just so that you can be free to cook dinner. Recently, I let Amaya and Leela download a game onto my phone, while I’d previously had a strict no-games-on-mommy’s-phone rule. But we were out and it seemed helpful. Before I knew it there was not one but five games on my phone and Amaya and Leela were fighting over the device.

In his teachings, Chagdud Rinpoche has, again and again, emphasized the importance of integrating our Buddhist practice into daily life. During longer retreats Rinpoche would include work sessions with different projects such as painting and cleaning. I remember how exciting it was to pay attention to my mind during the work, like discovering a sacred kind of challenge. Those work sessions were unlike any previous work because I was applying attentiveness and maintaining my focus. It seems like the term mindfulness has become so mainstream that we don’t credit it as the incredible Buddhist method that it is.

Practicing mindfulness in daily life, with work and with our children, is a real game changer, especially when dealing with stress, negative emotions, and general distractions. The sophisticated distraction of my phone hasn’t made keeping a fresh mindful presence any easier.

I am reminded, again and again, that teaching our children starts with our own example. If we wish that our children learn to be present, we must be present. If we wish for them to learn beneficial habits, we must first exercise healthy habits. For modern-day Buddhists and parents, our phone habits are an issue. Buddhist practice works directly with the mind and indulging in the constant distraction of our phones makes it hard to practice mindfulness. Setting a routine and guidelines has been a good start for me. It has been helpful to take some time and figure out what is practical and what isn’t necessary, what is beneficial and what isn’t.

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