We have seen him on Oprah helping hoarders reorganize their lives, teaching them how to “respect their space;” Peter Walsh has now joined forced with Oprah to reunite the American family, to eliminate all those distractions caused by technology and our busy American lives. He has now taken multiple families through his stripped down challenge, even going so far as to remove one families microwave for 7 days. The idea is to get families talking, eating meals together, doing activities together that don’t involve 21st century gadgets. Some of the maxims taken from his latest challenge, involving a family of 4 mom, dad, a 15 and a 5 year old included the concept of the kitchen nurtures the family and not just what goes in their mouths, if they aren’t getting that at home where are they getting it? Another tip people at home were encouraged to use centered around how to talk to your spouse, beginning the conversation with “there are some things on my mind that have been bothering me…” while assuring them that the dialog will not end in threat of divorce.
However, one has to ask is all this togetherness a good thing or can it backfire? For instance what happens when we go back to the dinner table of the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s; what happens when the dinner table becomes the hub of family conversation, when a young man tells everyone he got a part in the school play and dad begins a lecture about his son not being in such a thing, that its girly or effeminate, there is a shouting match and everyone has, at the very least, indigestion? What happens when the child shares their day at school and the fact they might have flunked a math test provoking a similar eruption; what happens when mom or dad announces they got fired? Usually it becomes a case of ignoring the elephant in the room, eating like nothing out of the ordinary was said, or everything is said and no one feels like eating yet they are forced to. Another potential problem, picking on the picky or the slight eater attempting to make them eat when the say they are full or don’t want it; both scenarios can be the foundation for eating disorders, from compulsive eating to anorexia. It is no secret alcoholism plagued the 50’s because everyone didn’t have lives like “Leave it to Beaver;” the 60’s counter culture grew out of no longer being able to stand the level of conformity. Why would we want to create a microcosm of that in our home, never mind our dinner table?
Taking on this challenge, even if it is only for 7 days, without internet, TV, video games, so much as a stereo, means you have the monumental task of entertaining bored kids. Kids who would normally be off doing their own thing, minding their own business are suddenly fighting, picking on each other, driving each other and you crazy. Likewise that entertainment becomes increasingly difficult without board games to play, card games to play to pass the time, truth or dare opens up another set of problems, games designed to share feeling or favorite activities cause family members to clam up in fear of what those closest to them will think. Another issue on the can happen list, picking a family activity becomes a fight mom, dad, the kids all have ideas and no one can agree; along those same lines what do you do with a kid or teen who has had everything they care about snatched from them and they refuse to participate, when they don’t care if you ground them, no longer care what you do to them? It can insight negative behavior making a child feel like they’re being punished when they haven’t done anything wrong. Resentment can be an issue, if all the sudden, as part of family together time, you all go to little brother’s little league game but never attended the older child’s games.
Other problems, Not only are teens not into bonding with their parents, but also trying to force that bond or lull them into it, as the changes seem to have done to the families 15 year old son, can undermine their natural search for independence, which can cause turmoil down the line when they go off to college, have to move out, function on their own. Is this experiment still worth it if all this togetherness, discovering each other leads to unwanted revelations; is it worth the risk of what you have or what you believe you have, if through this process, you realize you don’t like your kids, maybe not because they are selfish, petty or some other character flaw, but they are, all the sudden not who you thought they were, you have nothing in common, you don’t understand where they got their interests, where they came up with their views, you begin to wonder how you raised a child that thinks that. The light goes on in your head and you realize this is why we stopped being so close, spending so much time together; sadly knowledge of that kind can erode any future relationship.
The same is true if you try an implement Mr. Walsh’s tip for how to talk to your spouse; what happens when you do start talking, one or both of you looks at each other and wonders how you could have married the other person. What do you do as you talk more and more realizing you do want a divorce; so much for the preface at the beginning of the conversation. In the Oprah show piece once the man and wife did start talking, he confided his insecurities about being a dad, was he doing a good job, was he doing enough, was he doing it right? His wife’s response, why don’t you tell me these things? But another woman might take this confession as a sign of weakness and look down on her husband for it. What is the next step when all the talking leads to hurtful admissions, information you really didn’t need to know about the other person, or how they feel about you? Mr. Walsh seems to be under the impression that what he is doing is good for America; what if what transpires is after going through the process the family realizes they were better off before, better off not knowing what they do now, better off not trying to reconnect with their kids and have it blow up in their face, reconnect with their wife or husband and instead had them thinking about the big D?
The reality is we are as connected as we want to be; sometimes the “dysfunction” works better than reaching for a level of so called function that you never had to begin with, particularly without professional help. The reality is there are significant pitfalls in this challenge, in this program being taken across the country. An example, work demands do not change; that’s probably how a blackberry ended up at the dinner table to begin with. Exhausted parents may want to play with their kids, cook a family meal, but they just don’t have the energy. Removing all technology in order to redirect priorities is ludicrous, as is removing technology such as microwaves and stereos rather than demonstrating how you can have food healthy using a microwave. While there is an argument for removing I-pods and stereos from kids’ rooms so they interact with family members, taking away a stereo in the family room, living room robs them of a chance to create a family dance contest or mom and dad to dance to music as they reconnect. Also homework needs do not change just because you chose to limit gadget time in your household; how did the 15 year old complete his homework during the challenge, seeing as the internet has become such a part of learning? Curiously enough, a similar question arises watching the piece as the family instituted new rules, one of which being no TV, internet, gadgets between 6-9 PM. Wonderful, however; did anyone check with the 15 year old, monitor his habits to know if he would be finished with his homework by 6 PM?
Plus, reasonably it can be assumed that dinner in this house is from 6-7, bath time for the younger child 7-8 and bed at 8 or 8:30, bed for the older child 9-10; what is the other kid doing while someone is supervising bath time for the younger one, and why can’t he watch TV? Leading us into a comment made about TV and self parenting, that somehow, according to Mr. Walsh, letting your child control the remote for the duration of a program or an hour or two is self parenting and harmful vs. participating in a family activity where they have to lose at a game, learn something new. In actuality a 5 year old, the child the comment was made in connection to, needs things in their life they can control, because so much of their life is run on someone else’s schedule and choices; mom and dad decide when they go to bed, when they get up, probably what clothes they wear, what food they eat, the school determines what happens and when, even what’s for lunch. So giving a child, even that young, a time where they control something isn’t a bad thing, and once your children have done their homework, done their chores or other required tasks, why haven’t they earned the right to choose how they spend their time? Remember if you take it away from them your also taking it away from yourself.
Obviously if you choose to reorganize things in your household it is done on your schedule and based on the things that are a priority to you, but even the featured family fails to realize they may not always be able to have 3 nights a week of meals around the table as their younger son becomes old enough to be involved in sports, extra curricular activities. Mr. Walsh was extraordinarily reckless with this family telling them to go on a road trip with the new rules, involving a car fun kit including some sort of puppet; the problem, persons driving don’t need to be distracted with goofy car songs, games where they have to answer questions, loud noise. The longer the trip, the more you need the adult in the passenger seat to be an extra set of eyes and ears, not laughing, joking, not paying attention and pulling you attention away from the road. There is a reason manufactures put TV’s in back of mini vans; the mother of Oprah’s featured family commented how wonderful it was to go on a road trip with the new rules as her oldest son would have normally sat in back with headphones on. Lets see quiet, not annoying his brother, not asking are we there yet, most parents dream; she would no doubt have felt differently had one of the activities led to an accident or a near miss.
People should remember there are ways to integrate gadgets into your lives; many times it’s not in what you do but how you do it, cooking healthy food with the microwave, maybe family game night is everyone enjoying playing a video game together as a family, TV can be a conversation piece not a conversation killer, several families bond while watching family themed and oriented movies together. Nurturing can happen any place in your house not just the kitchen, not just around the dinner table. In fact, as shown above moving conversation and possible turmoil away from food may be the best thing; maybe it takes place while helping with homework, at snack time when they come home from school or during story time before bed; Randy Pausch, famed creator of the last lecture, asked his kids 3 questions every night before they went to bed, giving them a chance to talk about their day. Watching for those moments when kids what your attention, when you can all be together around something is a good way to interact with your kids at all times.
Neither are gadgets and distractions the primary source of a lack of relationship between parents and their children; these instances tend to occur as a result of hurtful things said by parents, any abusive behavior, kids being left with the feeling parents do not care. Children also pick up very quickly and very young if mom or dad don’t approve of their interests and distance themselves accordingly. The source of distance can be as simple as asking how their day was and not stopping long enough to hear the answer, assuming your child has nothing to be worried, stressed or unhappy about. Or when they do tell you about their bad day, instead of being comforting and supportive first, then providing constructive criticism, discussing solutions, you launch immediately into what you think they should have done, why can’t you keep your mouth closed, why can’t you sit still? Nagging kids, making derogatory comments about bad memory, focus, weight, horrible comments about clothing looking like a slut, unfounded comments about sexual activity, nasty questions about sexual orientation are all things parents have been known to heap on their kids. In those cases the distance has nothing to do with technology.
Sadly for the family depicted on the show and families across the nation given some sort of wakeup call seeing them, here was a family doing a whole lot of things right to have raised an articulate, well mannered, on track 15 year old and a 5 year old whose only flaw is he’s 5. None of the kids had glaring behavior problems, problems at school; none of the family were obese, so the microwave meals couldn’t have been that unhealthy. Their kids feel loved and cared for. For someone to come along, invited or not, and tell them they were doing it wrong is just wrong; for them to have felt pressured by friends, society or themselves that they needed to make a huge change is wrong. And no one should be disseminating that concept anywhere no matter how good Peter Walsh’s intentions are.