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Why I make time for reading in my life

I’m a wife and a mom with a three year old and a one year old. Both children are very active and inquisitive, and enjoy actively inquiring into my cabinets and the fridge, experimenting to see what happens if they pour water on the floor, and if they hit each other. They keep me on my toes. 

I also cook pretty much every meal from scratch–what exactly is scratch anyway? Does anyone know? I bake my own bread, and don’t own a dishwasher. I do the grocery shopping, keep track of endless piles of laundry–or try– and I go on playdates, by which I mean that I try to hang out with other moms while my kids hang out with other kids.

I have a lot on my plate. 

But I make time for reading. I have read at least 2 dozen books since the beginning of the year. Sometimes I use audiobooks, some ebooks, but mostly I check out print books from the library. 

So with so much on my plate, why do I prioritize reading? 

It Keeps Me Sane

When I was pregnant with my first child, I quit my intellectually stimulating job as a middle school history and literature teacher to stay home and take care of the baby. I need intellectual stimulation, and babies, delightful as they are, don’t provide much of that. Reading gives me new things to think about, and is, incidentally, amazingly compatible with breastfeeding. It’s also easier to do with jumping toddlers next to you than just about any other hobby. So basically, reading is a major part of my self care and self-development routine. 

It Gives Me Something to Talk About

There was a period of a few weeks where I had stopped reading, because I thought I was “too busy.” Not only did my brain feel dead, I also discovered that the quality of the conversations I was having with my husband was declining. I had nothing to bring to the table except stories about the kids’ naughtiness, or what I found at the grocery store. I decided this was not ok, and resolved to read something every day, just so that I would have something to bring to the conversation. My husband married a woman who was interested in all sorts of things, presumably because he liked me that way, and I think I should try to keep being that person. 

It’s an Example I Want to Set

When I prioritize reading, this shows my children, young as they are, that books are interesting, and that reading is something that people do. This will make them more likely to be readers and learners when they are old enough. 

I also want them to see that I am a separate person and not just their mom/servant. I think it’s important for my kids to see me doing things that interest me. And for them to see me continuing to learn as an adult. 

How do you fit reading into your life? If you don’t have a lot of time, here’s five books every woman should read. 

Otherwise, here are some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. I hope you enjoy some of them too.

 A guide to natural childbirth inspired by Catholic principles and illustrated with stories of Catholic moms giving birth. Good information, good stories. I was glad I read this one.

 Why yes, I do love science fiction. Timothy Zahn is one of my favorite authors, and this is quite the series. I just re-read it recently.

This is a new one from one of my fellow authors over at Catholicteenbooks.com (Which you should totally check out if you have teenage kids or students, are a teen yourself, or just enjoy YA fiction.) It’s a hard-to-put-down dystopian story about faith, love, martyrdom, and a bunch of other stuff. A lot of fun.

Yes, it’s a kid’s picture book. I thoroughly enjoyed it though. It’s a story about how some young students protect some Jewish children their age during WWII.

Sort of like grown-up Narnia. This is the third book in the series, and I haven’t gotten around to reading the first two, but I did enjoy this one.

The best book on taking control of your digital life that I’ve seen.

Yes, I love science fiction. This is an exciting story of pursuit, compulsion and conversion.

Editing counts as reading, right? I hope you’ll consider checking my book out as well!

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How Your Tech Changes You

This is the third and last part of my series on relating to technology in a healthy way. I’d love you hear your thoughts in the comments.  If you haven’t read the other two parts, they can be found here: Part 1 and Part 2 

(This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

A few more thoughts on our relationship with technology. 

The tools we use change us. Archeologists can tell the difference between the skeletons of sword-wielding warriors and ordinary people because using the sword at that level actually changes the structure of the warriors’ body. The British archers who ended the age of armored knights on horseback as the ultimate weapon of war similarly became one with their bows. An archer’s bow arm became highly overdeveloped, and this is visible even in the skeleton. 

These are extreme examples, but every tool we use changes us both physically and mentally. The swordsman becomes one with his sword when he fights. He does not “use his sword” to fight. He fights, and the sword is an extension of himself that gives him new powers. 

Our phones and computers are extensions of our powers as well. 

My phone gives me the ability to speak to people across the world, to learn new things, to take notes about things that are important to me. I have become accustomed to having these powers, and I do not think this a bad thing. In a certain very real sense, we do become one with our phones and computers. It is not surprising that many people become anxious without their phones. I am sure many swordsmen feel incomplete without their weapons. They are missing a part of what they have come to think of as themselves. How could they not be anxious? 

It’s fine to become one with your tools. In fact, only when you are one with your tools can you work at your highest potential. The only trouble is if your tools somehow diminish you, if you lose the abilities you had before you had the tool. 

If the swordsman gains the ability to fight with his sword, he gains as a warrior, but if he can never set the sword down, he will be diminished as a man. It would be hard to write, to eat, or to show affection while constantly holding a naked blade in your hand. 

The same is true of our phones. We gain abilities from our phones, but if we can never put them down we lose parts of our humanity. The information they make available to us is wonderful, but we can’t lose our ability to just be bored occasionally. As Manoush Zomorodi says on page 5 of Bored and Brilliant, “We may feel like we are doing very little when we endlessly fold laundry, but our brains are actually hard at work. When our minds wander, we activate something called the ‘default mode,’ the mental place where we solve problems and generate our best ideas, and engage in what’s known as ‘autobiographical planning,’ which is how we make sense of our world and our lives and set future goals. The default mode is also involved in how we try to understand and empathize with other people, and make moral judgments.” These are important powers which we can only access if we’re just a little bit bored. If we have a constant stream of phone calls, texts, games, and videos keeping our brains constantly busy, we will never go into “default mode” and we will be less than we could be as a result. 

Keep the control in your hands

It’s also important to keep our tools as tools and not let them make us slaves. We should have tools that fit us, not force ourselves to conform to our tools. Really good sword fighters often had swords specially made for them, or at least chose a sword that suited them better than others. 

We should customize our devices to do what we want them to do for us, and to not do what we do not want them to do. I want my phone to enhance my ability to communicate with friends, to organize my life, and to share my ideas with others. Otherwise I want it to be as unobtrusive as possible. I have turned off all notifications except email, text, calls, and my library app, and have muted everything except calls from my contacts. I have no games and no social media. (I kind of wish the news wasn’t so easily accessible, but I don’t usually have a problem with it.)

I installed Google Docs for writing, Todoist for organizing, and I take lots of pictures of my kids so I can send them to my parents and in-laws. I have been trying to call my friends more than I text them lately, as I think the level of connection achieved is higher, and I can do other things (like laundry and dishes) while talking, but not while texting. 

My phone—while I do use it very extensively–is my tool and not my master. It is an extension of myself that I am comfortable with and which I believe makes me better at being what I want to be. 

I hope you’ve found these ideas useful and interesting, and that you are inspired to make your devices healthy and welcome extensions of yourself. It will probably take a long time and a lot of adjustment to find the exact set of tools and rules that helps you lead your best life, but it is worth every bit of effort you put in. Your future self will thank you, as will your friends and family. 

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Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

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Managing Technology in Your Life Part 1

Several months ago someone asked me to write about teens and technology use.  I thought it sounded like a fun topic, so I researched the subject. I fell down a rabbit hole of books about tech and kids, tech and society, social media, etc. Then I read Digital Minimalism–by far the best of the lot–and was thoroughly overcome with a sense of inferiority. I knew that no blog post I could ever write would be anywhere near as good as that book. And I also knew that I couldn’t just write a blog post that said, “Read Digital Minimalism. Just do it. You will be happier.” 

So I didn’t write at all. But I finally decided that I just had to share its ideas. You should really just read Digital Minimalism, but I will try to make this blog post the next best thing. 

Start with a plan

When you’re coming up with screen time rules for your kids, the most important thing is to have a coherent idea of the role you want tech to play in your life. Making up arbitrary rules doesn’t work. You need a coherent and principled system, like digital minimalism. 

On his blog, Cal Newport (author of the book Digital Minimalism) defines digital minimalism as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

It’s not about going home and throwing out your TV, your smart phone, or your laptop, unless you decide rationally and intentionally that this is what is best for you and your family. You might, but that’s not really the point. The point is to use your technologies to help you get what you want, rather than letting them run your life. 

What do you want?

So the first step in coming up with a tech plan is to list your goals as a person and as a family. What would your perfect life look like? What do you want to achieve? What kind of leisure activities would you like to spend your time on? What would you like your kids to be and do? What sort of quality time do you want to spend with your children? What talents do you want to develop? What talents do you want your kids to develop? What big financial, relationship or personal goals do you have in your life? 

Really take some time to think about these questions, because the answers will be the basis not only for a sound tech strategy, but also for a happier and more fulfilling life.

What tech do you use?

The second step: List all of the tech you (and your family) regularly use. This includes devices (eg. Laptop, smart speakers, ipods, smart phones, TV, gaming consoles, etc.) It also includes services and social media platforms. (eg. Cable, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) 

Be thorough. Really take stock of the technologies you use and how you use them. And how much you use them–which might be hard. A time tracker might be useful for this. There are automatic time tracking programs for both computers and phones which can tell you how much time you spend on which apps. If you want to track all your activities, not just the ones on particular devices, you can also use the pen and paper method, or there are apps that you can use on your phone to track your activities of all kinds. It can be quite interesting to see how much time you spend on different things, but time tracking is hard. I tried it for about 3 days (using a simple app) and by the third day I gave up, exhausted from the effort of trying to be always aware of what I was doing. 

Cal Newport actually recommends taking a 30 day break from all inessential technologies just as a sort of detox, so you can think more clearly about what you have been spending your time on and whether you want those things back in your life. This might actually be easier than tracking your activities.

Is your tech helping you get what you want? 

Step three is to compare your two lists. Look at each technology in your life and ask yourself three questions. 

  1. Does this device or service help me achieve any of the things I have decided that I value? 
  2. Is this device or technology the best or only way to achieve that goal? 
  3. How can I minimize the downsides of this technology and improve its effectiveness for my purposes?

If anything on your list does not pass the first test, then get rid of it. If it’s not making you happier or helping you achieve your goals, then you don’t want it in your life. 

The second question is where things get more complicated. An example would be Facebook. Let’s say I’ve decided that keeping in touch with my family is very important to me, and Facebook helps me do that. But is Facebook the best technology for helping you stay in touch with family? Or when you log in, do you mainly see angry political ranting and cat videos that distract you for the next 15 minutes (or the next hour) and take you away from your family who is present. Consider alternatives. I, for example, don’t use Facebook for anything personal. I have some friends who live elsewhere who I want to keep in touch with, and I have chosen to use a group chat instead of Facebook, because I think that this maximizes my meaningful interaction with my actual friends in ways that Facebook does not. 

But maybe you decide that Facebook is indeed the best choice for you. This is where question 3 comes in. How can you use Facebook so that you minimize the negative consequences of it? I do use Facebook. I used to find it irritating, frustrating and time wasting. I was frustrated that my email was constantly full of updates. But I had found that it was the most effective way to advertise my blog, so I had to figure out how to mitigate the negative consequences of having it in my life.

Because my only purpose for having Facebook is to advertise my writing, I blocked all email notifications. I have Facebook only on my laptop, and not on my phone. I post links when I write a new blog post, and then I leave. I have learned that looking at my Facebook feed makes me angry and sad, so I pretty much limit my Facebook use to posting links and leaving. (I also occasionally network using the private messenger function, but never on my phone.) This works very well for me.

Other people might need to use Facebook because of a Facebook group that they participate in. It is possible to bookmark that group’s page, so that when you need to check your group you can go directly there without looking at things that irritate and distract you.

These are just examples. Maybe the technology you’re looking at is Netflix. Maybe you have decided that watching a TV show or film with your spouse or your kids is a valuable way of connecting with them, and that Netflix is the best way of accomplishing that. But maybe you are frustrated because you find that every time you look at Netflix you spend half an hour being irritated because you can’t figure out what you want to watch. Maybe a good choice for you would be to make a rule that you don’t open up Netflix unless you have already decided what to watch, or that you will set a 10 minute timer, after which you will pick whatever has looked best so far.

The point is that every technology you have, every service you subscribe to, everything you own, takes a certain amount of space, time, mental energy, and sometimes money to maintain. Is it worth it, and how can it be minimized? This is the decision you have to make, based on your own goals for you and your family

Now that you have made a coherent and principled system for making technology decisions, now you are ready to tackle the sticky issue of how much and what technologies are appropriate for your child to use. 

That will be for next time. 

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Why It’s Important to Celebrate

As it is Saint Patrick’s Day, it seems like a good time to talk about celebrations. And so of course I will start with a quote from a well-known atheist–Ayn Rand. In Atlas Shrugged, a character comments, “Parties are intended to be celebrations, and celebrations should be only for those who have something to celebrate.” The character who said it was explaining why she found a particular party so insipid–everyone was trying to feel special by surrounding themselves with the trappings of celebration, but they had done nothing worth celebrating, and so it didn’t really work. They–and she–still instinctively felt the emptiness of the occasion and were deeply unsatisfied. 

You need a reason to celebrate

Now of course we can celebrate many things other than our own accomplishments. We also get to celebrate the accomplishments of our friends–especially the ones who have already died, like Saint Patrick. We do not earn the right to celebrate at Christmas and Easter; Christ earned it for us. 

Birthdays are also a good excuse to celebrate. I suppose an argument could be made that celebrating a child’s birthday is an excuse for the parents to celebrate their accomplishment in keeping their kids alive for another year. But people can be pretty wonderful, and a person’s wonderfulness is certainly worth celebrating at least once a year. The same goes for weddings, anniversaries, visits of out of town friends and relatives, and other such occasions.)

But the idea that celebrations need to be earned still has merit. You can’t just celebrate whenever and however you want, for no reason. It is meaningless and fundamentally unsatisfying. 

You need to celebrate when you have a reason

But if celebrations ought to be earned, then that means that when you have earned it, you really ought to celebrate. 

The first time I can recall really putting this idea into practice was the day I finished sewing my wedding dress. After months of planning, designing, sewing, and fitting, finally, a couple weeks before my wedding, it was done. I was so excited that I invited all my housemates to go out for frozen yogurt with me at the local frozen yogurt place. That was the most enjoyable frozen yogurt I ever had. I felt like I had earned the celebration, and I felt that my friends were happy at my success as well, and that made it all the more delicious. 

Since then I have tried to incorporate the idea of celebrating accomplishments into my life. 

I like to have dinner parties or go out for dinner with my husband to celebrate milestones on projects that are important to me. Somehow these parties or outings are just a little more special because of it. I have dinner parties just for the heck of it as well, but I think I genuinely enjoy the celebration parties more. (Maybe it’s partly that I get to tell my guests about my accomplishment, and so I know that others are celebrating my win as well. Perhaps it is because I have particularly wonderful people to call friends, but I think that they really enjoy celebrating my wins with me as well.) 

Celebrating helps you be more productive

So having an accomplishment to celebrate makes me enjoy my celebration more, thus making my life happier, but I have noticed the reverse as well. Knowing that I will celebrate my accomplishments makes me more motivated to accomplish things. When a project is very time consuming, it can get discouraging. It starts to feel like you will never ever ever be done. I have been translating a book that is over 700 pages long for the last few years, and even though I enjoy the work, that project has definitely sometimes felt like it would never be over. But I have been celebrating reaching the end of each chapter, and it really helps me keep going. I attack each new goal re-charged by celebrating the accomplishment of the previous one. 

The science of habit formation agrees with me here. In Atomic Habits, James Clear describes how habits are made up of cue, craving, response and reward. One way to encourage the formation of desired habits is to make the “reward” part of the habit particularly satisfying. This is where celebrating your milestones comes in. It’s the start of a new self-reinforcing good habit of accomplishing your goals. 

Do what works for you

Maybe hosting dinner parties doesn’t sound fun to you. (I would love to try to change your mind about that, but another time.) Or maybe you’re on a really tight budget. Celebrations don’t have to be complicated or expensive. And the accomplishments we celebrate don’t have to be earth-shaking. It can be as simple as enjoying a glass of wine with a friend when you finish painting your living room, or playing volleyball with friends after you take your finals. (Or taking a nice warm bath. Whichever is more your style.) Even just calling a friend to share your good news is a good way to celebrate. 

Next time you set a big goal for yourself, take a moment to think about how you will celebrate when you reach that goal. I think you’ll find that you will not only enjoy your celebration more than you expect, but that you’re also more likely to achieve your goal when you have a concrete plan to celebrate afterwards.