It's time we catch up!

It's time we catch up!

A Netflix marathon, some laundry and lots of WhatsApp and Facebook. Not with each other — but with friends, with distant relatives, with neighbours and near strangers, and sometimes, even with strangers. Then dinner, sitting across a table peering into the very same phones. Looking up once in a while to talk about an annoying uncle who keeps forwarding stuff on WhatsApp, or to diss the holiday photos of a long-lost cousin. Before you know it, dinner is done, Sunday night is here and so are Monday blues.

That sums up the weekend for many couples in cities today. And for those with kids? The story is no better, just a little different. Like that of Aparna Rajashekar, whose eight-year-old daughter Ananya was jumping in excitement last weekend. Her nana-nani had come for a visit. Aparna, a banker, smiled at her daughter’s enthusiasm and stepped out for some chores. When she came back an hour later, the house was quiet. Curious, Aparna stepped into the living room and saw a sight that would have been funny if it were not so sad. Ananya was sitting with her iPad watching her favourite cartoon; her nana was furiously browsing through his WhatsApp groups, while her nani kept up a laboured clickety-clack on her high-end phone.

“It was a penny-drop moment for me,” confesses Aparna. “What happened to my daughter’s excitement about spending time with her grandparents? And my own parents? Didn’t they visit yearning to play with their grandchild? Why were they not doing that!”

Aparna’s questions led her to reassess her family’s priorities and face the unique challenges of the ‘plugged-in’ generation. And clearly, as Aparna realised, this did not just involve tackling her kid’s addiction to technology — it also meant coming to terms with the compulsions of the adults in the family.

Changing priorities

Already, with our busy lifestyles, families are hardly getting time to just be. When was the last time you sat around with your folks with nothing much to do — simply yapping, exchanging thoughts and anecdotes (not on social media!) or simply lazing, demolishing munchies?

Weekends are somewhat better, but even when families are physically together, often their time is spent — surfing the Internet, vegetating in front of the TV, playing computer games or merely being too tired (or too busy) to talk. REALLY TALK.

This is not true only of families with children. Even couples find themselves spending their free time doing their own thing rather than catching up with each other. “I am afraid, I am guilty as charged,” says Preethi Ramaprasad, who is married for three years now and works punishing hours as an entrepreneur. Her husband, an investment consultant, is not any less busy. “We do go on annual holidays and stuff but, more often than not, weekends are choc-a-bloc with chores, relatives, friends and Netflix,” she says.

But is it a bad thing to be busy? No doubt we live in a busier world and our kids have much more on their plate than we ever did. But is it necessarily such a bad thing? Author of Manya Learns To Roar and other children’s books, Shruthi Rao says she does not see anything wrong in it as long as the child enjoys what he or she is doing and has time to lounge around.

“Children today are involved in far more structured and planned activities; this also means they are getting the opportunity to learn new things, explore different fields and get exposed to ideas we hadn’t even dreamt of,” she says.

However, Shruthi does agree that too much slotting and must-do activities do not give the child space to just be and not do anything. Precisely why she does not believe in setting apart a chunk of time as “quality family time”. “This will turn it into another structured activity for the kid and defeat the purpose. But it is also essential to spend time together. Ideally, family time should be a floating thought — something that can be caught and pinned down when the child is amenable,” she feels.

The extra mile

Deepti and Ankit, both IT professionals, have a different take on this idea. They have a clear ‘no-gadget-only-family’ time in their house. Every day, the couple ensures that they play with their three-year-old daughter Avani for at least half an hour. In those precious 30 minutes, no one touches any gadget.

Interestingly, perhaps because the couple are able to give this kind of quality time to her, Avani is happy to play on her own the rest of the time. Kavitha Sachit, a homemaker, agrees that today, every family has to go the extra mile if they want to make memories with their children. “We do the quintessential eating together of at least one meal. It really works; my husband is a hobby cook and he makes sure he ropes in the kids whenever he is experimenting with a new dish,” she says. Kavitha’s kids are in their teens and she suspects it is only going to get tougher as they grow older to engage with them as a family.

Many families including that of Kavitha’s also swear by travelling — especially road trips. Independent design consultant Shruti Dhawan says her seven-year-old son Pranav loves spontaneous family vacations. “We don’t plan for long holidays…we go on short, impromptu road trips — it is refreshing for everyone involved and gives the children precious exposure to new places, cuisines and landscapes. There’s no better way to bond.”

Dangerous downsides

Needless to say, if couples don’t spend enough time together, not only will they feel alienated from each other mentally, but their very marriage might be at stake. Often, it is these everyday indifferences that snowball into bigger, nastier problems.

In fact, according to researchers, a lack of bonding, stunted social and empathetic development in children and a diminished sense of attachment are the dangerous downsides of our busy, technology-driven times. But what about the kids themselves?

Child counsellor Suma Srinivas says more than the children, it is the parents who ultimately go on a guilt trip, berate themselves and end up regretting their choices. “Kids are hardy; and more importantly, they don’t know any better. Trouble arrives if you give them a taste of how good it can be to spend time with their parents and extended family and then take it away from them,” she says.

For kids who grow up in nuclear families with not much social interaction and technological freedom, it becomes a way of life. “But it is when these kids become mothers and fathers themselves that they look back on their childhood and judge their parents,” says Suma. But that said, children are indeed happier or at least more relaxed when they spend time with their family, she adds.

The important thing of course is to make family time, however elusive it is, as fun as possible. Many couples swear it is such moments of togetherness that stay with them long after. Children too store these tiny wisps in their brain-box of ‘happy childhood memories’, to be fished out fondly when they are older and wiser. If a bit of learning can go along with it — say picking up a new skill along the way or even comprehending tolerance and compassion — that’s icing on the cake. There are a hundred different ways to make family time memorable. All you need is some creativity, a willingness to persist, and oh, a little dash of that infamous jugaad!

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