When Your Son Thinks You're A Laptop, It's Time To Reassess

It wasn't Anne-Marie Slaughter's proudest moment as a mom, but it taught her an important lesson.

Anne-Marie Slaughter has spent years in front of her computer. She has degrees from Princeton, Oxford and Harvard and was a professor at Princeton for many years. From 2009-2011, she was the first woman to serve as Director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State. Today she is the president and CEO of a think tank called New America.

Slaughter published her third book last week, titled Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family, in which she discusses the complexities that women face when trying to juggle it all -- namely, work and family.

But a brief story from the book sparked a conversation between Slaughter and HuffPost about how being constantly plugged-in impacts our families and our relationships.

In Unfinished Business, Slaughter writes about a moment when she realized things had fallen out of balance:

Even when I was home, my computer was never far from reach. Indeed, in first grade, our older son was asked to draw his family -- he drew me as a laptop -- not a woman sitting at a laptop, but a laptop itself!"

Slaughter and her husband, Princeton professor Andrew Moravcsik, talked often about how to raise their children with technology -- especially as two professionals who were always sitting in front of their laptops.

The Huffington Post spoke to Slaughter about her views on technology's growing role in family dynamics and how to balance screen time with family time. Highlights from the conversation are below:

The Huffington Post: You can laugh about the laptop drawing moment now, especially since your kids are in high school and college, but what did that moment feel like at the time? Did it feel funny? Did it worry you?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: It was not my proudest moment as a mother. In the drawing, I was the laptop and Andy was cooking. Some of our earliest memories of parenting are putting Edward down in the center of the room with toys and both of us would be on our laptops. I think all through their lives they have had to compete with the laptop for attention. One eye on the phone and one eye on the child. I think it’s why things like the dinner table with no screens, which we definitely do, are so important. And things like reading to them -- activities where you really can’t simultaneously try to do work.

My husband and I were professors. Our laptops are our offices. The good part is that you can work anywhere -- but it’s also the bad part. As my husband says, academics are people who say, ‘oh great, I can’t wait to go on vacation, I’m going to get so much work done!’ I spent some time thinking about how to do things with my kids so that I could give them my undivided attention. But there’s no question that if you ask them, they would say we are hypocrites because we spend so much time getting them off their phones -- but they do the same for us with our laptops.

Did that event force you to start talking to your kids about technology in a different way or did you just become more conscious of finding ways to spend time with them away from your devices?

I don’t remember it as a great watershed moment. I kind of winced. I thought OK, time to focus on dividing up time a little better. We tried to raise them without a lot of the technology that their friends had. They never had a Gameboy and they think that was a real mistake. They think they are more susceptible to videogames because we curtailed them. We didn’t get an Xbox until we went to China when they were eight and 10. My husband still thinks that was an insane thing to do. We have wrestled with it all the way through. Periodically they will tell us that we are just as addicted to technology as they are.

What are some ways you have tried to balance the use of technology in the family?

We have gone to the same place in Italy every year since they were born. It’s a very important time. When I was an academic we could take a month; now we take two weeks. My parents come and other friends come. That has been an absolute anchor. There isn’t a lot of technology. There’s no television. There’s Internet and as they’ve gotten older, yes, they can disappear into a screen, but by and large those were nearly screen-free weeks.

It was real family time where we spent a lot of time cooking, eating, sitting around the table and lots of time playing games. In general, that’s how we managed it. There would be periods of intense work and then periods of family time. And when it’s family time, we do things together. We did silly things like have a pancake and movie night every Friday night for a long time. It was really about making islands of fun things that wasn’t sitting in a room each of us on screen -- but us actually doing things together.

It has been reported that stress levels in teens and young adults are higher than ever before. Some feel that this is linked to technology. You were a professor for many years -- why do you think kids are so stressed these days?

I think they’re more stressed. I don’t think its technology. My observation is that the competition is just much stiffer -- within schools and also getting into a good college. I grew up in a small university town in Charlottesville, Virginia and I wanted to go to a good college. My kids are in Princeton, New Jersey and they want to go to college. But I did not have to work as hard as my kids are expected to work.

I didn’t even have AP courses. Now they are supposed to take five APs junior year of high school. As a professor, I looked at these kids with resumes that are just completely unbelievable. Orchestra-quality musician, studying neuroscience and started an NGO in her spare time? Come on [laughs]!

The bar is really, really high and I think kids are responding to real pressures. I don’t know how to relieve it except to say do your best. It’s OK if you don’t get into the top school.

Given how high stress levels are and the increasing reliance on technology, are you addressing the way people interact with technology at your workplace any differently?

Sherry Turkle has a new book out called Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other where she talks about what she’s finding in terms of technology and our attention spans. What I practice at New America is just changing expectations. I have noticed in the past year that people email much less on weekends than they used to. I actually think people do better if they aren’t always on. People are starting to take it to heart.

Also on HuffPost:

19 Ways To Unplug