Interview: John, Remote Dad (Father of Josh)

After I announced the topic of the Boxing Day Untangling the Web column last week, John got in touch to tell me that he’s separated from his kids, but uses the Web to stay connected. I asked him a few questions about how the Web has transformed his interactions with his family.

Do you have a similar experience or thoughts on this subject you’d like to add? Let me know at aleks.krotoski.freelance + at + or @aleksk on Twitter.

How old are your children?

Josh (9), Dan (very nearly 5), Lottie (6)

Why did you decide to try to connect with your kids online?

The team I work with is spread out over a few locations and we use instant messaging a lot, so its part of my day-to-day life and felt natural that I would use those same tools with the kids.

Which apps/games/services do you use? How much time do you spend on them together?

Skype is by far and away the leader. We spend at least an hour a day, before bed on most days, sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. Email is generally one way traffic from my end and I usually need to remind them to check their email.

My partner and I share a Club Penguin account; we keep debating whether to go the whole hog and become paid members, mostly so we can do up our igloo as a place that is ours for the kids to visit whenever they like; and also because it is awesome and having kids is the perfect excuse!  

Are there any services you feel are particularly good at creating a sense of emotional closeness?

The technology itself isn’t sufficient to create the sense of emotional closeness. We’re still working on what you can actually do, for fun, via Skype, or any web service we stumble upon. The most successful thing to date has been to buy two copies of a book and have one at each end so we can read together (particularly important with picture books). That and Top Trumps and paper-based battleships.

What is it lacking in comparison with other media and, of course, face-to-face?

I read about someone’s dad, many years ago, playing chess with his son using a velcro board and the postal service, so I think it’s more about inventiveness than the qualities of any particular media. From
personal experience I’d say the set of tools we use via the web aren’t lacking in any way compared to other media, except when there’s a dodgy connection at one end or the other of course, which is when we switch to good old fashioned telephone.

Compared to face-to-face, it doesn’t even come close. My kids don’t really like to just sit and chat, they are very active and bouncy and prefer to have that physical contact, even if it is just to punch me in the leg to try and start a play fight (boys!). On a few occasions we have had a bad combination of dodgy connection and an upset child wanting a hug, or at very least a chat for reassurance, and that is the worst thing; you can both end up feeling more anxious than when you started!

I’d say at best the technology plugs a gap between our weekend visits, I certainly couldn’t imagine only ever speaking via the web/Skype and never having real time together.

 How much have your kids led on connecting via the Web and how much has it been your initiative?  

At first I had to encourage them and it is still quite often at prescribed or prearranged times, but they are starting to use Skype more impulsively to get in touch now and I’d say that was as much
about the technology being stuck in a box, stuck in a corner more than anything. They’re getting a Netbook to share very soon and I am hoping that mobility might make them a little more inclined to call without it being planned in advance. iPhone’s for all, so we could use FaceTime, would be lovely of course, but that’s a ridiculous expense for young children; maybe some iPod touches to share in the not too distant future might help with spontaneity.

Check out the story from Josh’s (9) POV.

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