What We Gained (and Lost) When Our Daughter Unplugged for a School Year

The handwritten letters from our 13-year-old daughter sit on our coffee table in a clear plastic folder. With their drawings of pink flowers and long paragraphs marked with underlined and crossed-out words, they are an abridged, analog version of her spirited personality — and a way for my wife and me to keep her close as we watch TV and fiddle with our phones.

They would not exist, of course, if Amelia was home with us in Sydney. But she is hundreds of miles away at a uniquely Australian school in the bush, where she is running and hiking dozens of miles a week, sharing chores with classmates, studying only from books and, most miraculously, spending her whole ninth-grade school year without the internet, a phone, a computer or even a camera with a screen.

Our friends and relatives in the United States can hardly believe this is even a possibility. There, it is considered bold just to talk about taking smartphones from students during class time. Here in Australia, a growing number of respected schools lock up smart everything for months. They surround digital natives with nature. They make tap-and-swipe teens learn, play and communicate only through real-life interaction or words scrawled on the page.

“What a gift this is,” we told Amelia, when she was accepted, hesitated, then decided to go.

What I underestimated was how hard it would be for us at home. Removing the liveliest member of our family, without calls or texts, felt like someone had taken one of my internal organs across state lines without telling me how to heal. The silence and hunger to see paper in the mailbox, anything from my girl, spurred nausea and a rush to the Stoics.

Yet as we adjust, her correspondence and ours — traveling hundreds of miles, as if from one era to another — is teaching us all more than we’d imagined. The gift of digital detox that we thought Australia was giving our daughter has also become a revelatory bequest for us — her American parents and her older brother.

Something in the act of writing, sending and waiting days or weeks for a reply, and in the physical and social challenges experienced by our daughter at a distance, is changing all of our personal operating systems. Without the ever-present immediacy of digital connection, even just temporarily, can a family be rewired?

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