Unplugged Pleasures: Living a Tech-Free Lifestyle

You won’t find a TV or video game in this renovated 1870 farmhouse. But far from grousing, the kids happily cook, bake and even knit. Come Christmas, making decorations from scratch is a family affair.

Dad Kurt Steinert comes down the stairs to find son Emmett and daughter Ila wrapping presents in the living room, with an assist from mutt Hazel.
Photo by Laura Moss

“I was born at the wrong time,” says Christina Sacalis, only half joking. When would have been the right time? Around 1870, perhaps—the year the Stockton farmhouse that she shares with husband Kurt Steinert and their two children was built. It’s not that life was simpler then. No way feeding, sheltering, hitching and driving horses and an unheated buggy over dirt roads was simpler than gassing up the family car.

No, Sacalis and Steinert aren’t naíve. They just happen to treasure a sense of the past uncluttered by the 24/7 distractions of media and the modern marvels. They prefer a lifestyle characterized by more direct contact among people, and especially between people and nature.

Sacalis, now a full-time mom, spent 10 years working in publishing in New York City. One lovely spring day, sitting in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, she had a disturbing epiphany. “I realized,” she says, “I was disconnected from nature after a childhood of being very connected.”

Growing up on a farm in Sergeantsville, near Stockton, in Hunterdon County, Sacalis helped her family raise sheep and turkeys. Steinert, who grew up in Cherry Hill, is an avid camper and hiker. At the time of Sacalis’s realization, they and their young brood were living in Hoboken. “We wanted our kids to grow up feeling connected to the natural world,” Sacalis says. “We believe in living closer to the land.”

So in 2006 they pulled up stakes. Steinert parlayed his media relations job into a work-at-home position. Settling into the farmhouse on 7.45 acres, “we let go of things like television and picked up things like eating organic,” Sacalis says. Emmett, now 11, and Ila, now 7, do not have Xboxes, iPads and the like. Steinert has a computer for work, Sacalis, a laptop for e-mail. The kids use neither. The parents have cell phones; the kids do not.

“Is it really that unbelievable?” Sacalis asks. “We are not anti-technology. We just believe that all of that should be introduced to our kids at a later age.”

Photo by Laura Moss

Photo by Laura Moss

What Emmett and Ila each have is their own garden bed to experiment with. (They love getting dirty.) The family taps its maple trees and boils the sap down to syrup. They all pitch in to jar tomato sauce and jams they make from their harvest. The kids play outside no matter the weather. “The creek is an endless source of play and exploration,” says Sacalis of the stream that crosses the front yard.

Emmett and Ila love to cook and bake—and even knit. Needles click as they work their wool, much of it spun and dyed by Mom. Ila has made scarves for her dolls, Emmett, socks for himself. As you might guess, this family makes its own holiday ornaments. “Every Christmas we try to come up with another new idea,” Sacalis says.

Does it all sound a bit overprotective? “The kids are not cut off from the world,” Sacalis says. “It’s not like they’ve lost anything. They see TV, if they go to a friend’s house. We just don’t do it at home.” Inevitably, a kid will moan, “I’m bored!” Then what? “Boredom is actually really good for kids,” Mom maintains.

“Ultimately, if they’re bored enough, they’ll be forced to come up with something to create on their own.”

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