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How to Use Smart Lighting like a Third Parent

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What parent hasn’t wished for an extra pair of hands or a second set of eyes to help them with their daily routine? As with many of modern life’s little problems, technology has an answer: smart lighting.

Smart lighting—light bulbs you control remotely through smartphone and tablet apps—are part of the growing home automation revolution sweeping through American households. While much of the interest surrounding home automation focuses on the benefits for the homeowner, my experience as a mom of two is that smart lighting has many incredibly helpful (not to mention super fun) uses as a parenting tool.

By installing smart light bulbs (also called connected or Wi-Fi light bulbs) in your family room and children’s rooms, you can create a third parent in your home—the house itself. Automating your smart lighting through rules, timers and alarms turns your house into a third power in your children’s life—one that tells them when it’s time for bed, when it’s time to wake up and when to leave the house. Crucially, this third parent is one they can’t argue with! Light bulbs don’t understand, “Just 5 more minutes, please!!!!”

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? Having lived with smart lighting for almost a year, I can tell you that it really works. As a mother who works full time, having our schedule reinforced by the “house” has been a lifesaver for my addled brain, which just wants to fall asleep on the couch at 6 p.m. while my kids watch endless hours of “Jessie.” Now, at 7:30 p.m., the lights turn red and my son proudly announces that it’s time for bed. Really. It’s a truth, universally acknowledged by all parents, that our children behave far better for other people (or in this case, a computer) than they do for us.

The best thing about smart lighting is how simple it is. You buy a starter kit (ranging from $30 to $200, depending on how many lights you need), plug it in, set up your schedules on your smartphone or tablet and you are good to go.

There are a few different brands of smart bulbs available. The less expensive versions generally come in regular white, and the more expensive ones incorporate color (definitely worth considering as it gives you far more options for creating different scenarios for your children). Here are just a few examples of how you can make smart lighting work for your family:

Morning Alarm Clock

Whichever brand of smart light bulbs you decide on, it will come with its own app to control the bulbs. Within that app you set up your alarms and recurring schedules. For example, every school morning at 6:15 a.m., the GE Link lights in my son’s room come on to 50% brightness to start gently waking him. At 6:30 a.m., they turn to full brightness. We also have a wireless speaker system that starts playing music at the same time. Combined, they make the perfect alarm clock, saving me precious minutes running up the stairs to haul him out of bed. If you installed colored smart bulbs, such as Philips Hue, you could program an array of rainbow colored flashing lights to get your child out of bed promptly, or schedule a gentle simulated sunrise to wake them peacefully and calmly.

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You’ve probably seen those cutesy alarm clocks you can buy for your child’s room that are a traffic light design with red and green, to teach your early riser when it’s ok to get out of bed and wake up mommy and daddy. A color changing smart bulb can be programmed to act in the same way, with the advantage of being useful for about 20 years (the average lifespan of these LED bulbs), as opposed to the approximately two years it will take for your kid to get bored of a traffic light alarm clock. Just pop the smart bulb into your child’s bedside lamp and set it to turn a dim shade of red at the time your child normally wakes up and switch to green when they can get up. Then, tell them if the light is red, “stay in bed,” but when the light turns green it’s “okay to be seen.”

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Time to Leave

Help avoid the mad dash to the bus stop by programming your living room or kitchen smart lights to give you a 10 minute warning by flashing and then turn red or dim completely when it’s time to go out the door.

Bedtime Routine

The bedtime routine is where smart lighting has really come into its own in our household. At 7 p.m., all the lights in the house dim to 50%, letting everyone know it’s time to start calming down. We stop all games, turn off the TV and start mentally preparing for our nighttime routine. Then at 7:30 p.m., the living room lights turn red, notifying my children that it’s time to head upstairs, brush their teeth and get into their PJs. Once upstairs, the lights in their rooms are already dimmed to 50%, the perfect light for reading. Thirty minutes later, they dim to 10%, a sign that reading time is over and that it’s time to sleep. Another 30 minutes later, when they’re well into dreamland, the lights turn off.

Programmable Night Light

Does your child insist on having a nightlight, but then you find it wakes them up in the middle of the night? Program a smart light bulb to stay on for an hour or two when they first go to sleep, and then turn off for the majority of the night, but come back on at dim in the early morning hours. You’ll save energy, and your little one will never know the difference. If you are worried about them stumbling around in the dark, however, you can pair the light with a motion sensor, such as the Belkin WeMo Switch + Motion ($80), by their bed. Then, when they get up, the light will turn on automatically, letting them find their way to the bathroom with no accidents.

Parental Control

For older children, smart lighting gives you an extra level of control over what is happening in their room when the door is shut. For example, if the lights turn on when they shouldn’t, you can turn them off remotely. If this type of control is the main thing you’re looking for, consider just replacing the light switch with a wirelessly controllable switch, such as the Caseta Wireless Dimmer ($60), rather than investing in smart lights for the whole room.

Don’t Forget the Fun

While the control smart lighting offers is undoubtedly a useful tool, it can also be a lot of fun for the entire family. Ever since we installed Philips Hue lights in our living room, Disco Dance Off parties have become a regular event in our household. The kids choose their music and lighting theme on our iPad and we sit back and get to watch a great show, complete with flashing lights and mood setting tunes.

For younger kids, immersing them in different colors through lighting is a great game, as well as a perfect teaching tool. Have them hold a smartphone or tablet and touch the color wheel picker, say the color name to them and then watch their face light up as the whole room changes to the color they choose. These are just a couple ways you can have fun with smart light. My advice is to give the controls to your children and watch their imagination run wild!

Smart lighting is truly one of the simplest and most effective ways I’ve found to integrate technology in useful ways into our family life, and it never feels intrusive or dominant in the way some technology can. Considering that these are long life LED bulbs, which will save you money on energy and on replacing bulbs (incandescent bulbs last on average a year, a single LED can keep going for 20), they are arguably a very smart, and fun, investment for your family.

Jennifer Tuohy is not only a tech enthusiast, but also a mom of two who likes to share cool ways technology can help with parenting for The Home Depot. Jennifer provides advice on how LED lighting and wireless switches can make life easier and more fun.  To learn more about the LED smart lighting, visit homedepot.com.

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