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Smartphones, the Parental Boogeyman

Smartphones, the Parental Boogeyman April 11, 2016

I am no technophobe, and I tend to be more okay with screen time—with balance, of course—than other parents. But there is one area where I have sometimes become concerned about technology and my parenting, and that is my smartphone usage. Smartphones have made it that much easier to always be doing something—answering email, reading articles, interacting with friends on social media—and that much easier to be distracted and not paying direct attention to my children. Fair warning—as I get at what’s going on here, I’m going to ramble a bit. I will, however, try to draw some conclusions if you make it through to the end.

I’ve read plenty of articles over the past two years advising parents to put their smartphones down and pay attention to their kids, and I’ve cringed every time I’ve read one because I really don’t like being lectured, and because I don’t like the way new technology is sometimes portrayed as The End of The World. Over time I’ve had to arrive at my own sense of balance, approaching the issue from my ideas about children rather than from a knee-jerk reaction or aversion to technology.

A lot of traditional parenting advice emphasizes teaching your children to drop everything and come when called, while also teaching your children that if they want your attention, they have to wait until you’re ready. Growing up, I remember times when my mom would be talking on the phone for what seemed like forever, and I’d have a question or something that needed addressing, and she would turn from the phone and this conversation would ensue:

“Is there blood or fire?”

“No . . . “

“Then don’t interrupt me.”

But when my mom called me or one of my siblings—for supper or to do a chore—we were expected to drop everything immediately and come post haste. “Delayed obedience is disobedience,” she used to say. While this may be a bit extreme, this idea that children should be able to wait while you finish a traditional task like speaking on the phone while children should be expected to come immediately when called is fairly common place—and very unexamined.

Of course, the leeway parents are often given by traditional parenting experts isn’t necessarily applied to smartphone usage. This is one reason I’ve bristled when reading articles telling parents to put their smartphones down and pay attention to their children. Articles like this sometimes seem more about reactive fear over the technology involved than any overarching principle. So how do we actually address what children need, while also inserting some fairness and reciprocity, and without relying on stereotypes about technology that position smartphone usage as worse than more traditional distractions?

For one thing, I don’t require my children to drop everything and come when called unless it’s an emergency. If it’s an emergency, they can tell by my tone and the fact that I’m saying they need to come now and come they do. But ordinarily, I’ll say “Hey Sally, could you come downstairs when you have a moment, I need to measure you for something!” Or, “Bobby, when you’re at a good stopping point I need your help in the kitchen.” And then they’ll come, when they finish their puzzle or their youtube video or dressing their barbie.

In turn, I’ve taught my children to do the same—to understand that when they ask for juice, or for me to get a board game down from the shelf, or for help finding a toy, they’ll need to wait until I get to a stopping point in what I’m doing. In other words, I’m teaching them to respect others’ time, and modeling respect for their time at the same time. I can’t call up a friend and demand that she come visit me, I have to ask if there’s a time that works—and so forth. And we talk about this, too, the kids and I.

One of the hardest things, for me, about teaching my children to respect my time and respecting their time in turn is that I have a tendency to say “just a minute” when in fact the project I’m working on will take me another twenty minutes. It’s not fair to keep a three-year-old waiting for water for twenty minutes (they day he can reach the faucets and get his own water will be like Christmas), but it might be fair to keep a six-year-old waiting on help finding a toy for twenty minutes, if they know it’s going to be that long. Saying “just a minute” and then keeping a kid waiting for twenty isn’t cool, whether you’re being distracted by a project on the computer, an article on a smartphone, or supper on the stove.

There are times when my kids do that too—when Sally says “just a minute” and twenty minutes later she’s still in the far reaches of the house—and we talk about it. But if that’s what I’m modeling, can I really blame her? When she does it, it’s a reminder to me that I need to follow through on what I say, and only take a minute if I’ve said “just a minute.”

As I see it, I have to do more than talk about respecting others’  time—and responsible screen use—I also have to model it. It’s not fair of me to tell my children to get off the computer and go play if I’ve spent all evening working on my laptop. When I feel that their screen time use is getting excessive, I tend to respond by putting my own screens away and getting an activity out, starting a craft, and so forth. For some reason, however, I find this harder to do with my smartphone than with other devices. When Sally keeps me waiting on something for twenty minutes after saying “just a minute” we talk about it—I remind her that she doesn’t like it when I do that and I resolve once again not to do that myself.

The same is true of smartphone usage. While my kids don’t have smartphones yet, I’ve taught them to let me know if we’re out somewhere and they feel like my smartphone is taking my attention away and they want to talk to me or otherwise engage with me—and they do. Granted, this only works when they’re old enough to do recognize this and say something, but when they were smaller I tried to balance things by being cognizant of how my smartphone could distract me from my child.

I love being able to access scads of information and important articles anywhere I am, but I also want to be in the present with my kid, and not constantly thinking about something else. It’s also about modeling—when they do get smartphones in a few years, what sort of usage will they see as normal? Note that this same question would be applicable if we were talking about traditional telephone usage. These issues extend beyond the technology in play. The two primary questions are these: How present do we want to be with our children? What sort of balance do we want to model for our children? Questions of balance have always existed regardless of the technology available at a given time.

On some level, it’s not actually about screen time use, or about parenting. Before I had a smartphone, I used to carry a book with me everywhere. I was that student, the one who walked across campus reading a book and trying not to run into anyone while doing so. I’ve always been a somewhat distracted person, someone who always needs something in hand to do. On a recent trip to a living history site, I decided to leave my smartphone in my purse, but to make that work I had to bring some crocheting to keep my hands busy. Finding a balance isn’t just about making sure your kids can get your attention, either—every adult has to find a workable life balance with smartphones, books, or other devices, parent or no.

Just how distracted—or how present—do we want to be in our lives?


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