The other day, I watched as a six year old little boy completely fell apart when the battery on his iPad died. He had been perfectly well behaved (no surprise) until it stopped working. Then all hell broke loose. He invaded my office for the charger, furious when he discovered that mommy hadn't brought it along.
Little Guy: "WHY DIDN'T YOU BRING THE CHARGER?"
Mommy: "There are lots of other fun things to do. Why don't you go play on the swing?"
Little Guy: "No! I want the charger! Drive home and get it!"
Mommy: "How about the Tinker Toys? I'll bet you could make something cool."
Little Guy: "NO! I want the iPad! I want you to get the charger!"
Mommy: "Honey, Susan has paper and crayons? You can draw something scary!"
Little Guy: "NOOOOOO! I want the iPad!"
Little Guy then told his parents that he was going to the car to try to plug the iPad in to the outlet on the dashboard. He reminded me of an alcoholic scouring the back of the cupboards for the cooking sherry.
Upon figuring out that cars don't charge digital devices unless they are running and that mommy was not going to interrupt our meeting to drive home for the charger, he crumbled in a weeping heap outside my office door. The instant mommy emerged from our meeting, he begged for her smart phone. She reluctantly handed it over, worn down by his desperation.
You guys...this dependance our kids are developing on their electronic devices is...how can I put it delicately?
It's a problem.
Don't get me wrong. I understand that sometimes you need to buy yourself some peace and quiet by using electronic babysitters for a little while. I refuse to get judgmental when I know how stretched parents are much of the time.
But I am concerned that we're robbing our children of some of the essential ingredients that make up a happy childhood: Creating art, building forts, or watching a hummingbird in flight-- things that cannot happen if we hand over a digital device.
When children's brains become highly stimulated by interactive games (even "educational" ones), they get flooded with dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters. Pulling the plug can be painful; ordinary life simply can't compete with the intense rush delivered by a stimulating electronic game. (By the way, this doesn't just apply to children!) Kids become irritable, angry, disengaged and even depressed. Naturally they want to get back on that pleasurable ride of high stimulation and engagement.
What to do? This is one of the biggest questions facing parents these days. We're in uncharted territory. There are no simple answers. Our children are growing up in a world where technology is so integral to daily life that they will have to either learn to manage it, or be swallowed up in its never-ending offerings.
One thing I know is this: We need to parent. If we are terrified of our children's anger, or desperate for them to like us, we will not stay the course and help them learn to enjoy both the entertaining games on the iPad and those that come from imaginative and creative play.
As digital games become increasingly sophisticated and engaging, it is important that we remember that nothing quite compares with soaring high over the playground on a swing, or whooshing a Tinker Toy plane we've made around the room. Our children may initially grumble and gripe, but if we're clear when it's time to hit the Off switch, they will rediscover all kinds of ways to have fun that don't require a plug...or a charger!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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