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Put Down the Phone and Start Parenting! Smartphone Tips for Both Parents and Kids

By valuing your time in the real world, you'll teach your children to do the same. Smart smartphone usage starts now, when they're young, and it begins with the parent.
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children friend girls group playing internet with mobile smartphone on grass
children friend girls group playing internet with mobile smartphone on grass

Written by Brian Gresko for

"My phone's a tool, not a toy," I tell my son Felix. But let's be real: to him, a smartphone is a toy.

The screen is pretty and, like every screen, enticing. He's a moth to its flame, unable to look away or prevent himself from trying to touch it -- and that's the thing, right? You flick your finger over the smooth surface and stuff happens. That's power even a toddler can understand. Sure, it can call Mommy. Or text a friend. But it also runs "Woody's Wild Ride." And that's way more important.

In the past few weeks, I've allowed Felix to play games on my phone as a reward for a calm sha-sha period. (We have sha-sha instead of nap, a quiet half-an-hour or so of independent time.) And every so often, if we're out at a restaurant, say, and waiting a long time for our food to come, I've let him bide the time with my phone. In typical toddler fashion, he's taken to frequent asking, whining, and sometimes crying because he wants to use it. He's trying to figure out when I'll let him have it, and if he can convince me, either through polite pleading or obnoxious demanding, whether he can get it when he wants. It's gotten so that I've come to regret letting him use it in the first place.

For advice on how to deal with technology and my toddler, I turned to media guru David Zweig, author of the forthcoming book Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in a Culture of Praise from Penguin/Portfolio Group, and whose article for The New York Times "Why We Should Take Fewer Pictures of Our Children" addresses the impact of ever-present cameras on our kids' development.

Set Rules for Your Kids

Over email, Zweig told me that his 4-year-old daughter had a period of smartphone obsession too, particularly in regard to looking at photos of herself, but also over a handful of games he uploaded for her. "I weened her off the phone until she lost most of her interest in it," he said. "She still asks to use it once in a while, and sometimes I oblige. But when I say no she usually doesn't put up too much of a fuss."

His 2-year-old son has no interest in his smartphone, because he's never been exposed to it, which Zweig feels is the best policy. "We have two old cellphones in the house. Neither of them turn on, but both kids are happy to pick them up and pretend to talk on the phone. I like that the kids are using their imagination, and I also like that they're not being exposed to whatever waves there are emitting from a functioning cell phone."

If you're wondering how you'll make it through a long check-out line without resorting to YouTube or a video game to entertain your tot, Zweig recommends using that time to interact with your kids, and helping them build patience. "Life is filled with waiting for stuff," he wrote. I agree with him on this point. It saddens me to see a couple or family out to dinner, everyone pouring over his or her device, together but alone. Part of the fun of waiting is whiling away the time with pleasant conversation and anticipation. Even by myself, I prefer active daydreaming to passive media consumption.

However, as a parent pretty interested in technology, I don't go as far as Zweig does; I'm OK with Felix using my phone in small doses. I make this explicit, so he's aware of his limits. He can use my phone for about 10 minutes every other day. I even set a timer. When the bell rings, he has to hand the phone over, no ifs, ands, buts, or whines about it.

Set Rules for Yourself Too

Mostly, I'm engaged with Felix during the day. Mostly. Like all smartphone-enabled parents, I keep an eye on email and, less importantly, social media. While I do most of my writing and editing in the evening and when my son's with his babysitter, my non-caregiving colleagues email throughout the day, sometimes sending messages that require attention. That's why I upgraded to a smartphone. It got so that my agent would text me, "Emailed you an hour ago. Where are you?" and I'd curtail a playground trip to go home to the computer. It's not easy, balancing a part-time career with stay-at-home parenting, especially not at the pace work moves today.

Just like with my son, I set rules for myself too. One is no cellphones at any mealtime. Another is not immediately responding to every beep or ring. "Your phone, Da-da," Felix says when he hears its call. But I put off responding, hoping to show that tasks in "real-time," whether it be washing dishes or building a tower of blocks, takes precedence over the virtual world. Usually, I look for end-points, or, again, set a time limit. I'll finish the work at hand and then check my phone, or play for 10 minutes and then take a two-minute online break. I want Felix to know that he's more important than the world on my phone.

Zweig finds this a good policy, and takes it even farther. He wrote: "Unless it's truly urgent, I don't use my phone when I'm with my kids. Period. My parents and sister find this frustrating because I don't pick up my phone when they call, but I tell them if it's urgent they can leave a message and I'll check it later. It just feels rude to me to be on the phone -- whether it's a call or texting or email, and forget about games or other stuff -- when I'm with my kids."

This gadget and technology free space benefits both him and his kids. He feels more focused when he's with them, and they have the pleasure of his undivided attention. Of course, even he admitted that sometimes work requires that he keep an eye on his email. His rule is: if need-be, check email once an hour, and only send a response if absolutely necessary. "This is pretty rare," he admitted. "Most things can wait till the afternoon or in the evening when I'm away from the kids. I think we want to send emails, and feel they're urgent, but in reality almost all of them can wait till the end of the day."

I agree. With the ever-connectedness of cellphones, I often feel that I need to respond as soon as I possibly can, an urge fired by my desire to prove that I can be on-the-ball with both parenting and working at once. I want to be Superman, able to play make-believe, write memos, "like" Facebook statuses, and treat my son with patience and kindness, all at once. Of course, I can't do it all. And in reality, most people won't care if I get back to them in a few hours, while my son cares deeply that I engage with him.

Besides, there's a practical safety concern behind limiting your cell-phone usage as well. An article last year in The Wall Street Journal found that while smartphone ownership has risen, so have non-fatal injuries to children under the age of 5. Just like driving and crossing the street while texting can be dangerous, so too can parenting under the influence of technology.

By valuing your time in the real world, you'll teach your children to do the same. Smart smartphone usage starts now, when they're young, and it begins with the parent.