Smartphone as Saboteur

When your child sees that you are choosing to be with him and not the phone, the computer, the laundry, or the baby, that strengthens your connection.
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Technology is here to stay. No question there. Children born today must become technologically literate in order to thrive in their world as they grow. No question there. Advanced technologies make parts of raising children easier. No question there either.

Wait! It's spinning out of control. The horse is driving the cart! The inmates are running the prison! Several adamant listener responses to my interview on Patt Morrison's NPR radio show about parents' use of smartphones while parenting, told the tale. In order to justify their obsessive use of smartphones (or... in order to justify the smartphone as a necessary parental appendage) parents are changing the rules of the game. Desperate to make her ever-present smartphone use legitimate while parenting, one parent declared that it is good for her child to see that she works (24 hours a day via the smartphone). Another claimed that his child learns to use technology by seeing him use it and that doing so will give his child the competitive edge. One more acquiesced that since she can't fight it, she joined it, and she sees no harm to her child. What is going on?

Technology most certainly has changed; but the needs of growing children have not. Prolific children's author and songster Barney Saltzberg says it well from the perspective of the child in his song, "Be With Me."

Please hang up the phone.
It's not time to read.
Don't turn the TV on.
And there's nothing at the store you need.
Let's not fight the traffic.
All the running around can wait.
Leave your good suit at the cleaners.
Maybe we can have a date

You could be with me;
I could be with you.
Oh can't you see,
That's all we gotta do.

There's digital baby sitters
When I get home to play
Nintendo, Play Station, XBox
There's more computer games than I can say
And I'd trade them all in just to be with you
We could do nothin' all day

Basic to all children is the need to be with a parent. Call it quality time, call it special time, it's the same thing -- extended time when the parent gives the child her full, undivided, uninterrupted attention. And it is more than a few minutes at a time, sprinkled throughout the day.

A child deserves to feel that he is significant in his parent's life. He must feel connected to his parent(s). Significant connection takes more than proclaiming I love you as you say goodbye at the school yard gate or kneel by the bed at tuck time. It develops when you do more than appear to listen to your child as you simultaneously read a text. Gifts, treats, a special permission, privileges... none of that fuels connection.

The good news is that a day together at Disneyland is not required either. You don't have to spend a penny or leave the house. In fact, perhaps the most impactful parent-child times are regular daily interactions that happen in the context of home. When your child sees that you are choosing to be with him and not the phone, the computer, the laundry, or the baby, that strengthens the connection.

What happens when the smartphone intrudes on that time? The child gets a very clear message about his significance every time the chime of the text coming in interrupts Mom's child-centered attention. Something is more important than you at this moment.

Cut to six years down the road when that child has his own smartphone. Does it sit next to his plate at the dinner table, sapping his attention and presence? Does he hold up the wait-a-second-hand-signal modeled by you over the years, in the middle of your homework discussion? He will have learned to be constantly checking for messages at your feet.

There is no end in sight to the tsunami of technology. Education and our adult work lives have adapted -- and even embraced -- digital advancements. But the needs of children have not and are not likely to change. We cannot rewrite what is basic to all growing children to meet our own changing needs. The best of excuses won't change reality.

In an effort to keep the saboteur of parenting at bay, here are six pieces of advice:

  1. Commit to a daily "special time" for you and your child, just 20 minutes' worth, which is completely technology free.

  • Demand that certain specific events in the business of your daily home life be technology free. No smartphones at a meal table... ever, for example.
  • Rules apply to all family members.
  • Let it be known to all who call, text, email, who demand your attention (who are not nuclear family), when you can and cannot be reached. Then stick to it.
  • Let your child know in advance when you are not available for interruption because you are "working" on your smartphone. Then stick to it.
  • Always remember that you are the most powerful model for your child. Your behavior today is teaching him how to behave tomorrow.
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