Clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair is worried. She believes that parents’ focus on their phones and tablets sends a message to their children that isn’t what those parents mean to say. The message? You’re not very important to me.
In her own research, Steiner-Adair asked 1,000 children ages 4 to 18 how they feel when their parents are immersed in digital devices. The feelings reported over and over, she says, was negative: “sad, mad, angry and lonely.” One girl said, “I feel like I’m just boring. I’m boring my dad because he will take any text, any call, anytime – even on the ski lift!” On the ski lift with his daughter, apparently, sitting right next to him.
Steiner-Adair says, “We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them.” Is that what you want your kids to believe?
Your mother used to tell you that “actions speak louder than words.” All the excuses and reasoning we might offer our children about why we have to watch this video right now cannot overcome the message sent by actually watching that video. Online content will be there always. None of it’s going away. But your children will not be here always. Their childhood will indeed soon go away.
Children’s actions speak volumes too. Steiner-Adair relays the glee several of her participants felt when they tossed a parent’s smart phone in the toilet, put it in the oven, or hid it out of sight. Another researcher, pediatrician Jenny Radesky, tell of boys cutting up in a fast food restaurant while their parent concentrated on his phone. When the father shouted at the boys to stop – but returned to his phone – the kids got even sillier and more disruptive.
If your children are sending you the message that they won’t be “good” when you’re on the phone, maybe it’s time to adjust the message you’re sending to them.
- Keep your phone out of your hands as much as you can, especially when you’re with your children. Turn off notifications and reduce the volume of your ringtones and pings. Make it easier for you to ignore the machine and concentrate on the children.
- If you must take a call or respond to a text, excuse yourself politely to your children, just as you would – just as I hope you would – when you’re with an adult friend. Say, “Just a minute. I have to take this.” Then do what you need to do and get back to your kids. Do this even when you’re with the baby, who doesn’t understand what you’re saying.
- Stay away from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and all your other favorite median when you’re with the children. You know that one thing leads to another and your best intentions to look at “just this one” becomes 30 minutes of ignoring your children.
- Remember that being at the park or playground with your children isn’t your time to get online. Your children still want you to watch them and your stroller-tots still need you to enjoy the walk with them. Back in the day, your mom talked with you while you strolled through the park together and applauded when you swung by yourself on the monkey bars. Give your children the best of your own childhood.
Children learn to talk, to think, and to get along with others only through conversation with other people. Ignoring your kids in favor of the phone is a huge mistake.
But it’s a mistake not only because it can delay children’s intellectual abilities. Ignoring your children and shutting them out while you play with your media is insulting. It sends the message that you just don’t care. Even babies know it.
Instead, show you care.
© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.