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Raising Children in the Age of the Smartphone

Last week, NPR’s Science Friday host Ira Flatow spoke with social scientist Sherry Turkle, occasioned by the release of her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.

Part of their conversation addressed parents’ inability to control themselves around technology, and children feeling like their competing with iPhones and laptops for the parents’ attention. As a father who plays Words With Friends at the playground, and who jokes that if my son wants me to pay attention, he needs to be more interesting than my iPhone, I became a bit uncomfortable listening to this conversation.

But then I wondered, “Haven’t children always competed for their parents’ attention?” The conversation suggested that before smartphones, we had a magical time where parents wholly devoted their attention to their children. If I didn’t have a smartphone, I’d be bringing books to the playground. Thinking back to my childhood, there was always multitasking — conversations with others, cooking, watching television, etc. In families with lots of children, there’s competition between them. Or children having to compete with their parents’ work and chore schedules. I realized children have always fought for their parents’ attention, and it’s unreasonable for people to feel that if you’re not 100% committed to your child all the time, you’re somehow being less of a parent.

Now, I think there are some very real problems with technology and child-rearing (we’ve had to closely monitor Jules’ iPad use because he started to throw fits when we limited his access to it). But we need to start from a baseline of reasonable expectations for parents’ engagement.

  1. No, Peter, children haven’t always competed for their parents’ attention. You never did and I sure didn’t. Of course I grew up in an era when we played games and sports without any desire, whatsoever for our parents interest or attention. “Look at me” never entered our minds.

    Your Mother went to work at 6:AM so she could be home at noon to spend the full Afternoon with you.

    In the mornings, I took you to my cffice, to a friend’s home and to the park. Or don’t you remember little Gwyneth Paltrow and her actress mother at the activities table?

    And then there was youth soccer, basketball, tee ball, school activies, et cetera, et cetera and, as the great King said, et cetera! You never fought for a second for attention or support from your Parents and blithely enjoyed your secure place in our universe.

    And show me where anybody ever wrote or stated that parents of an earlier time were wholly devoted and paid 100% attention to their kids. But, when you take time to be with your kids, you should be with them, not on your cell phone or iPad. It is what some call quaklity time. Besides, it is an insult to anyone you are with to profess to be with them while ignoring them to play an electronic game, text a bunch of friends or, yes, even read a book.

    Your parents lavished attention on you and your Bother and it bugs me that you justify your own electronic toy obsession by down-rating your own and most parents interest in their kids prior to their addictive/compulsive escapism into handheld gamism and electronic distraction.

    This issue is just one of many brought on by the cellular revolution of just the past few years. Human behavior is suddenly changing faster than at any time in history. We have to guard against form of sudden acceleration in our lives lest we careen out of control

  2. Actually been ruminating on this a bit myself, for obvious reasons, and I realize I actually have proof of my parents’ continuous partial attention to me: Hindi. Because while we were bilingual around the house, Hindi wasn’t one of the languages we spoke at home, it was only spoken between my parents and their Indian friends.

    Yet, I still heard a lot of Hindi, enough to interact with cab drivers today and to follow along with Bollywood films. And all of it, explicitly, was picked up in conversations that weren’t with or for me, and that if they involved me at all were only incidental to me. Basically, any Hindi time was iPhone time, in my parents’ context.

    I don’t think most monolingual households have such a clear delineator of the fact that parents engage in explicitly non-kid-focused activities and conversations while the children are around, but I can say for a fact that, though my parents are and were wonderfully (at times even overbearingly) involved in my life and have been with my son’s life thus far as well, there was never a time when “quality time” represented undivided attention, in my experience.

  3. It’s just the fact that your mobile phone is on your person at all times and that it’s socially acceptable (sometimes expected) to have it on you at all times–and therefore you use it.

    It’s the same as newspapers, books, a portable B/W TV, but we didn’t always have those with us.

  4. I’m father of two young kids myself here’s my take on this.

    Sure it’s a cliche but as a parent, you are THE most important thing to your children. They look up to you for inspiration, support, and guidance as they learn about the world and how to make sense of it.

    Children do not need 100% of your time – it’s healthy for them to have the freedom to explore and experiment in order to learn (provided they are not in a hazardous environment). In fact, the opposite of hovering over everything they do is arguably detrimental to their development.

    However, they do need to connect with you every so often for various reasons such as sharing the joy of a discovery, wanted a hug because somebody hurt them, or simply to acknowledge your presence is comforting to them. If you are disengaged and ignore these moments because you are too busy with distractions such as playing games, it sends a very clear and wrong message to your child.

    I’m not saying reading a book or even playing mobile games are activities that need to be eliminated. Just be aware of their needs and give them the attention that they require when they need it.

    Here’s another way to look at it: one day when your son is a teenager and you are hanging out with him at a ball game, would it bother you that he prefers to be fixated on a gadget rather than engage with you in a conversation?

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