Sometimes research verifies what we already know but gives us the punch we need to realize what is happening. That’s the case with parents who are stuck to their cell phones. It’s almost like the phone came equipped with super glue, ready to attach itself to the parent’s ear.
How many times have you observed this scene in a fast food restaurant? A mother, sitting at a table with a fork in one hand and the phone in the other, while her children gobble up their not-so-happy meals. They just might actually be happy meals if this weren’t happening. With her girlfriend on the other end, the mother babbles away paying little attention to her kids. Except to periodically shake her fork at them and, in a louder than normal voice, command that they, “Stop fighting and eat your burgers. Now!” Then back to the phone, in a much kindlier tone, resumes the focus on her phone buddy.
Why do you think her children are behaving so poorly? It’s simple. For some crazy reason kids think their parents want to be with them, devote their time and attention to them. They yearn for it. They need it.
Researchers at Boston Medical Center decided to explore this rising problem. Led by pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky, they “watched 55 caregivers, mostly parents, who were dining with one or more children who appeared to be no more than 10 years old. And perhaps predictably they saw 44 of those parents/caregivers pick up the smartphone and scroll, call, check emails, surf the Internet, whatever. Sixteen of them used the device nearly the entire time.” They noted that “highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to child misbehavior.”
It appears that when you are engaged in a phone conversation you have little patience with any interruption, especially from your children. Parenting takes patience and undivided attention, at times.
A Time Magazine essayist Dominique Browning wrote, “All around me, I see parents with their babies and toddlers and young kids — but not with them. The grownups are on the phone. The dad pushing his son on the swing set while hands-free on his mobile isn’t really with his child. The mom pushing her baby in a pram while she’s yakking on the phone isn’t really with her child.” She added that it’s obvious the kids aren’t happy about this because they’re continually acting out in an effort to gain the parent’s attention.
Browning advised, “Parents have to break the phone habit before it is too late. I’m not talking about getting extreme here — no phone calls around a child, ever. But I am talking about giving more thought to all the missed opportunities for communicating with a child.”
Ways to focus on your child
Is being with your children so boring that you need to entertain yourself instead of enjoying being with them? Little ones love to be talked to, giggled with and watched as they do their antics. They want to hear, “Wow! That is so cool!” when they make a mustache out of their french fry. Or when they jump into a sea of balls in the play place. They want you to watch and be involved—the whole time. Or at least a good part of the time. At the very least, they need you to be in the moment with them while they’re eating.
Take advantage of this time to praise their good manners. This works best if you’ve discussed what good manners are before leaving for the restaurant, then they’ll know what you’re expecting. This time with them shouldn’t be a continuous onslaught of reprimanding. This is a time when you can teach your captive audience about the food they’re eating. Point out good nutrients. Ask them what is the most healthy thing they’re eating. Make it into a fun game. Like the commercial, have them name a food and you make one noise if it's an unhealthy food and a more pleasant noise if it's a healthy one. It’s a fun way to teach and engage in conversation with them. But mostly talk about things they enjoy doing.
When they’re on the playground, compliment them on their good behavior. Fill their time with plenty of ooohs and ahhhhs as they show off for you. If they see the phone held to your ear or in your hand they’ll know you’re not really sincere in your responses to them. Kids are smart. They know when the phone is more important to you than they are. That doesn't mean there aren't times when you can say, "Excuse me. I need to take this call." Teach them in advance how to behave when that time comes. Just be sure to keep it brief and get back to your child right away. Let unimportant calls wait until later.
What about when you're pushing your baby in the stroller? This is the perfect time to talk to her about nature. Describe what you're seeing. Point out a beautiful tree or flower. She'll grow to love nature and being with you. Talking on the phone, instead, will deny your child of a priceless opportunity to connect with you and her world.
Desperate for face-to-face contact
In order to learn how to interact and communicate with others, children desperately need this face-to-face eye contact with their parents. It begins early. This is a vital part of being a parent.
The point here is to keep your focus on the children, not on your smartphone. Nothing on your e-gadget is going to matter a hill of beans when all is said and done. It’s your children that matter. Ditch the phone, at least part of the time, and pay attention to your children. They’ll be grown and gone before you know it. The way you treat them now will have everything to do with the way they treat you and others later. Gary Lundberg is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Joy is a writer and lyricist. They author books on relationships, including "I Don't Have to Make Everything All Better". Their website is garyjoylundberg.com.