Where R U? Parenting and Technology

One morning I took my grandson Finn to the same park I had taken his mama and her brothers when she was a girl. I remembered the anchor and solace that playground had provided for my friends and me—the kids climbing and tumbling largely ignored by the mothers swapping stories. Oh sometimes things would get out of hand, and we would yell and move our arm around in their general direction, or a child would call out Watch me mama! As she jumped from a swing into the beauty bark, but they had playing to do and we had talking to do and the worlds intersected only when necessary.

I sat down and watched Finn join kids of all sizes doing the things kids are wired to do: stooping, jumping, skipping, and throwing. Several mothers who could have been my friends and me 25 years ago sat nearby, only they weren’t talking. They were head down texting on their cell phones . I watched them fascinated.

On the playground occasionally a child would yell Watch me mama! And there would be a pause as she finished texting and she would look up and say the same things we said: Wow, be careful. Then she would drop her head back down.

Sometimes the mothers talked to each other. Sometimes they held out their phone to share a photo, but mostly they were separate and hunched over their cell phones–the world at their fingertips while another world unfolded in real time right before them.

This unsettled me, but why? In both cases, decades apart, the kids were largely ignored, as it should be. A recent observational study of children at public parks by Myron Floyd at North Carolina State discovered that kids whose parents hovered over and managed their activities at the playground moved less, engaged less and were ready to go home faster than kids whose parents stayed on the periphery of their play.

Years ago at that park we were heads up, with a diffuse, if unfocused, attention to the energy unfolding on the beauty bark. The moment the head goes down, the focus shifts to the demands of the screen and closes down peripheral vision and attention, one of the reasons texting and cell phone use while driving a car is illegal. More critically, it isolates those in our company while we tap away. We are separate islands of intention.

Technology has intersected with parenting for a few generations. When my mother used a phone it was attached to a wall in the kitchen and had a short cord. She kept her conversations short when her 5 children were underfoot. My conversations on the remote phone when the kids were young were longer. If I had to connect with Greg in Alaska, or with a troubled friend I stood outside on the deck and held the sliding door closed while the kids pounded the glass, then pounded each other on the other side when I didn’t respond. Gotta go. Click.
I mused on the role screen time has taken in our lives today, this hand held device that trumps human connection. Fast-forward ten years in the lives of the families I watched that day and I wondered how they would handle a 15-year-old texting at a family dinner with grandma. Put it away, Mom will say. Not now, the Dad will scold. But if we don’t model appropriate times for social media how can we ask the same of our children? We set a formidable example that the company of those we love comes second to an invisible receiver on a tiny machine.

I don’t believe unwavering attention upon our children is good. In fact I believe it inhibits the development of the resiliency we need for a meaningful life, but I do believe that when we are engaged in social media in the company of our children, we can miss the winning basketball shot at a game and the window for conversation when we pick them up from school—irretrievable moments that build a family dynamic brick by brick.

The role of parents is to explain the world to their children, to help them make sense of complicated emotions and situations, to provide a language rich environment filled with words to lay down fears and foster curiosity. Social media eats up this time, the arc of human connection passing unseen.

Three year old Finn is exploring the meaning of later. I wanna dig, wanna go outside, wanna cookie. Lay-ter he says repeating after me with a furrowed brow, not now. He is not sure if later is a minute, an hour, or a month but we are getting to that, it will come. As long as later is not connected to Nana on a playground texting his mama that Finn is the most enchanting 3 year old on the planet, and instead I participate in the tickle and chase of the present, because the boy will grow and the moments will slip away.

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