This is part 2 in a series on Digitally Distracted Parenting. You can read part 1 here.
Part of this post is reprinted with permission from one of my favorite and most famous practitioners, John Gottman at www.gottman.com – (His seminole work in emotional intelligence changed the parental landscape and is one of the pillars of the compassionate parenting movement.)
A 2016 survey by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children’s advocacy and media ratings organization, asked almost 1,800 parents of children aged 8 to 18 about screen time and electronic media use by the parents. The average amount of time that parents spent with screen media of all kinds (computers, TVs, smartphones, e-readers) every day: 9 hours and 22 minutes. And on average, only an hour and 39 minutes of that was work-related; 7 hours and 43 minutes were personal.
The term for this phenomenon is digitally distracted parenting. You may not have heard this term before, but you’ve likely seen it in action. An entire family on their phones at a restaurant, not making much eye contact. At a playground, a child is trying to master some skills and would be assisted in so doing if their parent was not texting.
Distractions are a part of life, but they can be managed.
One recommendation is that families delineate specific screen-free times and places in their lives. James P. Steyer, the chief executive of Common Sense Media, cited the idea of “sacred spaces,” an idea advocated Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the 2015 book “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”
It’s just as important to regulate our own use of devices and put them aside for screen-free periods as it is to ask our children to disconnect. And it certainly adds spice to family life if children understand that the same rules apply for all ages: that Dad will get grief for surreptitiously checking his phone under the dinner table and Mom has to park hers in the designated recharging zone for the night just as the children do.
Make efforts to be intentionally attentive.
1. Turn off your phone when out and about with your child. Notice what’s going on around you and talk about it. Sing. Talk with other people you meet. Walk with another adult and talk with that person. All this conversation is real and it contributes to your child’s development.
2. Wrench your attention away from your phone when you are texting, surfing, and otherwise not engaged in a real-time conversation. The person you’re with is more important than someone or something you can check back with any time. If a text is of immediate importance, say, “I’ll be right with you!” and then DO get right back to the child and give him your undivided attention.
3. When you’re at home, uncouple yourself from the television, talk radio, the computer, and your phone. Yes, hanging around a two-year-old is boring when it’s not frantic. True, your child doesn’t need your full attention every minute she’s awake. But if you are uninterruptible for long periods of time, your child is missing out… and it’s easy to let long periods of time go by.
An article on Psychology Today notes that being distracted as a parent is expected to a degree, especially with multiple children in the home and/or with parents working. It’s part of family life when you have to balance chores, meals, jobs, and a budget.
However, it is the level to which the distraction occurs that matters. Children and teens are aware when the important people in their lives, like their parents, are not paying attention to their needs physically or emotionally. In those moments when a child feels a disconnect from their caregiver, they will test what they can get away with in the hopes that someone will notice them.
The importance of unstructured moments and minor interludes.
We all need unstructured moments. I need them, and my family needs them. And I need to realize that some of the best moments of my life happen in those unstructured, minor moments and interludes. I don’t want to be “absent present.” I don’t want to photograph my kid’s childhood instead of really seeing my child. I don’t want to be thinking about how this will look on Instagram when I should be thinking, “I’m so glad I get to be here.” Am I watching my kid perform in a play so my Facebook friends can see it? No, I’m doing it because I want to connect with my child.
If you think you may struggle with being a distracted parent, leader, teacher, or caregiver, think about your habits and ask yourself these questions:
- When was the last time you played with your child or really talked to your teenager?
- Ask your kids if they feel you are distracted. Honesty can go a long way in opening up communication, just avoid responding defensively and ask more about what they need from you.
- Think about the last conversation you had with an adult: Were they on their phone? Did you make eye contact? Did you feel heard?
- What makes you feel heard? The same probably applies to the children and teens in your life. Have an open conversation about what listening looks like in different settings.
There will always be distractions in our lives. We will all have a “parenting fail” moment at some point, but those should be our moments that cause changes in our behavior. We can all learn to become less distracted and more active in the lives of our families. We can be better about putting the phone down, closing the laptops, and turning off the TV in order to engage our children in conversation, make eye contact across the table, and have time to play.
These acts, like The Gottman Institute’s motto of “Small Things Often,” may seem small in nature but they will have long-lasting positive effects on the emotional health of families. To do that, we can focus on creating undistracted time in order to fully engage with the people that we interact with on a daily basis. Try setting aside an hour at home, with your kids, where no phones or screens are allowed, and do something fun with them. Try putting your phone away more often when you’re engaged in conversation with others. Your children, teens, friends, and other family members will notice when you make the effort to give them your attention on a regular basis.
In a new policy on screen media use by school-age children and adolescents released last October, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggested that families develop and regularly update a family media use plan, using an online tool that takes into account the individual family’s patterns and goals and lets you designate screen-free times and places. That can be helpful for screen-loving children and for their screen-loving parents as well.