I Became A Distracted Parent Without Realizing It

by Karen Johnson
Jiangang Wang / Getty Images

Moms these days have it so easy, don’t they? I mean, with technology at our fingertips–an app for organizing grocery lists, online shopping, and iPads, tablets, Youtube, and Netflix to keep our kids entertained while we complete the 8 million daily tasks on our plates—it’s a cake walk, really.

Hopefully by now you’ve picked up on my sarcasm. Because the truth is, motherhood is no easier than it was 20, 50, 100 years ago. Yes, medical advancements mean our kids are more likely to live into adulthood. And yes, it’s easier to find the nearest urgent care when traveling, thanks to the internet. But as much as technology helps, it also makes parenting harder. And some of that, according to an article recently published on The Atlantic, is on us.

If you’ve been a mom for more than 5 minutes, chances are you’ve been lectured about screen time, lectured someone else about screen time, or at least have heard that there’s a battle out there about how much exposure is too much exposure for kids.

But what about us? Have you thought about your own screen time on a daily basis? Author Erika Christakis says we need to. “More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents,” she writes.

Christakis is quick to point out that there is nothing wrong with letting our kids entertain themselves. Mothers have been doing that since the beginning of time—telling them to go outside and play, letting them run amok inside or outside with minimal supervision, use their imaginations, and learn to handle challenges on their own. That’s an important part of child development, and kids should still break free from Mommy’s watchful eye.

What she is addressing is the time parents are physically with their kids and are supposed to be engaging with them. Helping with homework, eating dinner, playing a board game, practicing letters or sight words—these are the moments that we need to be looking them in the eye, reading their cues, bonding as mother and child. Not swiping on our phones.

Listen, I am guilty with a capital G on this. As an online writer who works from home, I am tethered to my phone. All of my communications with editors and colleagues are through social media or email. And those communications occur at all hours of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to say, “Hold on. I just need to read this” or “I just need to respond to this email” while my kids are proudly trying to show me a Lego creation they just made. Modern technology has made it possible for parents like me to have a flexible schedule and work from home. But there’s a price to pay for that.

And it sucks. It’s hard to manage it all. But I need to do better.

Here’s why: “Language is the single best predictor of school achievement,” psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek tells The Atlantic. “And the key to strong language skills are those back-and-forth fluent conversations between young children and adults.” But what happens when those conversations are interrupted by texts and emails and social media alerts? Or when Mom and Dad aren’t even having them at all, but are instead merely sitting near their kids but are zoned out on their devices?

What happens is that our kids are missing out on valuable learning and bonding opportunities with us, their parents.

I’m not saying we should give up our phones. I’m certainly not. I’ll probably never be the kind of person who does a “screen-free week” or even a day. Will I still take a quick glance if I hear the ding of an email response I’ve been waiting for? Probably.

But this is a wake-up call that many of us need. Meal times, for example, are a great opportunity for parents to connect with their kids. I have a five-year-old who remains incapable of sitting calmly at a table and eating like a human child. It’s my job to work with him on that, correct his behavior, and model proper meal time etiquette. But also, it’s the perfect time to grab a few quick minutes with each of my kids and ask about their day, talk about the math test, who they played with at recess, and next week’s baseball game.

This is when I need to put the phone down.

Christakis shares that within the past few years, various studies have been done observing how parents interact with their children at restaurants. And the results aren’t good, people.

“Researchers in Boston surreptitiously observed 55 caregivers eating with one or more children in fast-food restaurants. Forty of the adults were absorbed with their phones to varying degrees, some almost entirely ignoring the children,” Christakis writes. “Unsurprisingly, many of the children began to make bids for attention, which were frequently ignored.”

We are neglecting our kids. And it’s not okay.

Interestingly, however, parents are actually physically with their kids more than ever before. Due to a more helicopter philosophy of parenting (they aren’t safe to be outside alone!) and the increase in extracurricular activities (did you know that your first grader will fail epically in life if he doesn’t play soccer, basketball, AND baseball?), our kids are with us all the time. But we aren’t parenting them. We are just next to them.

“We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally,” Christakis says. And frankly, that sounds terrifying.

So what do we do? Feel even more guilt that we aren’t good enough mothers? Well, I don’t know about you, but my guilt-meter is at peak level already. But we can do better, with small changes. I’m going to put my phone in another room, or on silent, more often. Even for a 20-minute block of time when I’m doing a puzzle with my daughter. Or pushing my son on the swings. With three kids in sports and activities, we don’t do every meal as a family. But when we are sitting together, whether it’s at Panera or in my own kitchen, I’m going to take advantage of that time. I’m going to look at my kids’ faces and talk to them. And this weekend, maybe we’ll take a family bike ride or an hour-long hike. And I’ll leave my phone in the backpack the whole time.

The truth is, our kids need us. They need to hear our voices and make eye contact. The need to know we care, and that they are important than our phones.