Last night four Swansons sat in row 6 of a little commuter airplane on the way to visit family, all plugged in. Four people who love each other with four separate devices hardly communicating for the two hours or so that we sped through the air. At first glance it can look like an utter failure — you can hear the criticism ringing in your ears — this family must not be connected, or these working parents, pounding out emails and prepping presentations while their children watch videos and play apps, really must have their priorities off, right? Right.
On that flight I read a beautiful blog post from tenacious pediatric researcher Dr Jenny Radesky that questions the new world in which children are being reared. The one where their parents are plugged-in, distracted, perhaps less attentive and less available while raising infants and young toddlers. It’s the same world today, where preteen digital natives may be connecting more by text than by talking. She cites data that found, “if you take away preteens’ mobile devices and make them hang out with their peers in the country for one week, they get better at reading other people’s facial expressions.” Perhaps these children and teens are swapping thumb skills for interpersonal ones. Radesky is the researcher behind the observations out last year evaluating parents’ use of mobile phones at dinner that alarmingly demonstrated children’s near need to act out to get their parents’ attention. Are our parent-child connections forever changed because of the profound brilliance that digital devices have in capturing our attention? Radesky brings up the zone of proximal development (I’d not previously heard of it) and its profound value. She says,
In order to effectively teach children how to regulate their behavior, we need to interact with them in what psychologist Lev Vygotsky termed the child’s “Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).” This means knowing their cognitive and emotional sweet spots: what they can do on their own, what they can’t do, and what they can do and learn with an adult’s help. You can’t fit the puzzle pieces in yet? Let me guide your hand a little bit until you figure it out by yourself. You can’t calm down when you’re frustrated yet. Let me help you identify what emotion you’re feeling and then show you some options for calming your body down. And I’ll slowly take my support away until you can do this skill on your own.
Oh yes, we certainly do need to be in this space and be available, eyes connected, body engaged, actively listening to the loves of our life (children). In championing this reality we can easily finger-wag that how things used to be (without smart phones and wild virtual connection to data and community) is better. Slow down, unplug, unwind, and CHECK BACK IN, right? Common Sense Media even has a new PSA campaign, that I happen to love, tagged #realtime guiding us back to life with a series of delicious, tight videos reminding us how we mess up.
I’m with you, @commonsense & love the hashtag #realtime “Using phone is not recommended at dinner.” We have a PSA: https://t.co/a65LYMT5Tj
— WendySueSwanson MD (@SeattleMamaDoc) March 12, 2015
All this to say that most of us are failing at perfecting modern parenting from time to time. We’re checking in online when we need to be checking in #inrealife. I read the Slate rant this week demanding an end to walking on the street while reading email. Maybe we’re failing more today than our parents did. Maybe we’re distracted, missing out on previous moments, creating deficits in our children’s self-regulation because we’re unable to regulate our own behavior. Maybe we’re missing out.
I keep reminding myself (and the world) that when it comes to parenting with devices compartmentalization is key. Putting these devices down is essential for thriving and for experiencing mindfulness. However, with all the dialogue about this I’d venture to say some are suffering more from guilt about non-compartmentalized devices than from missing out. Perfecting parenting is certainly the new dilemma for modern moms and dads.
When it comes to parenting with devices compartmentalization is key.
I’ll admit it, like everyone else, I’m a first time pediatrician parent of two boys. I’ve never done this before. Still making my way balancing the profound opportunity to connect to ideas, my work, and my remarkable community online via my devices while also devouring the breathtaking, precious and triumphant task of raising two little boys with my husband. I know that multiple truths exist for me here: I love my work and I love new ways to learn, advocate, champion and enhance my family’s life because of digital tools. I’m here to say that this is complicated more than I’m here to tell you what you should do. If you’re looking for tips read these 5 ones on balancing technology while parenting.
My boys are in arm’s reach as I type this, playing catch with a squishy football with their dad, and brimming with excitement about seeing cousins tonight. And as I hit publish I’ll tell you that just in this moment, I have no regrets. I’m the one plugged in on my machine thinking on Radesky’s smarts and research while reflecting on the choices we make. But do know this too: I’m going to be pretty delighted the moment I power down my phone, turn off the computer and check in for an evening with this cherished family of mine. This abundant life, with the near embarrassing “problem” of how to parent with a smartphone amazes, doesn’t it?
Very well said Dr Swanson. I appreciate your comments very much. My wife and I struggle with this as we raise a very curious little girl. The compartmentalization has been vital to our success. I find placing the phone on a charger when I come home and giving the family some undivided attention is not only appreciated by my wife and little girl, but also helps me to step away from the bills, to-do lists, and growing lists of media I wish to consume. I have found many valuable resources for “bookmarking” items for later review.
I worry we put so much stress on being the Perfect Parent. It is nice to hear a fellow parent and professional addressing the challenge of parenting while acknowledging the value in a connected society.