Once upon a time there was a family and they all had phones even the baby. But one day the mailman plopped a chest of gold and you only have it for one day. But the parents were too busy to put things in their wallet. The next day the mailman took the chest. The next day they packed for vacation but they forgot the phone. They went on vacation and had shakes and chocolates and everything. But when they got back they pressed a phone button and got a burn across the hand because they hadn't used it in a long time and they never used the phone all day again.
~ I made this book cause my parents always use their phones. THE END.
A story by Riley Rose, age 6
Much has been written about restricting children's screen time to insure their safety and wellbeing. Little has been said about the child's perspective of unavailable and distant parents-victims of their own screen dependencies.
The unavailability of a parent on the phone is nothing new. What is new is the availability of our phones-our new favorite toys. We have a new culture of parents accustomed to having the world accessible in their pockets. Parents talk or text while pushing a stroller, driving a car, supervising playtime, etc., with no thought to the effect of their behavior.
Unintentionally the message to the child is I'm unavailable. Is it any wonder children are demanding attention with louder and more dramatic behaviors?
The developmental stage of egocentrism in the first six years of life, together with an immature prefrontal cortex not able to analyze incoming data, means the young child takes it like it is. She doesn't understand that Dad is learning new information or connecting with a friend. She is more likely to feel that she is unimportant.
No teaching tool is more powerful than modeling. It has been wisely said that we need to be the people we want our children to become. Children learn from what we do far more than from what we say.
In her story, Riley sees precious opportunities her parents are missing (the pot of
gold). Precious time with her. Her unplugged family vacation was as blissful as chocolates and shakes. Hopeful for the future, she writes that her parents, burned by their phones, learn their lessons, and never use them again.
Parents must take responsibility for the messages sent to children when tech devices appear more important. If they seem so valuable, where do we expect the child's focus to land? Earlier and earlier children are demanding their own cell phones, iPads, and iPods. 31% of 8 to 10-year-olds have cell phones. Earlier and earlier children are getting hooked into the unemotional, non-interactive world of cyberspace where anything goes.
It is our job as parents to own and take responsibility for our actions and emotions-our modeling-and never blame them on our children. "Stop bothering me while I'm on the phone" sends the unintended message that you are not important to me. Frustration over an interruption while texting says, you are a bother.
6 Tips for Healthy Parent On-Screen Use
To take control of your modeling, a few simply tips can be the answer:
1. Put devices away in the presence of your child.
2. If you must use a phone, keep it on vibrate and check messages later.
3. Choose times of the day for use when your child is napping, in school, playing with friends or you are out.
4. When out with your child, leave your cell phone at home.
5. If you are on a cell phone around your child, make sure to use a headset.
6. When you must be on your phone or computer, respond with understanding to your child's anger and frustration.
Most children are not able to directly say, "Mom, I don't like it when you are on your phone and not paying attention to me." However, their behavior will tell you if you know how to interpret it. Validate her cues with, "I bet you don't like it when I'm on my phone. It must seem like I'm not even here." Keep communication open now and always so it doesn't breakdown when it is most necessary later on.
All it takes is awareness of what you look like to your child on a cell phone or iPad to set standards for yourself that will serve both you and your child.
Bonnie Harris, MS Ed, director of Connective Parenting, child behavior and parenting specialist, author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You'll Love to Live. Bonnie counsels parents, speaks, teaches workshops and offers professional trainings internationally. She founded The Parent Guidance Center in NH and has two grown children. To learn more visit www.bonnieharris.com.