Does Technology Really Make You a Better Parent?

This post was written by Marla Garfield. Photo: Johan Larsson/Creative Commons

Yesterday afternoon, my 16-month-old son, Stefan, took my cellphone out of my hands, put it in his mouth, took it out of his mouth, and snapped it in half. It was an old red flip phone that I lovingly called the Commodore 64 Abacus. I don't think it required too much effort for him to transform it from shiny red plastic into a yogurt-covered carcass. The camera on it was so low-quality that anything I photographed looked like its identity was being protected. Friends, my kid, park benches, all of it blurred and distorted.

Luckily, at that very moment I was talking to my husband, who just happened to be standing in a T-Mobile store, asking me if I was ready to get a smartphone.

"Yes," I said to the two pieces of splintered Samsung lying in state on my kitchen table. "Yes, I believe it's time."

We're late to the smartphone game, but we just couldn't spend the money before. We still can't, but we feel our needs require us to be more ... wired. We looked into an inexpensive plan with one company but ruled it out because they have no roaming partnerships with other cell providers: If you land in an area it does not serve, you're screwed.

"Absolutely not," I said. "If we're stranded with Stefen in the middle of nowhere and can't use our phones? No. Then we'd have to walk eight miles to some cabin with an outhouse and get killed by an inbred woodsman. That's just bad parenting."

Since giving birth to Stefen last year, most of the decisions I've made concerning technology hinge on what they add to my ability to be an informed, prepared mother. Websites bookmarked, the amount of memory required in an external hard drive, the type of phone chosen, reading and writing for this very website. For my birthday this year, my husband even got me the first season of Parenthood on DVD, and I can't begin to tell you how many tips I've taken from that show.

This is all well and good: We have access to more information than ever, and it guides us toward decisions we can be comfortable with. (It also confuses the hell out of us.) There is no argument that being on the grid has changed and improved immensely our ability to raise our children. But it distracts us from the children who are playing at our feet or suddenly - alarmingly - down the block, and it also makes the planning and research process so much easier that perhaps it takes the us out of our decisions.

What if you rely on technology so much as a parent that you're dismissing your instinct and aren't navigating the questions yourself, through experience and thought? Google does it all for you.

It begins in pregnancy. Without, I never would have known when my son was the size of a rutabaga, which was just fun. Then I had Stefen, and YouTube helped us learn how to adjust his car seat. Being a mother means that I have mommy brain, so the smartphone will be indispensable when I need directions, a phone number, or to order something after I've already left the house. The legwork that goes into parenting does not have to be as tedious, as much work, as it used to be. There is no glory in making something more difficult than it should be just because you're skeptical of finding an answer too easily.

Since becoming a mother, I tend to rely on the internet for inspiration and ideas quite heavily because I don't have the energy to engage that part of my brain myself. But I wish it did come more from within me; I think choices would mean more, and would embody the intention with which I want to raise my son. And when you go onto message boards or onto a listserv, you all too often find parents asking medical questions that they should clearly be asking their doctors first, well before strangers online. The internet is an easy out when the more treacherous path is sometimes the smarter one.

The websites, phones, and networking are essential - but not when they become the parent and you become the vehicle through which the information they provide is channeled. The information serves to inform your instincts, but it is paramount that those instincts not be abandoned when it would be so easy for a faceless poster on a message board to make your decisions for you.

I am currently unplugged. My phone was home with me while my husband bought our new ones, so it will be a couple days before I'll be able to make it to T-Mobile to transfer my information from the carnage to the new phone and activate it. I feel naked and somewhat unsafe; we don't have a land line. But without my new toy, I'll enjoy my son right in front of me, and for at least a few days, not phone it in.

More Articles on Technology
10 Gadgets for Parents and Their Newborn
How to Clean Your Cell Phone
5 Tips for Packing the Car for a Road Trip