Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Parenting Continuum

Have you all heard about this study in which researchers observed parents ignoring their children because they were so absorbed in checking their smartphones? Although this was not a scientific study, more like anthropological observations, one of the researchers noted that children whose parents were on the phone the longest were more likely to act out to get their parent's attention.  A psychologist not involved in the experiment commented that when parents put their digital devises ahead of their children they are sending the message to the children that they are not interesting and that they don't matter. I think we can all agree that the conclusion reached is indisputable. Obviously, we all know it is better to engage with your children than to ignore them. Additionally, I think we'd agree that it's incredibly rude to pull out your phone mid-conversation with anyone, a child or an adult, and start texting or checking email. My problem is that "research" like this is part of a whole trend in parent-shaming that makes it hard to feel like you are ever doing enough as a caregiver.

The cards are stacked against parents from the get-go in the anthropological study. The researchers observing 55 groups of adults and young children dining at fast food restaurants (a McDonald's according to the radio broadcast of the story) in the course of one summer. The key points to me are the location (a fast food restaurant) and the time of year (summer). You know when I tend to take my kids to fast food restaurants? When I'm in a hurry and we're away from home. You know when I take my kids to fast food restaurants in the summer? I do it when they're not in camp and we've been out doing some child-centered activity in the morning and need to eat lunch out before segueing into our afternoon of child-centered activities. If the researchers were watching me, I guarantee that I'd be checking my phone when we sat down at the table. Would the researchers prefer that I do that while driving to Chick fil-A?

After I checked my phone, would I put it away? Probably, but maybe not. If I've been hanging out with my kids all day at a museum and haven't gotten a chance to look at messages, I might really go through my email while we wait for our food (one of the reasons I like Chick fil-A is because they always take pity on me and bring our food to the table). So, when the researchers draw conclusions from observations taken under these very limited circumstances, I don't think they're really getting a picture of the situation. During the summer kids are at not at school, so parents taking care of kids have very little, if any, time without children to check messages. Like it or not, one of the primary ways in which we communicate these days is via email and text. My smart phone has my shopping list and my calendar with reminders and appointments. I think it makes a big difference if the McDonald's parents are ignoring their children because they're watching YouTube videos or because they're making a shopping list or coordinating something important for work. The researchers also only looked at this particular slice of time and doesn't recognize that perhaps that parent has just spent the morning playing basketball with his kids or taking them to the zoo. It's vastly unfair to observe the parents checking their phone and extrapolate this whole message that parents are universally ignoring their children in favor of their smartphones.

Personally, I feel like parents today are being held to a unrealistically high standard. My parents sometimes ignored me and I'm sure I'm not alone. My parents would read the newspaper or talk on the phone or watch television to get some "me" time. If they had smartphones in the 70's, I guarantee you Dad would have been watching live feeds of the Watergate hearings while I nagged him to play cards with me. As an adult and a parent, I harbor no ill-will against my parents. I totally understand that sometimes you need a break. If the alternative to taking a break is going crazy or getting angry or something worse, then ignore the kids a little if it helps keep you sane. Obviously, I'm not advocating a position of, "I was ignored, so it's okay for me to ignore my kids." This is the same justification that allows fraternity and sorority hazing to continue. Yes, we should try to do better, but let's not let perfection be the enemy of the good.

Picture a continuum of ways to interact with your child. On one side you are having a perfect, educational, loving conversation with said child. On the other side you are doing something horrible, like saying hurtful things or beating the child...whatever, something so monstrous that I don't even want to think about it. Where on this spectrum is checking your cell phone in the presence of your child at a fast food restaurant during the summer (implicit is that, being summer, the child has been with you seven days a week, 24 hours a day)? I'd argue that it's way closer to the loving, interactive side of the spectrum. Is it ideal? No, of course not. But in an ideal world nice guys would finish first, my kids would clean up their rooms without being prompted, and we would all eat dinner together every night. Reality is not ideal.

This study rubbed me the wrong way as soon as I read it, but it took me a little while to organize my thoughts on why exactly it irritated me. I was reminded of this passage in a book called, "The Highly Sensitive Child" by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D. She talks about being "highly sensitive" and how difficult it is to be a parent. She says, "[l]et's fully admit how difficult it is to be a parent and highly sensitive. We need our alone time, but there is no truly alone time with an infant, especially if you have more than one child and also a partner (or even more difficult, you are a single parent)." What struck me (when compared to checking a phone in front of your child) is the description of what Dr. Aron's husband devised to get her some "alone time" when their son was small:

My husband, not highly sensitive but awfully clever, was always finding solutions for me. My favorite was the one he came up with when he had to be away for a whole day and evening. In order for me to have some time alone, away from my fourteen-month-old, he arranged the kitchen so there were plenty of toys down below and a set stool for me so I could sit on top of the refrigerator, out of sight of my son. (Left alone with toys in a playpen or crib he would howl, but not when he had the run of the kitchen, even though he could not see me, he tended to play happily.)

And here I thought that the mothers swathed in cloth in Victorian portraits like this:

were just trying to keep the kids calm so the photographer could get a good picture. Now I think they may be hiding from their children. But I digress...Where on that parenting continuum is hiding from your toddler on top of a refrigerator? Is it better than checking email in front of your kid? I don't know, but neither of them are the ideal. The point is that Dr. Aron, in a slightly unusual way, acknowledges what the McDonald's researcher do not. Parents need time off. It's okay to check out for a minute. We're not a bunch of robots programmed to do nothing but cater to our children's needs. Maybe checking out for a minute and checking in with a non-kid world is what those McDonald's parents need to be decent parents for the rest of the day. Not perfect parents, but decent parents who are just doing their best to stay sane and raise the next generation of decent parents. Isn't that enough?


  1. Hmm. I am wondering how tiny that mom must be to hide on top of a refrigerator. I just can't quite wrap my head around that one. Hilarious idea, though.