‘Mum I can’t believe you are using your phone at the table…! Do you remember that you did not allow us to use our Game Boys during meal time when we were little?’
‘Oh…sorry…yes… but I am not playing here…I just need to check something…’
My daughter is right. When handheld video games appeared in the early 90’s children loved them but they were addictive and we had to set up rules. Rule number one was: no Game Boys at the table (well, except at the end of the meal at the restaurant – after paper, pencils and card games had lost the children’s interest). Game Boys have since been replaced by mobile phones and tablets and it is no longer only children who get totally engrossed by their electronic devices… I, for one, have realised that the challenge of addiction is stronger than I imagined and you may have recognised yourself in the above scenario.
The Journal of Pediatrics recently published an interesting study conducted by researchers at the Boston University Medical Centre about the ‘Patterns of Mobile Device Use by Caregivers and Children While Dining in Restaurants‘. The concern is a lack of attention given to children, the potential consequences on their well being and the long term impact on the parent-child relationship. The responses of the children to the lack of interaction by the adult in charge showed that some were able to entertain themselves, some just remained passive and that some acted out and tested limits in order to attract attention. It also showed that when interrupted, the adults often lashed out more harshly than necessary.
Boston psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair explains: “When you’re texting or answering email, the part of your brain that is engaged is the ‘to do’ part, where there’s also a sense of urgency to get the task accomplished, a sense of time pressure. So we’re much more irritable when interrupted.”
Mobile devices are a new cultural phenomena. They are here to stay and we have to learn to live with them. We also have to be aware of the impact of the message we give when we use our phone in a social setting. ”We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, or any ping that may interrupt our time with them,” says Steiner-Adair.
I believe this message applies to children or adults alike. How often have you felt relegated to secondary degree importance when your friend, your spouse or your child answers the phone or sends a text in the middle of your conversation? Let’s be honest, it hurts, but we’re adults and we can understand the potential urgency of that incoming message.
Children, on the other hand, learn by imitation. By watching us they learn how to interact, how to have conversations, how to express their feelings and validate their emotions. They learn how to behave and how to conduct themselves in social situations. Based on the quality of the interaction with their parents they make decisions about themselves that will impact them for life:
‘When Dad stares at his smartphone while we are having dinner it probably means that I am boring and that I am not worthy of his interest’.
‘When Mum has a long conversation with her friend while she is pushing my pram she indicates that she would probably prefer to be with her friend and doesn’t really like spending time with me’.
The list of faux-pas is long, I am as guilty as anyone and we can all try to be more thoughtful when we use our devices around our children. Let’s ask ourselves: “Do I really need to look at that right now? Could it wait?” Use it briefly if it can’t wait, but explain what we are about to do and apologise to our children so they know we are not ignoring them for something better or that much more important than them.
Pediatrician Dr Claire McCarthy admits she is addicted to her smartphone but is trying to get the balance right with her family by making meal times phone-free zones.
We could all create a list of phone-free zones to display on our fridges: No phones allowed – be mindful of the present moment –
– feeding Baby: babble with her, talk to her, comment on the food and on her new skills, they grow up so fast.
– taking Toddler to the park: show her the birds, teach her new words, help him interact with other children.
– pushing Son on the swing: watch his happy face, the array of emotions he is experiencing. Laugh with him.
– listening to Child who has just come home from school and has so much to tell you right now (but nothing left to say later when you might be more available)!
– shopping with your teen: help him/her choose the all perfect outfit even if it takes longer than expected!
– eating in a restaurant: talk about food, life and the universe…
I recently discovered that the local Health Spa imposes a 10pm internet curfew to their overnight guests and I am pondering weather to install this in my own home!
Mobile devices are not all bad, on the contrary! My children are very savvy at finding fun facts, Apps and games and we have shared many great moments together as a family watching entertaining YouTube videos or looking at photos and updates from friends or even checking word definitions for that scrabble game we were playing. All together around one device. Recommended!
Most importantly though we must work on being fully present in the moment when we spend time with our children and give them our full attention. It is that feeling of being the most important thing in their parents life (and they are!) that will give our children the self worth indispensable to developing self esteem, confidence, happiness and independence.
This post first appeared on Lyliane Stewart’s site parentingeastwest.com on April 28, 2014.
Lyliane Stewart is a teacher, a positive discipline parent educator and a mother of two young adults. Originally from Switzerland, she lives with her husband in Beijing where she has been very active with the school community over the years. Her personal experience of living internationally in a cross-cultural family has given her a good understanding of the various challenges encountered by multi-cultural, multi-lingual expatriate families. Passionate about psychology and education, she founded Parenting East West to offer support to families around the world. Lyliane believes that by gaining a better understanding of ourselves, and of human relationships in general, we become better equipped for parenting. She offers weekly interactive parenting classes through which she introduces positive parenting tools and strategies.
The Mums2B group she started meets in Sanlitun weekly and welcomes new expectant parents.To get in touch, send a message to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo courtesy of Lyliane Stewart