As her son happily devoured a newly acquired breadstick, a friend of mine looked up from her phone to see another woman hastily lowering and pocketing a handheld video camera. When she asked, “Were you just filming me?” the woman answered, “Yes, but don’t worry, it’s anonymous, I was filming from the neck down.” In response to my buddy’s disbelieving stare the woman added: “It’s for a documentary about moms who spend time on their phones instead of interacting with their children.”
I’ll admit, I used to judge. Before I had kids, and even in the first year or so of motherhood, I pitied the poor neglected children of parents (and worse, nannies) blabbing away on the phone or distractedly rebuffing curiosity with stock refusals like “give me a minute” and “not now.” After all, what is the point of having a child if you plan to ignore her? To the ghost of me past, I reply: “Shut the truck up, you hypercritical ignoramus.”
I think we can all agree that constant attention is unhealthy for both children and parents. Every parenting book I’ve read (and the official quantification of the volumes over which I’ve pored is “a buttload,” see readymommy.wordpress.com) says that parents who lurk and continuously engage do their children a disservice. Kids must be allowed and/or forced to explore their world independently for parts of each day in order to develop self-confidence, problem-solving ability, and a plethora of other new-agey sounding traits that are actually quite essential for building resilient, capable human beings. Plus, signalling to your kids that you need a little alone time models important self-care. And that’s just looking at the kids’ side of things. A mother who takes zero time out of the day to pursue her own interests and connect with other adults fails herself as well.
If you’re with me so far, then the question is not a matter of if parents should ignore their children but when and for how long. This leads to a data point problem for Judgey McJudgelepants. As a casual observer on the street you see an extremely small – and not necessarily representative – fraction of a parent’s day, which in turn is part of a long week, month, and year. For example, last Friday I was awoken by little hands literally pulling on my face, pretended to be glad to see my kids before dawn, snuggle-read to them on the couch, chatted about the day’s itinerary while preparing their breakfast, put lotion on a stick so that I could give them their requested pretend echocardiograms, and oversaw construction of a lego tower that turned out to also be a rocket ship, all before getting them dressed and out the door. On the way to the Children’s Creativity Museum, I fielded question after question regarding things like why leaves eat sunlight instead of gas like cars, why I crossed the street when that lady wearing tons of clothes started yelling, and why someone killed Martin Luther King, Jr. I worked hard, physically, pushing my double stroller all the way down to SOMA to avoid paying for a BART ticket. I enthusiastically sang and rocked in the museum’s free music class. When I then sat down on a bench while my kids happily played at the craft table and got out my phone, I carved out a moment for myself. Looking over my shoulder at that minute, you’d assume a day filled with neglect or disinterest. You wouldn’t see that I’d performed two echocardiograms before eight a.m.
All this is to say, you shouldn’t judge a parent for distracted moments unless you’ve observed a statistically significant number of them during a statistically significant number of different days at different times (it’s not enough to see a dad on the phone every Thursday at the playground; I reliably choose enclosed park time to check in with the rest of the world). You may happen to see a mom’s single ten-minute block of phone time for the whole day, or, more realistically, one of her four three-minute periods of mommy time (hopefully these clearly unobjectionable lengths of time help us dodge the details of the how long question). And maybe that other mom who’s giddily chasing her squealing brood around the park has all that energy because she planted them in front of the TV for four hours that morning. You just can’t know. Of course parents have a duty to unplug periodically as necessary to give their kids an appropriate amount of undivided attention; but a casual observer just doesn’t have enough information to determine whether any given parent has or has not done so.
Still feeling a little inclined to judge? I have a theory that there’s a transparency issue at play here as well. Humans are naturally social, nosy creatures; we like to know what other people are doing. Smartphones foil that impulse. When I get my phone out, it’s almost always to coordinate current and future playdates, check my Facebook feed, read on my Kindle app, vent to my husband via email, or text a picture of our day’s adventures to friends or the grandparents. Would the documentarian be just as upset if a mom picked up a book or newspaper while her kids played in the sand a few feet away? If she wrote a letter pen-and-paper style? If she chatted with a mommy friend who happened to be sitting next to her (rather than across the country)? Fiddled with a camera? Stopped at a payphone on the way home? I honestly don’t think so. And if one can legitimately carve out time to peruse the funnies, she should be able to browse internet memes.
Smartphones do have the “rabbit hole” phenomenon (wherein you open it for one purpose and then get stuck in there as different apps grab your eye), the “bread crumb” problem (clicking on a news article linked in your Facebook feed, then another article referred to in the first article, etc.), and the “sky is falling” issue (the fact that alerts make it seem like every little thing must be dealt with immediately to put the world to rights – i.e., to get rid of those pesky little red circles) – each of which leads to increased usage. But any social butterfly or voracious reader knows that, minutes spent being equal, screen time isn’t inherently more distracting than a good conversation or book (okay, yeah, fine, it’s usually the bad books that make me feel like a drug addict craving each plot turn or line of dialogue like a hit, see, e.g., “Twilight”). We disdain screen absorption more than any other kind for one primary reason: since we have no idea what the person is doing and whether it merits their sole focus under our value judgment system, we assume it doesn’t.
Here’s my solution. If anyone looks at me askance when I park my bum and pull out my phone, I loudly narrate my actions to my kids.* “JUST TELLING GRAMPA ABOUT THAT HUGE BUG WE SAW RIGHT AFTER WE STOPPED TO CRUSH THOSE LEAVES AND LISTEN TO NATURE’S MUSIC THIS MORNING!” Or “MOMMY’S SENDING DADDY A QUICK TEXT MESSAGE TO TELL HIM WE LOVE HIM!” Or “I’M GOING TO RING THAT LADY AT THE EARLY EDUCATION DEPARTMENT AGAIN TO SEE WHETHER A SPOT HAS OPENED UP IN THAT PRESCHOOL YOU WANT TO GO TO.” Or “MOMMY’S READING THAT SUUUUUUPER GOOD BOOK ABOUT THE GIRL WHO SAVES THE WORLD AGAIN.” Or even just, “I NEED A MINUTE TO MYSELF. I’LL BE OVER HERE LOOKING AT PICTURES OF OTHER PEOPLE’S BABIES. HAVE FUN!” And then I ignore everyone else and do my thing, confident that it’s the right call (or email) for me, my kids, and the world.
*Actually, whether out or at home, almost every time I use my smartphone in another person’s presence I spell out what I’m doing. That way my friends can know exactly what it is that’s more important than talking to them, whether my digital undertaking is relevant to our discussion, etc. It keeps me honest. More importantly, it gives me the right to raise my eyebrows questioningly whenever my husband unholsters his best friend and constant companion, I mean iPhone.