Staying Present in the Era of Distraction. Turn Off and Tune In
by Alice Kaltman
When I get sullen, rejecting glares from my teenage daughter while my younger parent friends get unreserved affection and boundless enthusiasm from their toddlers I turn a little green with envy.
But I don’t always envy today’s younger generation of parents. I especially don’t envy the challenge they face trying to remain present and connected to their little ones in today’s iphone, blackberry culture. There’s no denying how useful and important cell phones and cyber-culture are in today’s world. You wouldn’t be reading these words right now if it weren’t for the wonders of the internet. But sometimes it becomes a bit too much, and even good parents chose their electronics over their kids.
On a recent trip to a playground I was appalled by how many electronic devices sprouted from parents hands like budding flowers. I cringed as parent after parent disconnected from their kids to check their phones. The Parenting Coach in me wanted to shout out, “Don’t you guys realize your relationship with your kids splinter every time you answer the phone or check your messages?”
Back in the dark ages of mid-nineties parenting there were no cell phones. The only parents who carried electronic devices were doctors with pagers, and those life-savers were understandably given wide berth. When parents were at playgrounds they played with their kids, talked to other parents or caregivers, or stared off in space. They couldn’t check e-mail or text while their kids slid down slides repeatedly, hundreds and hundreds of times. Parents had to find their way to comfort, or deal with discomfort. They had to experience playground boredom. They had to be present in some way, even if that way was physically or emotionally difficult.
When they pushed their kids in strollers, they chatted. They couldn’t push the stroller with one hand while talking to someone else on a cell. The only person to talk to was that little cutie sitting in front of them. A stroller ride was a shared activity, punctuated, rhythmic and ritualized. Parents pointed out landmarks, stopped to look in store windows. They sang silly songs, practiced words. They turned sidewalk bumps and curbs into amusement park rides. Unless their kid was floating off to a welcomed nap, they engaged. Or at least tried to.
Parenting can be relentless, boring, and stressful. It always was, and always will be. I’m sure many mid-nineties parents would have loved the opportunity to check the web instead of building sand castles. Every parent craves escape from the demands of parenting at some point, or many points, on a weekly, daily, or hourly basis. It’s important to find escape from the tedious tension of parenting, but not at the expense of emotional connection.
So, do yourselves and your kids a favor. If possible, save all phone calls or e-mail checking for during school hours or after bedtime. Consider leaving the phone at home when you go out to do errands or go to the playground. At the very least, put your phone on silent mode so you’re not thinking, “I wonder who that is?” and your kid isn’t thinking, “I wonder if that person is more important (to mommy/daddy) than me?”
Wonder instead about your kid. Who they are, and who they are becoming. Wonder about them by observing them in action, climbing, running, talking, playing. Stay attuned and focused. Better yet, join in the fun.
Alice Kaltman, L.C.S.W. has been working with parents and kids since 1988. In 2006, she co-founded Family Matters NY with Sara Zaslow, L.M.S.W. FMNY is a parenting coaching service for Brooklyn and Manhattan families, providing support through home and office visits. Alice lives in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn with her teen-age daughter and husband, the sculptor Daniel Wiener. She also writes fiction for kids, and dances professionally in her spare (?) time. Write to Alice at firstname.lastname@example.org.