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Observations on life with children

Dear Reader,

As opposed to the regular question and answer format, this month I would like to offer a personal observation as a way to highlight the seemingly endless ways that the screen technologies are changing the lives of our children in ways that warrant much more of our attention and scrutiny.

My hope is that this observation serves not as a guilt-inducer (which quite frankly never makes for an effective parent), but instead offers a way of looking at what is before us with more clarity and long-term vision. Approaching it in this way demands that we be willing to step back from, and even beyond, the preconceived notions and ideas that our culture carries around what our children require in these times; recognizing that the developmental needs, prerequisites and demands of childhood have not changed just because we have iPads at our disposal.

The Big Picture

I was on a plane traveling to Florida. It reminded me how travel on board a plane is never easy, becoming even more demanding when traveling with children. The space is cramped, the quarters are close, and a handful of hours can feel like an eternity when you are trying to manage not only your own experience, but also the experience of children dependent upon you. Having traveled with children by plane, every year of their lives beginning in infancy, I am intimately aware of the difficulties and challenges. It often felt like nothing short of a miracle when we finally arrived at our destination, leaving me no longer trapped in what often felt like some kind of a living hell — with me in charge of how it all turned out. Not just for myself and the kids, but for all of the other people on board as well.

On this particular flight however, though I was traveling with my two children, they are grown now, leaving me free to consider what was happening all around me. Directly across the aisle was a mother traveling with her two young daughters. I am guessing their ages to be around 3 and 5. As soon as they sat down, the mother pulled out two kiddie tablets and two sets of headphones. Both girls knew exactly what to do, requiring no guidance whatsoever from their mother.

During the flight, the mother made attempts to engage with them; like looking out the window to check out what was happening during take-off and landing. Neither girl responded. And so it went for a three-and-a-half hour flight. The youngest child never took her eyes from the screen, or uttered a single request. Not to go to the bathroom. Not for food. Not to say she was bored. There was no squirming. There was not a single interaction with her sister or any other passengers on board. At the end of the flight, the woman in the row in front of them turned around to comment on what well-behaved children this mother had. The mother responded by saying that it was only because they were so preoccupied by their iPads. She continued by saying how guilty she felt about turning them over in this way to the technologies because she knew that it was not good for them. After a pause, she added “But, whatever!”

The Specifics

In these unprecedented times in terms of what it means to be a child and therefore a human being, it is precisely the “whatever” that we need to be looking at if we are to have any hope of doing right by our kids. For unlike the games of childhood, there is no “do over” here when it comes to what it is that we are offering our children. Given this, could you set aside any defensiveness you might be feeling? Would you be willing to suspend your own guilt around any choices you have made in this regard? If so, we are in a much better position to work with what is truly happening.

For starters, pause for a moment and ask yourself, “What essential experiences do you think were lost for these two girls and their mother?” For instance, what might have been gained if the mom had allowed the girls time to just be on the plane; taking in the sights of other passengers, fiddling with the pocket and its contents in front of them, reading, playing games together, looking out the window, resting, sharing food, talking, etc. So many genuinely fulfilling interactions with themselves and their kin that went missing that day because there was something much more powerful in the mix.

Right about now, you might be thinking, “What about all of the awful and hard times?” This, too, is a part of what goes missing, and not something we want to avoid. For when our children are given the room to learn to tolerate discomfort and boredom, or how to regulate their bodies, emotions and minds in challenging situations, they grow and develop capacities that can only be learned by going through the experience and coming out on the other side. If our children do not develop these skills and capacities, where will they be when they encounter difficult or overwhelming times? Will they go on to seek experiences and substances built to numb and distract them from life’s pains because they learned at such a young age to plug in as a way to sidestep challenging situations?

What of the mother? How will she learn to stretch herself and grow into the strengths and capacities of motherhood when she does not have to develop patience, fortitude and the ability to be with discomfort? The very same developing capacities that will give her the confidence and the abilities she needs to be a good mother. This as opposed to the one who gets to sit comfortably sipping wine believing there is not much here for her to do; relying on what a boon the technologies are for keeping her kids quiet, controlled and “happy.” The fact that we can choose not to deal with our children may feel like a gift in the moment (as well as every parent’s wish at some point), but ultimately it will go on to serve as a distance and a divide between parent and child, rendering our relationships unfulfilling and unsatisfying. Not to mention the long list of skills that go undeveloped in both parent and child.

And what of the underlying message this mother is sending her children by allowing them to do something she knows is not good for them? This is the one that will cut most deeply for our children. For it leaves the impression that they are not worth our time and energy to protect. As painful as this one is, if you can picture this through the heart and mind of a child, you will come to feel the devastation that this one carries, offering you exactly what you need in order to make a better choice on their behalf.

Finally, given the limitations of this column, we have barely scratched the surface around what is being lost for all of us. And lest we get side-tracked by believing this is not such a big deal, we would be missing the point entirely while engaging in a dangerous game of denial. So, to be clear, this is never about whether iPads are good or bad and always about what it is that human beings need in order to thrive.

P.S.: If you would like guidance around what supports the developing needs of your child, go to screentimenetwork.org/resource-library.

Susan McNamara is a Certified Holistic Health Counselor and holds a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology. As an adjunct professor at Westfield State University, she explores the impact technology has on students’ health and well-being as part of an overall curriculum on stress reduction. To submit a technology-related question, email her at TheFarmatAvalon@hotmail.com.

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