Child on cell phone

There's No App for That: Parenting in the Digital Age

4/8/15 by Judy Ohm

​The digital age is the age of distraction. We’ve become accustomed to staying connected to our email, social media, mobile phones and apps at all times – even when we are doing other things, including parenting.

I often see the results of this distraction when families eat at restaurants. Parents turn to their phones and away from their children – just for a moment, it seems – and children start acting out. When parents don’t respond to the message, the kid’s behavior escalates in the hopes of getting attention. Before you know it, the child is acting out and the parent is bewildered and frustrated.

What just happened? Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on.

Children want attention – whether it’s positive or negative – and they learn quickly what it will take to get it. When a parent on a phone ignores a child or gives several warnings before taking action, the child quickly learns how far he or she needs to go to get the parent’s attention. The parent’s stress has escalated, but the child is happy. He or she has gotten attention.

Anatomy of a Temper Tantrum

Temper tantrums are natural ways for children to get attention. Distractions such as cellphones can make tantrums worse.

Pediatrician Jane Scott wrote a piece for the Washington Post, “Parents, put down the cellphones,” that recounted her visit with a 2-year-old whose father spent most of the visit on the phone. The results of inattention, she wrote, are “temper tantrums and separation anxiety, and older children who resist discipline.”

Also last year, National Public Radio reported on researchers’ observations of 55 parents and young children eating at fast food restaurants. Researchers found that children whose parents were most absorbed in their devices were more likely to act out because they wanted their parents’ attention.

Making Present Possible

How can you be fully present with your child and stay on top of email and Facebook? There are no shortcuts—and certainly no apps—to help you be a present, attentive parent. There are, however, a few simple things you can do to avoid creating a competition between your child and your cellphone. At the Child Development Center, we give these tips and and others in parenting classes that focus on positive parenting techniques.

  • Designate a time every day to give your child undivided attention. The more the better, but even 5-10 minutes of one-on-one time can be beneficial to children who need your attention to feel safe and cared for. For older children, your attention for 10 minutes a day is critical in strengthening your relationships.
  • Let your child choose an activity or game and play at his or her level. Young children have little control of the world around them; play is their space to explore and control, so let them set the rules of play. This builds confidence and imagination. Be especially patient with toddlers, who may need to change activities quickly. This play is often referred to as “child directed play,” and it works with all ages of children.
  • If you must answer your phone when you are with your child, get her or him started on an activity and say you’ll be right back to play or talk. Then, leave the space. Children get confused when you are physically, but not mentally, present with them. Attend to your business but return as quickly as possible. This will help the child understand that sometimes you have to leave but you will return.
  • Praise your child when you are seeing the behaviors that you want to see from her or him. Start out small, such as “I really liked the way you cleaned up when I asked you” or “thank you for getting ready to leave the house the first time I asked!” Small actions and words of praise help shape the behaviors you want to encourage.

Don’t expect immediate changes. This type of play and attention requires adjustment for children and parents. In some of our parenting classes, children have needed a few weeks as they learn to accept this positive playtime with their parents.

If you keep at it, you will see changes. You will be giving your child attention for behavior that you want to see, and they will begin to learn a new way to get your attention, which is so important in their growing lives. The long-term benefits for you and your child far outweigh anything you will find on your cellphone’s screen.

Judy Ohm is director of the Child Development Center at Wilder, a preschool and childcare center that serves more than 78 children ages 16 months to five years.

Top photo credit: Creative Commons/Flickr