Parenting with Headphones In

And the problems society can look forward to as a result.

The other day I was looping anticlockwise around the city riding the circle line, and found myself sat opposite a disturbing sight. My attention was first grabbed by a cheerful little boy, about 4 years old, who was perched on his dad’s lap, enthusiastically chirping away as the bustling morning commute scene played out before us. His animated face showed his excitement at watching the suits and dresses and high heels and converse scurry around him, and he sat swinging his feet energetically between his dad’s legs, as if trying to join in. He could not contain his delight. It appeared that this was a new experience for him, like most things are when you’re only 4 years old.

What struck me as odd was that Dad was not paying any attention to him whatsoever.

Now, I’m not a parent and I don’t have any experience bringing up a toddler, and I’m sure spending day after day chasing a spirited 4 year old around can really get to you sometimes. But it appeared that his dad was completely ignoring him, helped no doubt by the headphones covering his ears and his averted eyes.

As I watched inconspicuously from my seat, I tried to imagine scenarios to disprove my hasty assumption. Perhaps Dad had just been told some traumatic news and was trying hard to find some clarity of mind whilst getting the little guy to nursery. Possibly wee Billy had spilled coffee all over Dad’s new laptop earlier in the morning, and he was silently fuming inside, desperately trying to wedge his feelings of utter fury deep inside to avoid exploding with rage. Maybe he was a heroic single dad, struggling with a full time job and a lively animated 4 year old to raise. Maybe even, he was a psychologist conducting an experiment on the public’s reaction to lazy parenting.

Or maybe not. It eventually became apparent that they were travelling with the woman sat beside them. Mum? She also shared his complete disinterest in the boy. As we passed through five, six, seven stations, waves of people alighted whilst new ones boarded, and all the while the little boy was happily talking away to himself, engrossed in his own world.

Maybe I had entirely the wrong end of the stick. Maybe they’d both spent a highly tense morning together and were using every ounce of energy to avoid launching barbarically at each other’s throats. Maybe I should get off my high-saddled-spectator-horse and stop judging parenting styles when I’ve no experience with it myself. But it might just be possible that my hunch had it right.

And if that’s the case, it was really sad to see.

But what can you do? There’s not much you can do when it comes to someone else’s parenting technique, without risking poking your nose in and getting a brisk slap in the face. So you find yourself sitting there feebly hoping that the kid’s high-spirited enthusiasm doesn’t get stamped out by an apathetic, unresponsive environment and he finds the encouragement and support he needs elsewhere. Or that it’s just a one-off and usually he’s doted over excessively.

Just this week Tristram Hunt, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Education raised his concerns over poor parenting being to blame for a rise in serious difficulties with children’s speech and language development.

“Academics are all too aware of how crucial the 0–5 years age bracket is for the intellectual and emotional development of children. Not nearly enough parents are. “ — Tristram Hunt

It’s not just speech and language development that are at risk. It’s the entire mental well-being of a child and the adult they become. More than 10 years ago a rigorous report was released by the Mental Health Foundation following a seminar on the topic. It stressed the important impact parenting style has on a child’s emotional and cognitive development, most notably in the first year of life, and the long term effects that can arise both to the individual and society as a whole when this is impaired.

Obviously since the report was released, the prolific presence of smartphones and tablets in every day life have surely only intensified the severity of the problem.

There is a huge amount of evidence to suggest that poor relationships in the home lead to poor mental and physical health in the future, and back in 2004 there was growing concern that the mental health of children was declining.

Society needs mentally healthy people.

People who grow up to demonstrate mental well-being and high self-esteem are known to be stronger in the face of adversity, can overcome difficulties thrown at them by life, and be able to have an enjoyable existence with an appreciation of themselves and others. It should be in everyone’s interest to ensure we breed a compassionate, ambitious and resilient community for the future.

I don’t have the statistics to back up a hunch that, with the advance of technology today, there are greater distractions readily available that are inadvertently building a barrier between the simple yet essential process of communication necessary between a parent and a child.

But hasn’t bad parenting always existed?

Just because we now have visual clues such as headphones and smartphones to trigger our spidey sense that there’s something unhealthy going on here, does that mean that it hasn’t always been there? Isn’t a father gazing out the window consumed by his own thoughts just as absent from his child as someone plugged into their iPod?

Obviously it’s easy to jump to conclusions and waggle your finger wildly at any parent you see glued to their phone. There is a tendency to quickly assume they are dilly-dallying around on Facecrack, selfishly satisfying their narcissistic urges for self-validation. Let’s not forget some of them are actually pursuing worthwhile tasks, such as checking if they left the gas on, desperately finding their location on Google Maps or studying honourably for that Open University degree.

Putting aside people making false judgements, which might well have been what I was doing, it’s hard to say what effect smartphones, tablets, headphones and all of the sensory inputs we have available to us are now having on society. But by the time we find out, it might be too late for the generation of young children who are facing not just immediate neglect, but what science suggests could be a lifetime of difficulties with relationships, employment and health.

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