Parenting With a 3-Ring Circus in Your Pocket

This morning I went for a walk through the park and took in some of my favorite sights and sounds: little children playing.

I take great comfort in watching kids running and climbing and swinging. Something about the timeliness of this scene never fails to lift my spirits.

Then I saw two parents by the baby swings. One dad was fully engaged with his giggling baby. The other child was staring off into space as her mother, fully absorbed in something on her cell phone, absentmindedly pushed her in the swing.

Here is a confession: I have approached the topic of raising kids in the digital age with perhaps a hint of judgment toward parents like this mom. As a family therapist, I believe that children need parents who are attuned and present, and that can be sorely compromised if we’re too often distracted by the endless offerings of our devices.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

But the truth is, I have no idea how I would have dealt with having a three-ring circus in my pocket. I think it would have been hard for me to resist.

I’m on the ADD’ish scale; my active mind loves to swim in a sea of novelty. I can imagine telling my little guy, “Hold on a minute while I see who’s texting me” or “I’ll be there soon; I just have to check my email.”

It sort of breaks my heart. Because I have a grown son who is truly present when he speaks with you, and I think that might have been different if I had been more distracted during his childhood.

Changing diapers, negotiating homework, or re-reading stories about hungry caterpillars can be mind-numbing. Of course we sometimes long to lose ourselves in something — anything! — to escape the relentless demands of child-rearing.

In fact, in Perri Klass’ NY Times article, The Guilty Secret of Distracted Parenting, she writes, “May I call as my witness Abraham Lincoln, who is reported to have walked up and down the street in Springfield, Ill., in the mid-1800s, pulling his young sons in a wagon while reading a book (and as the story goes, he went right on reading when a child fell out of the wagon).”

The digital world offers a lifeline to lonely parents. We can connect with friends, find something to laugh about, or even take a class while our little ones amuse themselves nearby. But we are at risk of becoming increasingly incapable of tolerating the slower pace of simply being with our children. And they need us to just be with them sometimes.

How, then do we manage the pull of those delicious offerings of that circus in our pocket? How do we make sure that most of the time, when we’re pushing the baby in the swing, we’re making eye contact and laughing with her? How do we ensure that we nourish our kids with enough of our undivided attention so they learn to hit the Off switch on their own devices as they grow up, engaging fully with the world around them?

It starts by becoming honest about that very real desire to temporarily visit the digital world, doing absolutely nothing about it other than feeling that pull. Noticing. Becoming more aware.

If we are to raise our kids to develop a healthy balance between the 3D world and the digital one, we’re going to need to step up our own game when it comes to tolerating the discomfort of life in the slow(er) lane in their presence.

Try simply allowing yourself to just breathe through the uncomfortable feelings of limbo around not knowing if you have a babysitter on Thursday. Stay present for the discomfort of boredom as your four year old rambles on about what happened when Santa and Dora the Explorer went swimming. Not all of the time — but maybe a little more often.

No judgment. No “digital parent shaming.” I understand that it’s harder than it seems to idle at a slower speed with our kids when there is so much stimulation available in that device. But try taking small steps toward Just Saying No a little more frequently when you’re with your children.

Before you know it, your children will be pushing your grandkids in that swing. You’ll probably want them to be “all there” when they do, enjoying the giggles, or just savoring the silence and stillness as they relax in the sunshine, watching children do what they do best — playing.

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