A week or two ago, I went for a walk on my lunch hour along the Truckee River. It was a glorious day; the river was full and frothy, kayakers cavorted in the rapids, an optimistic fly fisherman flicked his line in the shallows, and people strolled along the river path. As I walked, I passed several young mothers wheeling their children in strollers. There was an odd thing about these moms, though; their children were sitting quietly in their strollers, staring vacantly at the passing scene. Mom’s attention was focused elsewhere: three of the moms were chatting loudly but not to their children—they were on the phone. Another mom walked along in a world of her own, listening to her iPod while her little boy slumped in his seat.
It seems that everywhere you go, you see people who can’t bear to be disconnected from the digital community. We wear our iPhones and Blackberries proudly on our belts, carry BlueTooth devices in our cars, and check for messages from the universe every few minutes. What would happen, do you suppose, if we all turned off our electronic toys for a while and had a real conversation? Would we miss something important? Would the world really come to an end?
Here’s a news flash: children do not learn language and social skills or develop relationships by listening to you talk on the phone. Nor do they learn anything useful when you sit at the computer, listen to books or music on your MP3 player, or chat and text with your friends all day. I recently explained to an adolescent client of mine that when I was in high school, we didn’t have Facebook, computers, or cell phones. In fact, I told her, I had to talk to my friends on the one phone my family owned, which happened to be in the kitchen. Attached to the wall. By a cord. She was horrified. “Didn’t your mom hear everything you said?” she asked me, appalled at the very idea. “Yup,” I answered. And I know I’m getting older when I find myself thinking that returning to the days of non-wireless phones might be a good thing for a few teens I know.
Yes, I sound like a curmudgeon. And in fact, I check my email regularly, do most of my work on a sophisticated laptop computer, and own an MP3 player and a smart phone. But I do know when to turn them off. Unfortunately, for many parents technology has blurred the line between work and family life. Being at home no longer means being able to focus on your family; sometimes it just means you get to work even longer hours—but in more comfortable clothing. In fact, I believe that parents may be more addicted to technology than their kids—with very serious consequences.
If you have children, especially young children, you need to take them for lots of walks, and trips to the park and the grocery store. But here’s the deal: you should be talking to them. You can point out the baby ducklings, the swallows’ nests under the bridge, and the daffodils just peeking through the soil. You can talk about how grass feels on bare feet, why we don’t approach strange dogs, and how long dragonflies live. If you don’t know how long dragonflies live, you can find out together. (You can look it up on the Internet, but it might be more fun to visit a library. You remember books, don’t you?) At the store, you can talk about the yellow bananas, the shiny red apples, and the deep purple eggplant. You can count coins and teach about money. You can plan a meal. Then you can eat it together.
In other words, you should be doing lots of talking to your children and you should leave lots of time for them to talk back to you. If they can’t talk yet, it doesn’t matter; they will learn language from the sound of your voice and from the rhythm of your words. Most important, be sure there’s time every day when you can be together as a family without the incessant blather of the television, a movie, the telephone, or the computer. Make the dinner table a technology-free zone and practice the art of conversation.
You can’t raise children effectively in your spare time. Nor can you afford to send your children the message that they are less important to you than your boss, your girlfriends, your golf buddies, or your favorite TV program. Children aren’t gerbils; they need far more than food, water, and a place to sleep. They need your patience, your love, and your attention. They need you to be interested in them, to teach them about the world, and to take time to play with them.
I think we should declare a national “Turn It Off” day and lock all of our electronic junk in a drawer. Then we should focus our attention on the living, breathing human beings right there next to us. You might be surprised at what you discover.
Cheryl Erwin is a marriage and family therapist who works with children, teens, and parents in Reno, Nevada. She is also a popular speaker and trainer, the co-author of several books in the bestselling “Positive Discipline” series, and the author of the “Everything Parent’s Guide to Raising Boys.” Cheryl also does a weekly commentary on parenting for public radio, which you can hear at www.kunr.org. You can learn more about Cheryl and her work at www.cherylerwin.com.