I recently started back to work as a character development teacher after having spent seven months at home with my daughter, June. I have been shocked at myself because I thought I would soak in every precious, golden second I could with her after going from being with her 24-hours a day to approximately four, if I'm lucky. Instead, too often, I find myself thinking "I'm just going to grab my phone to turn on music for us", and ten minutes later I'm still checking Emails, or texting my mom pictures of her, or watching another clip from The Late Night Show about the political craziness our country has found itself in. I have to constantly remind myself to put my phone away, and tune-in.
Just as I was trying to self-justify that "only a couple of minutes of being on my phone in front of June is totally fine", my step-dad sent me an article titled If Your Kids Are in the Room, Why You Need to Get Off Your Phone Now. The article is about a 2015 study by the Boston Medical Center that looked to see how screen-time affected parent-child interactions. In the study, undercover researchers observed the behavior of both adults and children in 55 groupings, and anecdotal findings showed that "parents who were on their devices had more negative interactions with their children, and 40 out of 55 parents were more absorbed in their mobile device than their family," according to the article. The problem with parents being more engaged with their phone than their own kids is that through face-to-face interactions "children learn language, they learn about their own emotions, and they learn how to regulate them," said Dr. Jenny Radesky. "They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people's facial expressions. And if that's not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones." Thanks Dr. Jenny Radesky for completely trashing any justifications I had for being on my phone, and leaving me with a total of zero excuses to put.the.phone.down.
So, just this week, I tried to leave my phone in my bedroom from the time I walk in the door with June until I put her to bed, about three hours. I'll admit, I did come in to check my phone every once in a while, but having it in my room, away from June, caused me to be more cognizant of the amount of time I spend on it. And, honestly, about 95% of the time I went to check my phone not a single person had tried to text me, Facebook me, Tweet me, or, God forbid, call me. And, even if they had, it's never an emergency. It's like those texting while driving ads... "it can wait", because none of the stuff I was doing on my phone is half as important as those few hours I have to help June meet her developmental milestones.
But, admittedly, the phone isn't my only problem... I can get so lost in my thoughts that I am completely spaced out sometimes. I will start thinking about making dinner, then what to take to school for lunch tomorrow, then something my co-worker said to me, then how I can make a lesson better, then a student in my class, then her family, then their house, then where they are from, and what that must be like… And, the next thing I know my daughter is crawling on me vying for my attention, and I realize I have been completely lost in my thoughts, even though I am sitting on the floor with her, toys in hand, and phone free.
Paul Tough reiterates Radesky's point in his latest book Helping Children Succeed that a lack of parental engagement will affect child development by stating that "a growing body of evidence suggests that one of the most serious threats to a child's healthy development is neglect- the mere absence of responsiveness from parent or caregiver. When children are neglected, especially in infancy, their nervous systems experience it as a serious threat to their well-being; indeed, researchers have found that neglect can do more long-term harm to a child than physical abuse (Tough, p. 23). Yikes!
Now, I am NOT saying that playing on my phone here and there, or spacing out, is neglect, and someone should call Child Protective Services on me. I also don't think that whatever it is that other busy parents are doing at home when they're not sitting down fully engaging with their children is neglect, either. But, I do keep reading over and over again about the growing body of research that shows how important simply tuning-in is. Tough goes on to explain that, "what matters, in general, is warm, responsive face-to-face, serve-and-return parenting, which can be delivered in many different flavors. That parenting approach, however it is carried out, conveys to infants some deep, even transcendent messages about belonging, security, stability, and their place in the world. And, those mushy, sentimental notions find their articulation in the infants' brains in precise neurochemical reactions: the formation of a synapse, the pruning of a dendrite, the methylation of a DNA sequence. All of which contribute, directly or indirectly, to the children's future success in school" (Tough, p. 72).
My next goal is to figure out how to tune-in to get those neurochemicals reacting, synapses firing, dendrites pruning and the methylation sequencing, or whatever. Luckily, Dr. Dana Suskind, the author of Thirty Million Words spends a third of her book explaining exactly how parents should tune-in to their children in order to reach what she calls "optimum brain development", so stay tuned.