I'm watching the tamarind monkeys at The with my toddler when two little girls run past us giggling. Ignoring my cries to stop, he tails them. After pausing to press their faces against the iguana's glass, the girls careen around a corner and disappear along with my son.
I catch up to him in the baboon's amphitheater. The girls skip up and down the steps before continuing their whirlwind tour. As their squealing fades, I reprimand my son for running in the zoo and not coming when I called. “This isn't a place for running,” I tell him.
He points in the girls direction, and raises his hands in a questioning shrug. His meaning is clear. How come they get to do it?
The answer becomes apparent as the girls' mother wanders into the room, chatting on her phone. She's blasé, as if strolling alone in the park and not in charge of the two hellions running laps through the building.
As the girls begin to bicker somewhere ahead of us, the woman hangs back. From the sound of it, she's talking to a friend about such and such.
That's why they get to run, I almost tell my son. Because their mommy's negligent!
Ten years ago I worked for The Hearst Corporation, managing website builds. The nature of the work, with multiple projects in different stages of production simultaneously, demanded multitasking. The windowed environment of the computer enabled me to keep an eye on email, IM, and a word document, all while on the phone. And though this was pre-Twitter, a constant stream of chatter flowed in the air and onscreen as links and music passed back and forth. I needed to arrive early in order to give a task my undivided focus.
I left the company to teach in a public school, about as far a shift in culture I can imagine. My classroom lacked a functioning computer, so the only windows I saw looked onto the Roosevelt projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Each of my twenty-five students required attention – more attention than I could give them, sadly.
Rather than multitasking, I threw myself into lessons with undiluted gusto. When conferencing with a child, I tried to closely listen and respond to their concerns. Without my full engagement, my students tuned out.
Not that first year, but later, at my best moments, I achieved the athletic equivalent of being “in the zone.” I had an awareness of the time left in a class period and the happenings in both the physical and intellectual space – meaning I knew where my students were in the classroom and in the arc of the lesson plan. I developed that sixth sense for dousing fires before they blew up. Sometimes even I thought I had eyes in the back of my head.
I strive to bring the same approach to my parenting, being completely there for my son. This doesn't mean that he doesn't have independent time – please! I encourage him to read or play or even just sit there spacing out, anything to give dad a break. But I attempt to avoid activities that take me out of the present, real-time moment with him. So while I might wash the dishes while he eats his snack, I try not to browse the internet, talk on the phone, or have conversations by text.
Let me repeat: I try. The siren song of technology is hard to resist. I run music off of my computer, and peeking at my email presents a constant temptation. I can't even leave the window open on the screen without finding myself craning every few minutes to see if a new message has hit. My not-unusual addiction to email is compounded by the many solitary hours of being a stay-at-home dad. The need to connect to an outside world can be intense.
But I worry that my fascination with the computer sends my son the message that I love technology more than him.
I see countless parents, like that mom in the zoo, modeling this behavior. I hear horror stories about older kids who won't stop texting, even when on family vacations. But can't a parent take away the phone? Not easily, if the parents are guilty of that behavior as well.
I wonder, will these kids grow up to value screens more than real live people?
Part of me worries that I'm being too reactive. A recent New York Times article on how digital technology is redefining family time (Quality Time, Redefined, published April 29, 2011), posits that books and television raised the same fears from some critics. Technology, one expert says, is a democratizing factor. Now instead of retreating to separate rooms, families can log into their own devices and at least spend time physically together, if virtually apart. And hey, as opposed to the passivity of television watching, technology encourages interaction and communication.
Or does it?
Reading about couples that text or email one another when sitting in the same room appalls me. And what's so democratizing about being logged in to some corporate entertainment site?
For advice I turned to a former mentor from my days at Hearst, Eric Swenson. Swenson made waves as a co-creator of BLAM! a series of experimental CD-ROMs which posited that “Interactivity is a lie.” He has over 20 years of experience working in the technology field, and is the father of two children, ages 11 and 7.
I was surprised to hear that this media savvy guy has no cable television. In fact, banning cable is one of his recommendations for parents, because it encourages addictive viewing. “You do not need the television in an always-on state, even for news,” he told me.
Three years ago his family unplugged the cable, and no one complained. Now his kids have to search out and request the programs that they want to watch through online sources, and they've learned about alternative media outlets to the corporate news machine.
Swenson warns against parents “fetishizing technology.” He encourages his kids to not only be thoughtful about the media they consume, but how much and in what way they consume it. By introducing his children to basic programming through MIT's language Scratch, they've become aware of the power dynamics implicit in media. “They understand that programmers are programming people, not just code. The computer presents users an environment that someone else has controlled the parameters of.”
As a result of this active approach to consumption, the only problem Swenson has ever had with media addiction was asking his kids to close their books at the dinner table. This leads me to think that my skeptical attitude toward the technology cheerleaders out there is something I should cultivate in my son as well. I would like him to be a leader in the digital world, not a blind follower.
Another part of me wonders if I'm being too judgmental, blasting parents (and myself) for trying to maintain an online life of their own. Many parents balance staying at home with part time work. Perhaps the people I see plugged in around Prospect Heights are in fact doing double time, keeping an eye on work related emails while making sure their child is safe. Who am I to dictate that these hard working folks put down the phone?
But then I think of my friend Denis Hurley, area stay-at-home dad for three days a week and the principal for the startup company Mobile Meteor. At the playground he's more likely to be chasing his two year old daughter than checking his phone.
“I only answer the phone if it's my wife or an important business related call,” he said. “And if my daughter and I are at home then we're either playing or doing chores together. My iPhone's plugged in and playing music, so it's not even a factor.”
Not unlike Swenson, Hurley thinks parents should make their kids active participants in using technology. His daughter understands the phone is a necessary part of his life sometimes, and in her play world she pretends to text and call people too. Occasionally she'll sit next to him while he checks his email, drawing or making music on her toy computer. He's building her a real laptop, so that she'll be able to learn how to use one responsibly.
Hurley remembered being a kid and having to wait patiently for his mom to get off the phone, or stop gabbing to people after church. There are times when children have to wait for their parents – after all, parents have lives too. The trick lies in not letting our need to connect overbalance our awareness of our children. “If your kid perceives that he or she isn't worth your time for whatever reason, that's a problem.”
What he's talking about is old-fashioned willpower. Knowing when to set limits for yourself to put down the phone and close the web browser, and following through.
Not unlike how I used to arrive early at Hearst in order to get in some productive time before the busy day began in earnest, I now need to relegate my presence on email and social media to when it's not going to impinge on my son. That's not a technology problem, it's a very human one!
Swenson and Hurley's approach to balancing technology and parenting heartens me. I can't help but wonder if, like with so many hot topic issues, the news media has seized upon the fringe – the technophiles who cry that every kid should have an iPad, or the tech addicts attached to their phone, video game consuls, or web browsers 24/7 – and empowered those voices to dominate the discussion.
In reality, it seems more likely that many parents are in a constant negotiation with media and technology both as people and as parents. That negotiation itself is a sign that their children will also be aware of consumption habits. We must stay constantly vigilant in this as in so many things, setting the right example for our kids.
Of course there will be people – like the mother idly talking in the zoo while her kids ran amok – who lead the unexamined life, or fail to parent as actively as they should. But there always are.
At Underhill Playground on a beautiful spring morning I look around. There are a good number of parents there, and aside from a handful pulled off on the benches, eyes on their phone, the majority are playing with their kids, talking with one another, and enjoying the sunshine.
All is not dire for the 21st century parent.