Panic, guilt, fear… These are just a few of the emotions that came up while reading Arianna Huffington’s “We Are Now Realizing What Screen Use By Parents Is Doing To Kids, And It’s Troubling” article last week. I was struck by flashbacks of all the times my phone was in hand while holding babies. Memories arose of the many times I was not present, using my phone as an escape into a world of social media, work, or just a distraction from the tiny humans that were running my life.
As an educator turned entrepreneur on a mission to help parents raise resilient, confident, and caring kids, it was a hard pill to swallow. Shouldn’t I be the person that is changing and not living this reality? Panic made way for my internal voice to beat myself up for not walking the walk. It was hard not to feel like a bad mom.
I immediately shared this article with my best friend and co-founder Kelly Oriard to help me organize and unpack these thoughts and feelings. As a therapist—not to mention my personal therapist, all day, everyday—helping me work through things is basically her favorite pastime. Maybe this is why we are such good friends. I always seem to have something to work through between myself, marriage, parenting four children, co-parenting my oldest who is my stepson, building a business… I mean, life is not boring.
With my childhood education background, I know the best practices of parenting. That said, I needed to dive deeper into this article with Kelly to understand what it means for me and my kids, with the knowledge that I am guilty.
Here’s what Kelly had to say…
First off, let’s take a breath and slow down the thought train that is playing out a fictional reality where your kids are the next faces on America’s Most Wanted. While the studies discussed in this article point to very important findings that are real and deserve attention, we are in the midst of a massive shift in the way humans are being raised and existing in the world as they grow up.
Millennials grew up with limited technology during the early days of computers, television, and games (Atari anyone?). We also grew up with well-intentioned parents who encouraged us to explore everything the world had to offer. Between playing outside unsupervised for hours and using AOL to sign onto the world wide web, there was a push to discover all the wonderful opportunities our parents never had.
Explore, try new things, gather information, and be whoever you want to be. What a wonderful message as we stepped out into the world with all the ambition and confidence that we could have it all.
Then, advances in technology accelerated at a mind-bending pace. The internet and information became so readily available through devices that we had all the answers at our fingertips. We wanted to use this tool to improve ourselves; to gather information from others so we could be the best at anything we tried. All of a sudden, technology gave us ways to not only get important information, but also to connect with more people with seemingly less emotional risk.
This is the moment where we get to help shape the next generation by building on the work of the previous generation.
The missing piece that we are uncovering and understanding better than any generation before us is the importance of emotional intelligence and wellness. Mental health has become a topic that is finally at the forefront of popular culture. It is no longer taboo to discuss and share these experiences thanks to trailblazers like Brene Brown, Selena Gomez, or Lady Gaga.
As we look at the issues highlighted by the article, I see an opportunity to reflect on the missing skills and attention we need to cultivate within ourselves so we can impart them to the new generation. Those lagging skills are emotional identification, regulation, and a practice of awareness.
We see this manifest in adults when they reach for their phones to escape from life’s stressful moments—including raising children, whom we see struggle with this daily. Like when my son’s granola bar breaks and he throws himself on the floor screaming that he is unable to eat it because it’s broken.
Although our parents did not have the same devices to escape from us when we had a meltdown about whatever was plaguing our tiny human existence (i.e. Wanting to eat all the Flinstones vitamins), the fact is, for the most part, they also did not meet us with attuned awareness. They likely told us to be quiet, sent us to our rooms, or just nonchalantly ignored our pleas. They also did not have the skills, vocabulary, or awareness we have collectively gained around the importance of attuned awareness, regulation, and emotional wellbeing.
Many of us are discovering these powerful tools ourselves, whether through self-help books or personal therapy. We are now logically aware of the importance of these things. That said, awareness and implementation are two different things. So, how do we as adults do better for our little ones? How can we impart these important skills to our children, when we ourselves were not exposed to them until we were adults?
I believe the answer is to start becoming aware of and attuned to our own emotional states; to model for our children what to do with a difficult feeling. Reaching for our phones is not inherently a problem, but doing so without conscious awareness of our own emotional state can be.
Attuning to self and then to your child is the first step. We don’t need to throw our phones out the window in response to commentary from “We Are Now Realizing What Screen Use By Parents Is Doing To Kids, And It’s Troubling.” Rather, we can use it as a moment to reflect on our own reasons for screen time. If we want better for our children, we can make a conscious decision to make intentional time to connect with them.
By joining your child in play or tuning into small moments with them without distractions or demands from the outside, you may find a powerful place of joy and wonder. When you meet your child here, they are soaking in everything about you and your interactions.
Does that mean you should be perfect? Absolutely not—you should be real. You can reflect to your child how to take deep breaths when you are upset or excited to help your body calm down. You can consciously give them the tools of self regulation that you are learning yourself. It doesn’t take hours of interaction to plant seeds of emotional wellness. It happens in these small moments of interaction, connection, and reflection.
The quality of time spent with your little one is what matters, and the quality of that time starts with your state. In fact, this is the intention behind Slumberkins—the company we founded to promote social and emotional learning through parent-child bonding.
So, instead of adding another stress-inducing worry to the list, why not give yourself a break? Embrace the crazy. Connect with your child with a quality of presence that gives meaning to you and them for 10-15 minutes a day. Accept that life becomes very loud, noisy, and messy with children, and that much of your time is spent doing all the things.
Your phone may be a place of refuge for you, and maybe there are more places you can find that temporary relief. What do you need in your life that brings you a calm and grounded feeling—Time alone? Time with friends? A good workout? A good book? A pedicure? Please know that no one is doing this perfectly, but that doesn’t detract from all parents’ desire to do right by their children.
There is no perfect, there is only learning—and being real with yourself and your little ones along the way as much as you can.