“Your little girl is spinning round and round, making her dress twirl. She is such a little beauty queen already, the sun shining behind her hair. She keeps glancing your way to see if you are watching her. You aren’t.”
So goes an ominous essay that regularly makes the rounds on social media to warn parents to mend their ways. It’s called “Dear Mom on the iPhone,” and the message is clear: Mothers are in danger of missing out on the most beautiful moments of their children’s lives because they are checked out on their phones.
If you want visual proof, take a look at the regular parent-shaming photo memes that show zonked moms and dads hunched over their phones while their children do gymnastic flips, shine at swim practice and perform other charming tricks unseen.
These memes makes me think about my own mother, who spent countless hours bringing me to soccer practice, piano lessons and playdates during my childhood. I remember her fondly, on the sidelines of my soccer games, watching every move I made, cheering wildly at every goal scored. No, wait — that was the mom next to her. My mom sat in a lawn chair, her nose buried in a novel.
My mother didn’t have an iPhone, or even a cellphone, but she found a way to ignore me nonetheless. She wasn’t interested in sports — even, or especially, kids’ sports — and she found no need to pretend for my sake.
I can’t remember her lack of attention to my activities ever bothering me. In fact, it taught me two important things: One, my mom had her own interests; her life didn’t revolve around mine. And two, books were very important to her. She has always been a voracious reader and consumes books at a fast clip.
My mother didn’t have an iPhone, or even a cellphone, but she found a way to ignore me nonetheless.
As a child, my parents were a big part of establishing my interest in reading — not because they told me to read, but because they showed me it mattered to them by doing it themselves. Becoming a reader myself was a way that I could show my own maturity and take part in the adult world.
I’ve thought a lot about this when I consider how I use technology around my kids. Though I shrug off the mommy-shaming memes, I do try to be careful about how I use my phone around my kids. Not because I think there’s anything wrong with ignoring your children — on a sunny day, I bring my children to the playground for the express purpose of ignoring them. But I do want to be aware of the example I set for them, and I don’t want selectively ignoring my kids to slide into being inaccessible to them.
Even when I’m using my phone to catch up on the news or text a friend — activities that are little different from reading a newspaper or making a call on a landline — experts warn that the little computers in our pockets have a greater power to steal away our mental attention than their analog counterparts.
A quick text to check in with a friend can easily slide into checking Facebook, posting a picture on Instagram and reading the latest unbelievable political story, and poof, 10 minutes have passed.
The effect, clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair told me in a previous interview, is that kids feel like they’re always fighting for your attention. Steiner-Adair, who wrote “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” calls this “relational fatigue.”
Plus, during those 10 minutes, what my kids see is me staring mesmerized at my phone. They don’t know whether I’m reading important policy analysis or checking Facebook. What they do know is that the phone is strongly powerful at capturing my attention. I know that it’s only a matter of time before they have smartphones of their own, and I want them to learn to have self-control about how they use them.
So that’s why my goal is not to stop ignoring my children, but to ignore them better. I ignore them by reading books at the playground, by leafing through magazines while my 4-year-old builds Legos, by knitting while my baby practices crawling.
They can see plainly what’s capturing my attention because it’s right there in front of them, not hidden behind an opaque screen. I do, of course, still use my phone around them — it’s pretty useful, after all — but I make the effort to put it away after I’ve sent the text to their dad or checked the library schedule.
The other day I sprawled out on the couch with a magazine after putting the baby down for a nap. My older son, Nate, asked me why I was looking at it. I told him that I enjoy it and learn from it, and that reading is very important in our family. The first conversation that his father and I ever had, I told him, was about books.
Nate hasn’t learned to read yet, but he sat down next to me with his favorite book, a National Geographic kids book about dolphins, and paged through it, reciting each line from memory.