I understand all the ways electronic devices can be beneficial to our children. They are lucky to have so much information readily at their fingertips and we are fortunate to be able to answer some of those once unanswerable questions they pummel at us with a single swipe. The internet makes their worlds smaller and connections between people easier.
They also make our lives as parents simpler and more manageable. When a child is so terrified of an impending dental appointment that the waiting room starts to feel like that cave in Indiana Jones with the huge boulder tumbling through it, Angry Birds on the ipad can seem like a life-saver. Electronic devices mean we rarely get lost on the way to their events anymore. We can immediately figure out if that bump they just got at the park requires more than a warm hug. We know we can reach our older kids when they are out without us.
I often wonder how it was that we or anyone else parented without them.
Still, I think there are some occasions when we should push through the challenges children bring without allowing electronic devices to ease our discomfort.
1. Family Meals
This one should be self-explanatory. Family Meals are for family time.
I read the news over many a breakfast when the kids are waking up at different hours, shuffling about, and eating when they feel like it. It’s a nice way to, well, prevent me from barking at anyone before I’ve had my requisite two cups of coffee. It’s a little “me time” to start the day. We all need that.
But when everyone sits down together, either spontaneously or because it is a planned mealtime, that’s an important signal that it’s time to be fully present for one another — without distractions.
We went out to dinner recently and were stunned when our server brought us a complimentary HUGE sundae. She said she appreciated how we’d all worked together to solve the puzzles on the menu and how we were talking and interacting throughout the meal.
That’s when we noticed that every other child in the restaurant was doing something on an electronic device — from the toddlers in their booster seats with ipads to the teenagers with their cell phones. It’s also when we realized that our silence to observe our surroundings made the entire restaurant go eerily quiet. We had been the only table making any noise.
The way I see it, going to a restaurant implies that you are sharing mealtime with your family (See #1). If it’s a planned mealtime, it’s planned together time.
Trust me when I say that it is tough for parents to enjoy a meal at a restaurant when little ones are whining and writhing in their seats. One of mine used to spin in the booth. I’m sure other patrons thought she was possessed.
Truthfully, once you have more than one child, meals out are hellish at worst and often disappointing at best. But meals out with little ones really aren’t meant to provide quiet times for parents. That’s what date nights and after bedtimes are for. Besides a little respite from cooking and cleaning, meals out with little ones prepare children for meals out and other important interactions when they are older. It’s their practice time. It’s when they learn not to spin in the booth, how to have a lively conversation, and just how greatly servers deserve those big tips you are teaching them to one day give (please teach them that; the staff who take care of a table with small children really should be tipped at 30%).
As a former pastor who preached many a sermon over the cacophony of toddlers whining and a mother of three whose youngest child wanted nothing to do with Sunday School (read: separation from me) for many years, this is a tough one. It would be so nice for everyone to worship in total and complete peace.
As it it with restaurants, though, you really aren’t bringing your children to worship so you can feel peace; you are bringing them so that you can share your faith with them. If you are a person of strong enough faith to attend worship, don’t you want your children to understand what it is you are hoping they’ll consider believing? If you hand them electronic devices so they will stay quiet during worship, you are effectively telling them that their role in your faith is to be seen and not heard. This is the message that will likely stick with them. They will not grow up associating the fun they had playing Mine-craft in worship with your faith and suddenly love your God all the more for it. They will grow up recognizing that worship was one more place where their parents really preferred not to be bothered by them.
4. Cultural Events (Museums, plays, movie theaters, zoos, etc.)
Let’s be real: we aren’t really imagining that our toddlers will learn about impressionism when we take them to the art museum. Sometimes, we want to see some impressionism and they come along for the ride. Sometimes, I took my kids to museums because I knew the docent would ask them to walk slowly and speak quietly and, for some reason, they always listened to the docent over me. And on that day, I really needed them to walk slowly and speak quietly.
Mostly, though, there are two reasons we take our children to cultural events: either we think they will enjoy it and gain something from it or we are hoping that they will learn to enjoy it so that someday they will gain something from it.
In the case of the former, they cannot truly enjoy it if they are distracted by a device. In the case of the latter, they actually have to experience the cultural event (often times over and over again) in order to someday fully appreciate it (There will come a time when your child will enjoy reading all the placards with you, and if they don’t, then they just aren’t that into it and that’s okay too).
If you feel your child really needs a device in order to get through the event, that’s probably a good indication that they should have stayed home for this one (and saved you the money).
(You might be screaming at me that you don’t have any babysitters or money for babysitters. And that stinks. It really does. We were in that situation until we recently moved close to family. It might mean that you have to use your electronic devices to experience some of those things virtually until either you can get a babysitter, you can go solo when your kids are older, or everyone is old enough to participate without the use of electronic devices.)
5. When you have house guests or are visiting someone’s home
If people are making the effort to have you come out for a special visit (not a regular play-date type activity) or to come out to your house, they probably prefer to visit with every member of the family. Nobody wants to make dinner, only to have 3/5 of the visitors spend the visit texting the people they would apparently much rather be visiting.
There are, of course, obvious exceptions, like if the purpose of the visit is to watch the big game or if your collective kids all enjoy playing video games together. The caveat to this exception, though, is that the games should be played together (see #6).
I feel like I really shouldn’t even have to say this one, and I am clearly repeating myself, but I am stunned by the amount of kids I see at parties playing video games ALONE (see #5) or in a room where a bunch of other kids are also playing their own, private video games. If kids want to play together — great. But any child who goes to a party and checks social media, texts, or plays games alone really should have stayed home.
Of course, the caveat here is that posting portions of the party to social media is pretty common and part of the fun nowadays. It just shouldn’t be followed by 15 minutes of checking all the other social media sites while on the smart phone, or texting everyone who is not at the party.
7. Funerals, weddings, baptisms, Bar/Bat mitzvahs, Upanayanas, Quinceañeras, etc.
Basically, if someone bought a flower arrangement or prepared special clothing for the event, all electronic devices should be put away, except to take pictures (if allowed). Even pictures, though, should not be shared via social media until either the reception portion of the event has begun or after it has all ended.
You and your children were invited because you all are somehow special to the person or people being honored. They knew when they invited your children to come along, that they would likely make noises, walk up the aisle, maybe even cry (at which point, you should take them out, of course).
Events such as these are excellent opportunities for you and your children to participate in important traditions, rituals, and cultural milestones. If you feel your child is not able to handle the event, you might need to stay home or hire a babysitter. Alternately, you could ask the host how you might help set-up a childcare room at the event. Most places of worship and event halls are happy to provide the space, and asking the parents who use the service to chip in for supervision is typically well-received.
Hoping children will stay quiet by giving them an electronic advice during an important milestone event is a lot to ask of an electronic device, really really tacky, and diminishes the potential importance of the event in your child’s life.
8. Nature Events
If you have planned a whale watching trip or a nature hike, that is where the focus should be. Just because your little one is enjoying the trip via a stroller or in a seat does not mean s/he is not absorbing and processing the experience. Encourage them take pictures. That’s part of the fun. Maybe look up a fact about what you are seeing if necessary. But leave the use of electronics at that.
9. While driving through new, interesting scenery
This one is probably the most controversial because electronics have saved many a family trip. We have a pause rule in our family. When we parents shout “Pause” while on the road, it alerts the children that there is something to see.
Before electronic devices, we all read books, played on our Etch-a-Sketches, or listened to music on our Walkmans through that horrendously long section of the California 5 between The Pass and the Bay Area. But there is nothing like putting down your distraction to see the Redwoods or during those coastal parts of the drive.
Those are my nine. I’d love to hear of any other times when children should put down or leave home their electronic devices. I’d also be interested to know if you feel I’ve missed the mark on some of these. Please chime in and put me in my place (respectfully, of course).
*I think this is an important list. I also recognize that parents who are raising children with special needs might need electronic devices in situations where I have said they should not be allowed. I do think that all parents have to make difficult choices — like whether or not to sit an event out, hire a babysitter, or postpone certain activities until the children are ready. But there are obvious exceptions across the board, especially when it comes to children with special needs.