An essay by pediatrician Claudia Gold in the Boston Globe earlier this week raised the issue of parents who talk on their cell phones when they should be playing with their babies. Meanwhile, the New York Times ran this story about parents whose kids are so frustrated by their parents’ distraction level, on account of the parents’ Blackberries, phones and computers, that the kids lobby for them to spend more time unplugged.
I’ve thought often over the past decade about the fact that for all intents and purposes, I didn’t have a cell phone during either of my two children’s babyhoods. In the case of my son, who was born in 1998, I simply didn’t own one yet. It was a short window of time in our cultural history when it was just beginning to be more typical to have a cell phone than not to have one, at least in my circles of suburban moms, but it wasn’t considered weird that I didn’t own one. When I finally bought my first cell phone in the spring of 2000, I joked often that I was the last person in America to have a cell phone, but in 1998 neither choice – to have a cell phone or not to – made you seem terribly unusual.
By the time my daughter was born four years later, it was unusual for anyone not to own a cell phone, but by then we’d moved to a semi-rural suburb where coverage was still very unreliable. I had a phone but couldn’t use it within town limits. So talking on the phone while at the pool or the playground or anywhere else when my children were very small was never a choice I had to make.
And for that I’m glad. My son went through a long phase during his first year when he was content only if he was being held or riding in a car; I don’t like driving all that much, so I usually opted for the holding option. I sometimes say now that if I’d had a cell phone at that time, my baby and I might never have left the car: I could have driven around, he would have been soothed, and I would have been occupied talking to my friends or my sisters by the hour. Since that’s clearly no way to spend a babyhood, I’m glad the temptation didn’t exist.
Besides, although it’s easy for me to say this now, with both my kids in grade school and the demands of infancy many years behind me, I think taking care of an infant is supposed to be kind of boring. Just as Dr. Gold says, ”It is certainly understandable that a parent would be drawn to the possibility of adult conversation [by using a cell phone]. Mothers may fear losing their minds in the face of the seemingly simplistic tasks of feeding, holding, and diaper changes. But in fact they are laying down the foundations of their babies’ healthy emotional development.”
But it’s not only for the baby’s sake. My theory is that parenting a baby is supposed to be boring for the same way long drives or housepainting are supposed to be boring: because it forces you to think, to let your mind wander. My freelance writing career took off when my son was eighteen months old; I think it’s because I had such a build-up of creative energy after that tedious first year of playground visits and nap schedules. Many employers have found the advantages of hiring women returning to the work force after time at home with an infant: their minds tend to be raring to go.
To some extent, this reminds me of a debate that cropped up when minivans were first outfitted with DVD players. “Now long family car rides don’t have to be boring; the kids can watch movies,” enthusiastic parents said. “But long family car rides are supposed to be boring; it’s a great American tradition,” retorted others. “Boring car rides are where you quarrel – and ultimately learn to get along – with your siblings. It’s where you play the license plate game and I Spy. It’s where you learn to watch the road and let your thoughts unspool.” And, of course, for some kids it’s where you do quite a lot of solitary reading. But not now, with DVD players, iPods and mobile computer games all available as options for kids on car rides.
I feel this way about airports, too. Strangers used to meet each other in airports, back when there was nothing to do but talk to whomever else was sitting at the gate. Now, no need to talk to strangers: you can make phone calls, get on line, work on your computer. I never see strangers strike up conversations in airports anymore.
And this brings me back to my point about how early parenthood benefits in some ways from the boredom factor. When there’s nothing to do at the playground but watch your child roll trucks through the sandbox, you become engaged in the process. You start to notice his interest in trucks and the way he manipulates the different plastic pieces so that he can excavate in the sand and operate the dump truck. You take an interest in this most mundane activity because you don’t have other choices, and you learn something in the process: what fun it is to watch closely as your own children develop and learn.
Moreover, as with airports, playgrounds used to be where parents met other parents. With nothing to do but stand there and push the swings, conversations arise and flourish. But not if the parents are on the phone. When my children were two and six years old, we had the opportunity to take a monthlong vacation in another state. I worried at first about leaving all my friends for a month, since my husband would be working and I tend to crave social company on a regular basis; but then I figured I’d meet other parents at the playground at our vacation destination. It turned out, however, that that didn’t happen. We were staying in a resort community where we were all vacationers and no one knew anyone else; at the playground, all the parents were on the phone talking to their pre-existing friends, and not that whole month did anyone strike up a conversation with me.
So I really like the idea that Dr. Gold is reminding parents to hang up and pay attention. Even now, I’ve avoided buying a smartphone because I don’t really want email constantly at my fingertips, and I avoid bringing my laptop downstairs with me once the kids are home from school and I’m doing things with them because I don’t want the diversion of email. The ability to concentrate on our kids is not a skill we should be willing to give up, but it does take practice.
Just as when Tim was a baby I would have happily driven around chatting on the phone while he dozed rather than carrying him around in my arms to soothe him if I’d had the choice, I admit that now there are times I’m a little more tempted by the idea of contacting an editor to follow up on a story idea than listening to my kids describe a recess event. But when I unplug and take the time to listen to them, or even to just watch them play, we all benefit. Just as parents have done for thousands of years, before there were other options beyond immersing ourselves in the sometimes dull but always important world of early childhood.