23 June 2010

Never Mind Hanging Up and Driving. Hang Up, Tune In, and Parent!

Early last week, before my TDY (translated to civilian-ese, "business trip"), I stumbled across a rather poorly written OpEd piece on distracted parenting. While I felt that the piece lacked cohesion or a good conclusion, the central point was clear (if only because I'm a parent). Parents who don't focus on their babies' needs or who interact with them in a vague manner fail to teach them key things about themselves and the world around them.

I remember reading up on newborns when A fell into that category of child - and thinking, "This makes perfect sense". Babies imitate. Your faces are their meter for their actions. Your expressions and tones teach them about the world around them and their relationship with you. In fact, time and again, experts emphasize the fact that the best new baby toy you can "get" for your child is...your face and your voice.

With that in mind, both M and I focused on A. We talked to one another on the phone when she was sleeping and hung up straight away when she woke or screamed or cried. We didn't let TV or telephones or even music distract us while we fed her or interacted with her. In fact, for the first almost 12-months of her life, the TV was on all day - tuned to the classic music channel. Nothing to watch and soothing music all around helped avoid distractions.

Now, of course, things have changed. A is a toddler and a very independent one at that, but I haven't been able to help but notice more and more "distracted parents" when we're out and about.

In Faneuil Hall's North Market on Sunday evening, a young baby began crying while his mother sat, eating her dinner and yelling into her cell phone. As his cries got more persistent and angry, she raised her voice to be heard and idly messed with the carriage. It took 10 minutes (yes, I timed it) before she finally took him out

to comfort him, but she still never put the phone down to devote her attention to him and by the time we left, he was still crying.

Driving home yesterday, a woman crossed in front of the car wearing her iPod headphones, two children who appeared to be about Kindergarten aged in tow. While not the same as talking on a phone and basically ignoring a screaming baby, I've seen more and more mothers and fathers walking with young children, immersed in their own world of music. These particular kids were skipping around this mother, and she just smiled vaguely and walked on while they tugged her shirt, trying to get her attention (as kids that age do).

I have to wonder, even when kids are older - toddler or school-aged, what message we send when we stick headphones in our ears to walk with them, pick them up from school, ride the subway with them? Headphones, for me at least, have always been an escape from the world around me. They're also a barrier of sorts - one that says, "Leave me alone!" We don't talk to seatmates on planes who have headphones on. We don't bother office mates with the same. So, by plugging in while spending time with our kids, I can't help but think that we're still sending the message that we're tuning them out.

And yes, every parent needs a break. In the middle of Two-Year-Old-Hell-Month, M and I perform a ballet of sorts during the worst of the storms. We move in and out until the situation is calm, but when we reach our breaking points, the other steps in while the first parent removes and isolates themselves from the situation until whichever one of us it is has re-grouped. There is never a moment where A is completely alone or unsafe or actually disregarded (though I'm sure that she perceives that a little differently...)

We also need adult time. That's what happens after bedtime for babies. It's what happens once a month when a babysitter comes or she goes up north for an overnight. It's what happens when, basically, when she's not around.

It's not what we do in the middle of dinner while she's trying to talk, or on a walk home (or anywhere else for that matter) while she's telling us about her day. It's certainly not what we did when the world was a brand new place to her.

I know that not everyone can turn it off. Many people's jobs demand that they be connected 24/7. Heck, even mine takes me from home more than I'd like and requires that my phone is on 24/7. But that doesn't mean I have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, the phone bitching about what he said/she said OMGcanyoubelieveit?! at the expense of my priorities which are, in equal order, child and husband.

I'm really grateful that I didn't stay connected during A's early months of life either. Although M did most of the work as a SAHD, the child before us today is probably a testament to the undivided attention she received then.

How do you keep engaged ?


Anonymous said...

I pretty much agree with you. The only thing I'd say is that it's good for children to hear some of their parents' phone conversations and other adult conversations. It clues them in to what the real world is about. That said, I'm not a fan of the phone and I might intentionally talk on it around my kids twice a month. - SKL

Anonymous said...

There's a fine line between blogging your opinions and coming across as "I'M THE BEST MOTHER IN THE WORLD FOR A, B, & C REASONS AND MOTHERS WHO AREN'T LIKE ME ARE TERRIBLE PEOPLE." You may have crossed that line this time. Please keep in mind that some of your readers know that they're not perfect parents and are OK with taking shortcuts in the interest of staying sane. Your observations may hit too close to home with some of your readership and offend people. While I'm glad you feel like you're in touch with your toddler (and, you only have one child. I don't think you should criticize anyone who has 2 or more children) don't you think that ~blogging~ about being "connected" to something external from your children is a bit hypocritical? I know you'll justify it by saying you only blog/facebook/etc when she's sleeping or at school but some mothers don't have that opportunity. I multitask online classes with 2 kids and if anyone misconstrued my internet activity around my children as social networking I would understand, but making assumptions on other parents makes you look pretentious.

Lylah M. Alphonse said...

I think Phe's actual question was "How do you keep engaged?" not "Am I the best parent in the world?" or "Do you think I am writing this about you?"

I keep engaged by trying to focus on my kids when I'm not at work, but sometimes it saves my sanity to send out a quick tweet, update my status on Facebook, or even take (or make) a phone call during "their" time. The flood of support I get when I need it at those times gets me through many a tough day. But there's a huge difference between that and the scenarios described in this post.

Phe said...

Anonymous: I'm sorry that this piece struck such a nerve for you, but I believe that if you re-read what I wrote, in full, you'll probably find that the scenarios I put forth to illustrate the point had nothing to do with working mothers (WAHMs especially) and more to do with those who simply ignore their kids to talk. It's why I closed with this:

"I know that not everyone can turn it off. Many people's jobs demand that they be connected 24/7. Heck, even mine takes me from home more than I'd like and requires that my phone is on 24/7. But that doesn't mean I have to be on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, the phone bitching about what he said/she said OMGcanyoubelieveit?! at the expense of my priorities..."

Thank you for reading though and thanks for your input.

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