Phone-Free Parenting is Great, In Theory…

Convinced I was making my kid behave like a jerk, I put down the iPhone. Now, my wife is kinda pissed.

father viewing cellphone with son

It was an Instagrammable moment: One of my boys stood by the blazing fire pit stripped to the waist while his younger brother, in bright tie-dye, threw sticks into the flames. I took the picture and I posted it and then I started scrolling through the pictures in my feed, which I reminded me of some other pictures I wanted to post, and of course, I had to mess with the filters, and….

“Hey, poppaaaaaa,“ my youngest jolted me out of my phone-induced reverie, pushing on my arm. I was dimly aware he’d been trying to get my attention. It was the end of my first day trying to cut back on my device use around my kids and I’d Insta-failed almost instantly.

Acknowledging I had an issue began with a study published in the journal Child Development suggesting a possible link to problematic device use and behavioral issues in children. Specifically, researchers found that about half of parents surveyed for their study reported three or more daily family-time technology interruptions, dubbed instances of “technoference.” The number of technoference incidents proved to be a strong predictor for children with behavioral issues, such as hot tempers, whining, and oversensitivity.

“As adults, we feel pretty bad if someone seems to ignore us. We don’t feel validated,” study co-author Brandon McDaniel told me in an interview. “It’s the same thing with our children They just aren’t very good at regulating emotions, so what we see are behavior problems, like acting out.”

My 4-year-old is a champion whiner. He’s also one of the most infuriating pouters I’ve ever met. His bottom lip is legendary. And talking with McDaniel I had a distinct impression that it could be my fault. My kid might be fighting the phone or tablet with the power of a practiced moan. Then again–and let’s definitely dwell on this–it could also be my wife’s fault. She spends more time with them than me. That would be consistent with McDaniels research. He found more technoference with moms for that precise reason. But no way was I going to suggest that to my wife. That way lies chaos.

“Who likes to be called out on their media use?” McDaniels asks rhetorically. The answer is definitely not me and definitely not my wife and definitely not anybody I’ve ever had dinner with. That’s why confrontation doesn’t work and why McDaniels suggesting agreeing to ground rules outside of the context of a confrontation then offering gentle reminders.

It’s a great suggestion and one I ignored in favor of trying to break all my bad habits in the course of 48 hours. That meant I was going to be making a lot of eye contact.

“You want to show your children that you value them,” McDaniel explains. “And one of the ways I do that is to put down my phone or look away from my computer if they walk in. If they have my eyes they know they have my attention.”

When Saturday morning rolled around I resisted the urge to read my Twitter feed or the news. Not that it mattered too much. Turns out that the most problematic screen in the house is the big one on the wall in the family room. I did take some time to engage with my children as they stared at a bizarre Canadian monster-truck cartoon they found, but it wasn’t much interaction. Worse? I was the one experiencing the technoference as I attempted to talk to them about what they wanted for breakfast, only to receive silence and slack jaws.

For my part, after breakfast, I found a haven where technoference doesn’t technically count: the bathroom. Using the facilities is a perfect cover for some quick scrolling. The danger is in taking more time than is necessary. There is a strong possibility that circulation can be lost and excessive toilet sitting is also linked to hemorrhoids. It’s still a small price to pay for some sweet Snapchat action.

My quest was aided by the fact that I’d promised my kids to take them to the lake. It was a gorgeous day with plenty of sunshine. I wouldn’t be able to read my phone even if I tried. Technoference was a non-starter when it came to a day in the sun. So I hung out with my boys. They whined anyway, but at least I knew it wasn’t because I was looking at my phone.

All of these good feelings dwindled in the forested dim that evening by the fire. I thought about McDaniel, my Yoda.

“I don’t want parents to feel guilty. This is just the way it is with all the technology around,” he’d told me. “It’s something we need to be mindful about and think strategically about.”

After the first day, a strategy was forming. First, I’d sate my screen addiction jones through bathroom-time scrolling. Next, I’d spend time outside with my kids where the screen would be often pointless. But it wasn’t until the next day that a third part of my strategy came into play: reading. My kids love to be read. When I wanted to pick up a screen, I picked up a book instead, and gathered them around me and read.

Yes, there were still times that second day, when I had to force myself to give my eyes to my children. There were times when the innocent tap to look up a place to order in would turn into a scroll-a-thon. But at least I was aware of it.

But the biggest epiphany came on Sunday night, after the kids were in bed, when I popped open a social feed at the end of the day to gorge on all I’d missed. Turns out I hadn’t missed a damn thing. It was a tidy lesson, to be sure. And it would make for a perfect conclusion to a cloyingly preaching article about screen if not for one snag. I was the only one who had learned it. My wife lay beside me, her eyes glued to her tablet.

“You need to talk about things beforehand,” McDaniel explained. “Because when you’re in the heat of the moment you can’t problem solve very well.”

So there’s that. Now I just need to coordinate his calendar with my wife’s so the two of them can talk it out.