Help! A Cell Phone Ate My Kid!

A long time ago, the adage goes, children were supposed to be seen and not heard.

They scampered off to bed with a mere glance from father, peering sternly over his evening paper.

At holiday gatherings, everyone sat down to dinner at the same time, with children relegated to a side room or kitchen where they could sling peas at one another and chew with their mouths open. (How was that supposed to teach them any social graces?)

Unfortunately, kids today are still being seen and not heard. They come in, sit down, and take out their cell-phones. When it’s time to leave, they head for the door like silent robots, never having uttered a sound.

Historically, the family domain is where children prepared for adulthood – you know, by interacting with real people, doing real things. But today, instead of being shunted off to a side room, kids hide behind electronics, barely moving their lips as they text and Facebook with friends.

And instead of improving their interpersonal skills, they slip deeper and deeper into a passive, virtual world.

Why is this even acceptable?

I’ve heard parents say, Oh, they’re just being kids.

But in my book, that’s just an excuse.

Here’s why. When children are very little they might resist taking a nap. Or getting dressed, for instance.  We expect them to do these things because we are their parents and know what is good for them. We certainly don’t give up.

If the goal is to put a toddler down for a nap, it needs to be an anticipated routine. Make sure he’s had some physical activity. Maybe read a story. Or just lie down with him until he falls asleep. He takes a nap at that age because he needs one. He doesn’t get to decide for himself.

Want your child to dress himself? Make sure he can reach his clothes. Put clean socks in the drawer and show him how to get dressed. Be positive. And be present – until he can do it by himself. Because that is your expectation.

But what about older children who’ve opted out of human interaction? Kids whose eyes glaze over and whose thumbs seem to have lives of their own.

Should we give up?

Of course not. What’s needed are expectations. Only starting at age twelve or fifteen is tough. Not impossible. Just damned hard. Hell, it’s tough if you wait until three or four.

Here’s a difficult truth: From the beginning, children should know they are not in charge of family rules. It certainly doesn’t make them feel any safer, happier, or more loved. In fact, research has shown just the opposite.

The question is, where to begin if yours have fallen off the earth?Boy playing video game

If you have already invested in cell phones and other electronics, start by biting the bullet. Realize that those devices have no actual value other than what they are worth in and of themselves. So prohibiting your kids from having unfettered access should not matter to you. Not one iota. Just be detached.

When you go out as a family, have your kids leave their electronics at home, including their cell phones. (What, they’re expecting a call from the White House?)

When you have guests, no one gets to hide behind a screen.

Of course, it’s best to start early, ensuring that children grow up valuing people over electronics. Over things, really.

The secret is pulling your kids into the center of whatever you’re doing. Teach them what it means to think of others, to be gracious and hospitable. Even if it’s just putting supper on the table or offering refreshments.

Work side by side with your kids. Let them know exactly what you want them to do and show them how to do it. And don’t forget to show your appreciation. Not occasionally. But every single day.

Face it. Electronic gadgets are no more than brain-eating babysitters.

So be aware, basically, of being lazy.

In some families, screen-time serves as a bribe. “Do this and you can play on your whatever.” Just refrain from doing it.

Because you don’t want them to think of time spent not interacting with you and other family members as a reward.

In letting this happen, expectations of shared activities fly out the window.

Who’s supposed to converse and interact with your kid if you and other adult family members do not?

If you want your kids to engage with you, remember this: The expectation of participation is not an option. It’s a prerequisite for life.

It’s about parental leadership. About kids doing with us and with others, showing them how, and letting them know we believe in their abilities. In the end, your child’s ability to initiate will bring success in a way that passivity cannot.

Why? Because the expectation of participation is about giving kids self-confidence – the true source of self-esteem.

But in today’s e-world, parents and kids both are missing the boat.

How to climb back on board?

1. Take every opportunity for “people” time. Share your enthusiasm. (Remember that screen time messes with the brain’s reward system. So time with you, at least at first, may not seem as interesting. Just don’t give up.)

2. Assign kids daily responsibilities and be present for them. No phone calls or messages allowed.

3. Make meals together.

4. Play board games together.

4. Teach kids crafts and sewing. Even simple projects.

5. Don’t let kids use cell phones or games during homework. Ever. (Multi-tasking is a myth!)

6. Make time to read aloud every evening. Even to older children.

7. Volunteer together.

8. Spend time outdoors. Hike, build a snowman, ride bikes, plant a garden. (No electronics allowed.)

9. Go to the library every week as a family.

10. Set an example by not being on your own electronic devices during “home time.”

The second you have a free moment (Oh, wow! The kids are being good!) is not your chance to grab your phone, check email and Facebook.

In the end, who freaking cares?

It should be your chance to connect with your kids. Why? Because you are their most important teacher. FFG

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