Distracted Parenting l April/May 2016

Researchers secretly observed 55 families dining in fast food restaurants to see how often parents directed their attention to their smartphones rather than to their children. Forty parents (73%) engaged with their devices at some point during the meal, with 16 of those parents (40%) engrossed in those devices for the entire meal — “swiping, texting and ignoring their children altogether.”i

Increasingly it’s an era of distracted parenting. Our handheld devices make it possible to direct our attention toward our screens when we’re with our children — rather than toward the kids themselves. Years ago, we might have spent waiting time chatting with our sons and daughters — in line at the grocer or until the server brought our food — but nowadays, our brain can’t resist the dopamine surge when a ping announces a new text or email, or the phone chime goes off. Our kids are then waiting until we come up for air, and too often, what they receive are attentional leftovers.

“I’ve heard so many stories about how a parent will be in the middle of an important conversation with the child and then their phone goes off and they’ll take a call. It’s like they completely disconnect from the moment,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of a book on the impact of parenting in the digital age.ii “It’s upsetting to us as grown-ups when we do it to each other, and it’s especially upsetting to children when parents do it to them.”iii

Text distractions can disconnect the parent-child moment every bit as much as taking a phone call. When that happens, consider the message it sends our kids about where they rank in our hierarchy of what’s important. And compare it to the very different — and powerful — message when they see us ignoring our smartphone so that we can keep our attention focused on them — and only them. What’s important now?

For those occasional (and rare) unavoidable interruptions, Dr. Steiner-Adair suggests keeping the parent-child connection alive by letting the kids know what you’re doing on your device while you’re doing it. I have an unhappy colleague asking for my help, or I’m letting Grandma know we’ll see her in twenty minutes. By doing this, you’re reducing your child’s sense of isolation from you at those moments when your device steals you away. But what ultimately benefits our kids most is declaring mealtime a device-free zone for everyone.

i Radesky, Jenny S., et al. “Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants.” Pediatrics Apr 2014, 133 (4) e843-e849; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2013-3703/

ii Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: Harper.

iii Steiner-Adair, C. quoted in Novotney, Amy. (February, 2016.) “Smartphone=not-so-smart parenting?” Monitor on Psychology. Washington, D.C. American Psychological Association.

Speaking of Sex l February/March 2016

“You’re going to remember your first sexual experience for the rest of your life,” a wise mother said to her teenage daughter, “so think carefully before you make a decision that can end up haunting you forever.”

Talking about sex with our children can be challenging for any parent. What to say? When to say it? Should we share personal experience? Should we assume a posture of neutrality, imparting information only, or should we include personal values, feelings and moral perspectives?

Studies have found that nearly half of all high school students have had sex, and nearly one-third are sexually active. Every year, over half a million pregnancies occur among adolescents, and nearly half of all sexually transmitted diseases occur among 15 to 24 year-olds. While we might wish it were otherwise, some form of sex (including sexting) has been or will soon be a part of many teen and pre-teen lives.

Research has found that when adolescents talk with their parents about sexual behavior and contraceptive use — especially when they talk to mothers — they tend to engage in safer sex, leading to lower rates of teen pregnancy and a lower incidence of sexually transmitted disease.i These benefits were particularly pronounced among girls.

So talk to your teen about sex. Although the topic may be part of health education at school, there’s typically more your youngster needs to know, to understand, and to discuss. You can fill the gap. Here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Sex isn’t a one-time talk to be held at the “perfect moment.” Take advantage of unexpected moments when sexual content on TV, film or media offer a convenient conversation starter.
  • Briefer chats help keep the kids’ interest, focused on one important idea at a time — easier for them to remember.
  • If you’re uncomfortable with certain topics, say so — and keep talking. When you’re emotionally honest, your kids will more likely be honest with you — asking their thorniest questions, sharing their biggest concerns.
  • Don’t preach or use scare tactics. You want them to come back for more, without fear of scoldings, sermons, or intimidation.
  • Do a lot of listening. Rely on “tell me more” to draw them out.
  • Go beyond information. Incorporate values and feelings, the role of respect between sexual partners, and the importance of mutual consent.

Don’t squander the opportunity to be your kids’ most influential sex educators.

For more on how to talk to your kids about sex, visit: http://www.pamf.org/parenting-teens/sexuality/talking-about-sex/sex-talk.html.

i http://archpedi.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2468100&resultClick=3

Questioner-in-Chief l January 2016

”How was school today?”
“Did you do anything interesting?”
“How did that test go that you were studying for last night?”

Sound familiar? You’re interested in your child’s experience, but you’re shut out. All you get are one-word responses and then there’s silence, or the conversation moves on to other things.

It’s a culture of engagement many parents try to foster, hoping to hear about a youngster’s school day or their time spent with friends or just their latest daydreams. It’s contact we seek, a sense of connection — and we rely on questions as a way of drawing them out. But for them, we’ve morphed at those moments into an annoying Questioner-in-Chief, putting them on some witness stand where they feel vulnerable and over-exposed. That’s when they shut down or turn away.

We forget that the behaviors intrinsic to a culture of connection can be modeled by us. We can take the initiative and share with our children — no matter what their age — tales from our own life. Tales of conflict are particularly likely to engage them — our own disagreements with friends or family or co-workers. Conflict gets attention. It’s what the Greek dramatists knew 2,000 years ago, and it remains true today. Our children live their lives regularly experiencing conflict, whether with siblings or friends or often with us. And your stories will carry a particular punch when you include your emotions: I felt upset, I felt angry, I felt frightened. Emotions are universal; the kids will relate. You might even embellish your narrative a bit if you think it will make your story that much more engaging. Tailor your stories to their level of understanding and edit out what you think might be for grown-up ears only, including the names of people they may know.

By sharing interesting moments from our day, we set a tone that makes it easier for our kids to do the same. If we’re willing to be vulnerable by emotionally self-disclosing with them, they’re more likely to reciprocate with us. But when they do open up, we must listen neutrally and accept what we hear without judgment or criticism. That’s not always easy, especially when they reveal their uncomfortable emotions. Our knee-jerk inclination to protect and solve and admonish and correct will remind them that we’re not easy to talk to — why even bother? Then we’re back to square one, floundering ineffectively as Questioner-in-Chief. (See The 5:1 Ratio, October 2011).