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Plugged-In Parenting

Air Date: 09/14/10 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at cheryl.erwin@sbcglobal.netI often suggest to the families I work with that they might benefit from sitting down together to eat dinner at least three times a week. After all, we have all sorts of research showing that family dinners build connection and help prevent academic and behavior problems. So I was curious when the kids in one family told me recently that family dinners had only made things worse for them. When I asked what they meant, they told me: The family was indeed all sitting around the dinner table with food in front of them. But while the kids were forbidden to bring game players or phones to the table, Mom and Dad spent the meal texting, checking email, and browsing on their smartphones. "They didn't even look at us," one thoroughly annoyed young man told me. "I wanted to talk to them but they weren't even paying attention." The kids found a solution, though. They started an argument, which succeeded in getting their parents to yell instead of text. Most of the concern about technology in recent years has centered on children's use of it, the hours spent in front of the television or video game player or the dangers of Internet use, cyberbullying, or sexting. But there's another problem as well. In many homes, kids are far more willing to put down the digital devices than their parents are. And researchers are discovering that plugged-in parenting can give rise to hurt, jealous, angry kids. Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, has spent five years and 300 interviews exploring this very topic. Dr. Turkle has found that children repeatedly point to the same three times when they really want their parents' attention: at meals, when they are picked up after school or another event, and during sports events. I've lost track of the number of children who've told me how hurt they feel when they hit a home run or sing a solo and look towards mom and dad for approval, only to find that mom and dad missed the whole thing because they were too busy texting. How much of our children's lives are we missing? In some homes, a fascinating role-reversal is taking place. A New York Times article told the story of one woman who said her 3 year-old son got so tired of her promises to get off the computer in "just a minute" that he set the timer on the microwave and told her she had to turn off the computer when it dinged. Other children work hard to get their parents not to text while driving. Some parents have found it useful to make family rules for their own use of technology. In one home, for example, a mom decided she would not use the computer or phone between 4 and 8 p.m. Her children were delighted. Yes, gadgets have their place. Droids and iPhones are pretty cool and they make some aspects of life much easier. But parenting is all about connection. As any early childhood teacher can tell you, all important early learning happens in the context of relationship. We can measure some forms of language and cognitive development by simply counting the number of words spoken to young children every day. What happens when mom and dad are talking to a phone instead of talking to their children? When technology improves our ability to really connect with each other, that technology is helpful and good. But when technology creates a barrier to connection, it can strain the already challenging job of parenting to the breaking point. If you have children or teenagers in your home, keep track for a week of the time you spend focused on your computer or phone. Ask your children what they think about the amount of time you spend on technology. What would they change? You see, as Alfred Adler said all those years ago, misbehaving children are discouraged children. Kids who feel hurt, neglected, ignored, or resentful may discover that misbehavior is an effective way of getting parents to tune in. Like the mom who turned off her computer and phone for four hours every day, you may find that as you spend more time face-to-face with your children, just talking, listening, and hanging out, their behavior improves. Connection with people, not things is everything. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.