Children don’t come with instruction manuals. We are forced to figure out for ourselves how to parent our children in the hopes that they grow into happy, healthy adults. Often, the best reference we have is our own childhoods. But it is rare to have a perfect childhood of our own to use as a model and even if we did, how do you apply it to your own child when it is clear he or she has a different personality from you?
The best parenting practice is consistent, mindful engagement with your child with a clear sense of who you want to be as a parent, but an open mind to learning from your child the skills needed to do it. As your child grows and develops, he/she will be constantly changing and evolving. A child’s behavior, cognitive ability and emotional experience are rarely static. You have to pay close attention to keep up with their changes!
Over time, this approach has helped loving parents be great parents. Not so much these days. Parents are increasingly busy and distracted, as are their children. It is more and more difficult for families to connect with each other in the ways need for effective parenting. In this article, I want to explore some ways to counteract the effects of parenting in our fast-paced society.
Don’t Be So Distrac…
It seems the economy of things is being replaced by the economy of attention. Social media, television, news media and advertising are all competing for your attention and the industry built around this effort is changing the shape of the world—and the shape of our minds. Competition in this field has always been fierce, but with the introduction of a cell phone in every hand, the accumulation of mass data and the tools for applying insight gained from that data has made the art of gaining your attention extremely precise. People stare at their phones and have no awareness of the world around them everywhere. Sitting in traffic (or even driving in traffic!), walking down the street, waiting in line at the store—any chance to have a quiet moment becomes a chance to look at one’s phone.
The first time I saw anything like it was when I first visited Las Vegas. People would sit with a big bucket of coins at a slot machine. Put a coin in, pull the lever. Put the coin in, pull the lever. On and on. No really joy or fulfillment on any of their faces.
Our endless scroll screens are our new one-armed bandits.
Unfortunately, when we become distracted, by definition, we are no longer able to pay attention to our child. Raising a child can be exhausting. It is pretty easy to collapse and veg-out when given the chance. But the economy of attention is powerful of commandeering those opportunities for recovery.
When I am teaching classes at Traditional Martial Arts Academy, most parents are on their phones, usually engrossed in social media. Other parents will read books, get work done on a laptop, interact with a child not in the class, or even just sit and watch. One thing I’ve noticed with those on their phones is they are less likely to be aware of what is happening with their child in class.
One of the many reasons that martial arts is such a great activity for kids is that it is a challenging skillset to learn. Every child has dark moments of uncertainty when they feel awkward, incompetent, bored or frustrated. And every child has high moments when, after significant effort and sometimes emotional turmoil, they accomplish something they have struggled to learn.
I love these moments. It is central to why I wanted to teach in the first place, and it grants new insight into the child and his/her potential. And I love for parents to share these moments with their kids.
When I see one of these moments beginning, I will often refer to him/her by name so that a parent can look up and see what is happening. Unlike other parents, those on phones rarely do.
I say all of this not to make you feel guilty about using your device. They are powerful tools, and they offer a lot of very positive benefits. But they can also become overused in ways that are subtle and socially accepted that can interfere with your relationship with your child.
It is important to learn how to be deliberate in your phone use. Designers of the devices and the content they provide are targeting how our brains are designed to better catch and hold our attention. Develop strategies for recapturing your mind and your attention.
There was an interesting study done at the University of Chicago. In the first experiment, participants had their phones turned off and either in their pocket/bag, on the desk in front of them or in another room. They then ran some cognitive tests. There wasn’t a performance difference for those with a silenced phone in their pocket or bag. But the difference between in-view on the desk and out-of-view in the other room was significant. Being able to see the phone was strongly associated with declines in both working memory capacity (keeping track of task-relevant information while engaging in complex cognitive tasks) and fluid intelligence (the capacity for understanding and solving novel problems).
Image from University of Chicago study linked to above
Research on the effect of phones on our brains is pretty limited because the field is so new. But there is growing body of studies like the one above that point to a potential impact that is both subtle and severe.
I, for one, have started restricting my use of my phone. My notifications are turned off, and I often have it powered down completely unless I need to make a call. I avoid using it for email, preferring to have that be dedicated to my laptop only. And I have no social media of any kind installed on my phone. I am doing all I can to limit how much my device attracts my attention and to create friction between me and access to content.
My wife, Julie, has taken to the streets. Literally. Every chance she can, she chooses to walk instead of drive. It creates islands of non-connectivity in her day. On top of that, she completely disengaged from social media several years ago.
For both of us, it has been liberating. These strategies, among others, have disrupted and untangled the hold our phones have over us. The result? It is much easier to be engaged with our daughter when we aren’t constantly feeling the tug of our phones.
It is amazing how many kids I see sitting in restaurants, ignoring their families to watch videos or play video games. Or in their cars while their parents drive them around. Or while sitting and waiting for a brother or sister to finish an activity.
These are missed opportunities to interact with your child. Sure, those screens (and a pair of headphones) offer some peace and quiet for us parents. Sometimes the most welcome sound is silence!
But in addition to the impact that screens have on children’s developing brains, you are missing out on the opportunity to get to know your child and through that, sharpen your skills as a parent.
Though we do listen to books on CD with our daughter when in the car, we see car trips as opportunities to spend time together as a family. We don’t watch movies or play video games in the car.
Instead, we play word games, read books together or just chat. Those trips have helped us connect and bond as a family and offer some wonderful memories.
Don’t get me wrong—it is not easy. Reading to a child and playing word games loses its novelty on a sixteen-hour road trip. And Julie and I can get pretty competitive when it comes to who is driving (and thus not reading to a child). But we recognize it for the rare opportunity that it is and work to take full advantage of it.
DON’T BE SO STRESSED OUT!!!!!!!
This is a tough one. A few months ago, a poll showed that 59% of Americans think this is the worst time in their lives. This includes people who lived during the Depression, WWII, Vietnam and the assassinations of the 60’s and 70’s, Watergate and 9/11.
There are some obvious drivers for these feelings. But in keeping with the scope of this article, I will focus on the impact of those feelings.
The biggest effect is that it is exhausting to feel angry and miserable about the world around us. We stay in fight or flight mode, a state designed for high-performance in a moment of emergency, but something that destroys our bodies and minds long-term.
I found that this impacted my relationship with my daughter. I found myself increasingly irritable with her and more likely to seek distraction instead of time with her. This, combined with a general dislike of how I was feeling all the time, drove me to make changes.
Here are two simple, and perhaps difficult, changes you can make as well.
- Stop watching so much news! When I was a kid, there was a morning newspaper (I only read the funnies) and the nightly news. If you missed them, you had to wait until tomorrow. Now, we are bombarded with news. We get it through social media, online sites and TV. I have family members who never turn off cable news. Constantly checking the news feels like engagement, but it is simply addiction. If you learn of a news story at the end of the day, you don’t know any less about it than if you checked every half hour on your phone. You can remain aware of events without that awareness becoming constant vigilance. You will be less stressed as a person and more effective as a parent.
- Nourish yourself! When you are stressed out and tired, self-indulgence (unhealthy foods, alcohol, etc.) and distraction become more tempting. These behaviors can feel nice in the short-term, but can actually increase your stress over time. Seeking behaviors that are self-nourishing help you stay centered and better able to deal with your stress. Eating good foods and getting plenty of sleep and exercise can go a long way to helping your body and mind stay healthy. Activities such as meditation can help with balancing emotions. I find reading (books, not social media) to be nourishing. Begin with small steps towards better self-care. As you take better care of yourself, you will find that there is more of you available for engaging your child with positive energy.
Have Dates With Your Child
I was surprised to discover how important this one is. When I find myself getting grumpy around my daughter, we set up a daddy-daughter day. Usually, it involves several hours of hiking and/or bicycle riding and ends with us trying a new BBQ place. Our time together is sometimes fun, sometimes boring and sometimes frustrating. But I always feel better afterwards and we both feel closer.
When we have our daddy-daughter days regularly, I find that I consistently have a lot more patience for her and enjoy being around her a lot more.
Being a “Successful” Parent Is Hard
Parenting is a skill, and our lifestyles make it difficult to have the time, attention and energy for becoming skillful parents. We acquire that skill from our life experience and from outside source (like this blog). But an important resource for becoming more skillful is our children themselves. Deliberate, attentive engagement with our children helps us to better understand their needs and to find better ways of providing for those needs.
Hopefully, this article has provided you with some helpful ideas for fulfilling your potential as a parent!