Inside: What does science have to say about the real reason your kids are out of sorts? Plus, discover one simple way to improve your relationship with them!
It should have been easy.
A simple request from me, “Don’t give your booger to a baby. She will eat it.” (When you have small kids, you say things like that as well as “Who put a remote control in the toilet?”)
But instead, my four-year-old son flipped out. He wailed like a grief-stricken baboon and threw a match car in the air. It somersaulted over the table and bumped a full cup of milk. As the white liquid started dripping off the table, he collapsed on the floor, sobbing his little heart out.
What exactly had just happened?
It wasn’t an isolated incident. All of my kids got extra whiny, oversensitive, and did rude things to get my attention. They seemed to be out of sorts, and I didn’t know why.
It made no sense. Why now?
My kids were never prone to meltdowns and tantrums.
I went over my mental checklist.
- Special time with each kid. Check.
- Giving them plenty of opportunities to talk and discuss what’s in their hearts. Check.
- Lots of outside time. Check.
- Fitness classes for all kids. Check.
- Healthy food. No sugar. Enough sleep. Check. Check. And check.
Was peace, quiet and cooperation in my own family too much to expect? I was sure it was not. We had it all before. I just had to figure out where it went and how to bring it back.
So I got new parenting books by the cartload, read academic articles and took an online parenting class from Yale University.
It didn’t help.
I had my epiphany when I came across an NBC news article entitled “Study finds parents distracted by devices.”
Before I tell you about the lessons I learned, let me clarify: I am not your “typical” heavy smartphone user. I check emails once a day, don’t participate in any forums, and have few apps on my phone. Online games are not for me, and neither do I watch movies or browse the internet for fun. I don’t have Facebook, Twitter, or other social networks on my phone.
What do I use my phone for? I use it to order groceries, buy my kids sneakers and toys, do my daily exercise, order and renew library books, look up information (are green boogers normal?), map my route to a new park, take pictures, record my “to do” list, research lessons for my homeschooled kids, take online classes for my own development, check the weather, text my friend about upcoming playdates, write blog posts (yes, I’m typing this on my phone), look up the museum hours, listen to audiobooks and…. Good grief! It’s so much more than I had realized!
Does this describe you, too?
According to Edison Research, in 2018, 92% of American moms owned a smartphone. And according to the Media usage statistics, an average mom spends 211 minutes a day browsing the internet. That’s almost four hours daily!
But want to know the real shocker?
You need to get ready for this
When moms use their electronic devices in front of their children, children feel unimportant and sad.
We all know what happens when kids are out of sorts.
They act out! Enter whining, fighting, pouting, irritability, uncooperative behavior, as well as aggression and other unpleasant consequences.
Now it all made sense.
I didn’t own a smartphone until I had my third child. At the time my kids were newborn, two and four, and they almost never saw me using my phone! I didn’t have time for it except to schedule an odd checkup or call my mom.
When my youngest started sleeping more at night, I started my blog Kid Minds. It didn’t affect my kids that much, I got up between 4 and 5 in the morning and did all the things I needed to do on my phone before the kids even blinked their sleepy eyes open. I could catch up with more work during their naps/quiet time, and if there was anything left to do by the end of the day, I did it after the kids went to bed.
It all changed after we had our fourth baby. With frequent night feedings, I was getting just over 5 hours of sleep, even when I went to bed with my kids and woke up with the baby (I wear a health tracker).
My older three kids grew out of naps, and the baby’s nap became a vital homeschooling zone. You can’t learn algebra with a baby spitting all over a textbook. And explaining physics while making sure the baby didn’t lick the dog’s drool off the floor was beyond my abilities.
If I wanted to catch up on my emails, it had to be squeezed in a short interval between saying to one child “Write down all the pronouns you know in a vertical list” and telling another child “tell me as many Latin action words as you can remember.”
What you should know about Smartphones
They are addictive.
Now you know.
If you have looked around recently, you know it’s true. In any park, you’ll see a row of moms pushing their kiddos’ swings with one hand and scrolling through their phones with the other.
A decade ago, when my oldest son was enrolled in a kids’ sports academy, the waiting room was filled with eager faces watching their kids do sports. Now when I am there with my youngest son, all I see are the tops of heads as everyone is busy playing with their smartphones.
Smartphones are intentionally designed to be addictive. And it’s working! According to Deloitte Global Mobile Consumer Survey, Americans check their phones 47x day. With 85 percent using them while talking to friends and family.
According to Consumer Mobility Report, for a majority of Americans, smartphones are the most important thing on their minds when they wake up in the morning and before they go to bed at night.
And talking specifically about moms, the number of moms who access social networking sites several times a day increased from 11% in 2008 to 62% in 2017.
In January 2018, the number of moms who listened to audio online increased from 48% in 2015 to 69%. Do you listen to audio content on your phone? I know that listening to an listening to an Outlander on my phone while sorting the laundry outnumbers the days when I do the laundry while talking to kids. Why? Because listening to the story takes less mental energy, but that’s a subject of another post.
It gets worse
Let me ask you if you are familiar with the following scenario.
“The kids are all busy,” you say to yourself, looking around the room. “I can do this one quick thing on my phone…”
And if you are lucky, maybe you end up doing another quick thing. And maybe even… NOPE! Here it comes. The inevitable, “Mom!”
You try to be nice about the interruption, “Wait, honey! I’m in the middle of something. Just give me a sec.”
“Mom! Mom!!” but with more urgency this time.
As any cornered person, you now get on the defensive: “Just give me a second, will you? Gosh, I never can finish anything.” And just as the words leave your mouth, you inwardly cringe and ask, “Why did I just say that? My kid just wants a cup of water. I’m so grumpy. I was never like this before.”
I have news for you.
The proliferation of research into smartphone usage demonstrates that (get ready for it) when parents are interrupted during smartphone use, they project an air of hostility.
Be honest. No matter how much you love your kids and enjoy taking care of them, if you have a smartphone in your hands when they need something, you are going to feel resentful.
It doesn’t mean you are doing anything openly hostile to your children. I know you are an awesome parent. But we are programmed to enjoy the flow, that wonderful sense of being fully immersed in the activity that gives us joy. When you’re interrupted using your smartphone, you feel irritated. You feel frustrated. And no matter how much you want to hide that fact from your kids, your nonverbal expressions betray you (the furrowed brow, the impatient “yes,” the narrowed eyes, the tone of voice).
You might be thinking that your private thoughts are secret. Your mental state (“I can never finish! These kids always want something.”) is nobody’s business. You might congratulate yourself on not acting on your irritation. But kids know. As we must be mindful even of our thoughts. Not only our actions but our thoughts too must be of a kind that a child can safely imitate.”
What is your child imitating?
My kids were imitating my grumpiness.
As an adult, I could quickly move past my irritation and get back to taking care of my kids with peace in my heart. But for my kids, peace was more elusive. Not being able to regulate their emotions well, they were stuck with their out-of-sort-ness.
According to American philosopher John Dewey, “the desire to be important” is the deepest urge in human nature. Your kid says, “Mom! Mom! Look at me!” You say, “I’m paying a credit card bill. Give me a minute to finish.” Kids don’t know what you are doing on your phone, and they don’t care. The only thing they care about is that it’s hard to feel important when they’re in a competition with a piece of metal, and they seem to be losing.
In other words,
a smartphone was reducing my family’s happiness.
It may sound far-fetched, but science agrees. The mere presence of a smartphone drains your cognitive abilities. “Having a smartphone within sight or within easy reach reduces a person’s ability to focus and perform tasks because part of their brain is actively working not to pick up or use the phone.” In other words, even if you are not actively using your phone, you are not giving your kids your full attention. It may explain why you feel so tired after spending a few hours with your kids. You’ve been resisting the urge to pick up your phone.
If you’ve been around kids for a while, you have already figured out that what they want from us is our energy. They need to feel important. Kids know that we naturally give more energy to things we care about.
Do you know that 80% of smartphone users check their phones within one hour of waking up and going to bed? In other words, the smartphones became the most important thing people think about when they first open their eyes in the morning and before closing their eyes at night. How can an inanimate object hold so much power? Unfortunately, the more energy we give to our phones, the less energy there is for kids.
I get it.
You might have very good reasons for using your smartphone. The work you do on your smartphone might be paying your mortgage, or saving you a trip to the bank, or buying shoes for kids’ forever growing feet.
But you can also ask yourself if maybe, just maybe, you have trained yourself to reach for your phone at the slightest opportunity?
Signs you are using your phone too much
- You said, “let me finish this,” while staring into your phone at least a dozen times in the last 24-hours.
- If you forget your phone at home, you feel lost.
- You find your phone more amusing than your own kids.
- Your smartphone compulsion score is on a higher side.
Here is the truth
When I reduced the amount of time I spent on my phone, I
- became more attentive to the energy in my house.
- could redirect my preschooler’s attention seconds before he even conceived a plan of destruction.
- smiled more and said things like, “I see you are lining your cars up.”
- managed to stop a brewing siblings’ conflict well before it gained momentum.
- had more time to celebrate my kids, to be in tune, to be present.
- also forgot to pay a music school bill, neglected my blog, and had about a thousand unread emails.
The truth is smartphones are convenient.
But as Aristotle famously said, “Virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency.”
I have learned that just a few changes can make a huge difference.
- Putting my phone down as soon as my kids enter the room makes them feel important. I feel that I get extra points for finding their eyes and saying “hey” with a smile.
- Reacting to the first “MOM!” and getting them what they need eliminates a sense of competition. It is no longer Kids Vs. Phone. As an unexpected bonus, the kids end up returning to their play much faster, allowing me to return to what I was doing.
- Willing my mind to remember every detail of what is taking place in front of my eyes, instead of whipping my phone out every chance I’ve got. (Once the phone is out it’s hard to resist a chance to read a new message that just popped up on the screen).
- Waking up before the kids. I would rather be tired from sleep deprivation than from kid-related conflicts.
- Going to the grocery store with kids isn’t too bad (as long as we have a list, and nobody is tired or hungry).
- Getting soaked in a rain is surprisingly refreshing (weather predictions are never that accurate anyway).
- Getting lost is actually a great learning opportunity: what not to say when you feel frustrated and how to keep smiling when your kids say five times in a row, “Dad is so much better than you in finding stuff.“
I’m happy to say that my house has returned to being the peaceful place I want it to be (well, at least most of the time. It’s not magic). The most important lesson learned: everything we do in our house matters, especially with little children who suck up our energy, our words, and our moods like a powerful shop vac.
Do you feel as if everything in your life has conspired against putting the phone away?
Here are some things you can do to decrease smartphone use:
- Understand the tricks that tech companies are using to keep you engaged with your phone. Knowledge is power. I like what a former Google designer said about smartphones: “They are not designed to help us. They are designed to hook us.”
- Turn off all notifications. I don’t know how it’s applicable in your life, but unless I am waiting for a specific thing (like a callback from a doctor’s office), I have the sound on my phone off. No matter if a notification is bringing good news (playdate with a friend confirmed) or bad news (spam call), it is interrupting your train of thought, and if you have small kids, you get enough of that already.
- Leave your phone at home. If I go to the playground with my phone in my pocket, I will pull it out and look at it even if I don’t expect anyone to get in touch with me. Since I have started leaving my phone at home, I’ve completely stopped thinking about it. Out of sight, out of mind.
- 75% of moms who use Facebook use phones to access it. Solution: uninstall Facebook from your phone. You are not going to miss much. But not having Facebook on your phone is making you feel lonely, sign up for local moms’ meetups.
- Replace apps that can suck you in (YouTube) with apps that have a definite end point (fitness app). My phone is my fitness buddy, so I get it. But once you finish a workout with a fitness app, you are done and not clicking through to watch a funny cats video.
- Designate phone free zones—kitchen, bedrooms, playground—and stick to it.
Next time you wonder what the survival rate is of parents of small children, look closely at your daily smartphone habits. Is it possible that your kids are out of sorts because your phone is changing the way you interact with your family? Latest research into smartphone usage shows that phones are changing your brain, your personality, your health, and the way your family members relate to each other.
Do you wake up in the morning feeling determined to have fun with your kids or is the first thought on your mind whether your phone is charged? Do you give your kids as much face time as you give to your smartphone? Something to think about the next time you see a “no internet connection” sign on your phone. (Or sooner? Wink. Wink.)
P.S. Do you have a mom-friend who always has her nose buried in her smartphone (even during playdates)? Pass this article on to her. Best, Eva
Disclaimer: this post contains Amazon affiliate links. If you buy a product through my links I will become very rich. Just kidding! I will get a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for supporting Kid Minds!
This article previously published on Medium.
The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age
The Art of Screen Time: How Your Family Can Balance Digital Media and Real Life
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