Why I Don’t Let My Kids Play With Phones or Tablets (Most of the Time)

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some self-righteous blog post about how great of a mother I am for keeping screens and electronic devices out of my children’s hands, or how my children have cultivated a wonderful reading ability and vocabularly because they read instead of playing Wii, or anything like that. This post could just as easily be called “Why I Don’t Bring Toys Out to Eat with Us,” or “Why I Like it When My Children Have Tempertantrums.” I want to talk about the emphasis on re-directed attention of modern-day parenting, and why I push against it as hard as I can!

There is this fantastic book out last year I believe called “How Children Succeed.” It mostly follows inner-city children and school districts as they struggle to find ways to help their children succeed. When budgets are tight and students are at risk, school districts are clamoring for a cure-all and guess what…they’ve found it! Yes, the single greatest factor to lifelong success is self-control. This is the key character trait that leads to motivation, determination, and ultimately an ability to perseverse. This is true for inner-city kids, for middle class children, and for wealthy children. Studies have shown that the reason so many children from middle class/ upper class families do so well despite not having self-control is because they have background support to bail them out time until they get it right, while lower income kids have almost no hope if they do not develope self-control skills.

Mischel’s studies at Stanford University confimed this thinking. He conducted experiments where he placed a marshmellow in front of children, told them they would like it if they didn’t eat the marshmellow because if they waited until the researcher came back they could have two marshmellows instead of just the one in front of them. When this experiment was conducted at age 4 and up, the results for their later “success” in life was staggering. Almost all the children who could wait, despite socioeconomic backgrounds had completed high school, with higher grades, were more involved in activites, and in general would be what people call “good kids.” Again, it’s not like all of the other kids endedup in juvie, and for many in the upper classes of society, their parents were there to push them along to go to college and such. But the fact remained that children who are able to control themselves fare better than others. They are able to withstand the storms of life and carry on. The studies shows that the children that were able to resist distracted themselves, turning away from the marshmellow, singing a song to themselves, etc, while the children who eventually caved were not able to distract, focusing on the marshmellow, looking at it from the corner of their eye. Even if they resisted for a long time, when their attention was focused they would eventually give in.

These two personality types fit my children to a T. My daughter, who could pass the marshmellow test by age 2, is always distracting herself, is able to wait long periods of time, and definitely understands delayed gratification. My son on the other hand has such focused attention. He can play baseball for hours on end, or read stories (which seems like a good thing) but he also can’t just let go of things that he wants or that upset him. He can’t pass the marshmellow test yet, unless his big sister is there to help him.

But this is exactly why I would argue that distracting and re-directing attention can be so harmful to children. I want my son to learn to distract himself, not to have to use a device to distract him (especially because inevitable he’ll remember what it was he wanted in the first place and the tantrum will start all over again.) In a recent article in The Atlantic about children using electronic devices, the author talked aboout how mothers would acknowledge that their children played on tablets or phones, but were quick to add “but only in the car,” or “only while we’re waiting at a restaurant,” or “only while we’re grocery shopping.” To many mother, electronic devices are bad and only have a redeeming purpose as a distraction tool. As a “I can’t handle you right now so play with this tool.” I won’t even pretend like I don’t do this too, but I really struggle with myself to only do it when I am absolutely at breaking point because I want my children to learn how to control themselves. I want them to learn to wait patiently and then only AFTERWARDS do they get that marshmellow (or in this case, the iPhone). These kinds of things should be for good behavior, not bad uncontrollable behavior.

So how do you teach self-control? This is one of the hardest questions out there, especiallysince I have very little self-control myself. The only suggestion I can offer is hardenyourself. Lapses in self-control by children aren’t something to be dealt with but are opportunities for learning. Treat them as such and help your child learn the skills to calm themselves down: deep breathing, singing a song, counting to ten, thinking about a favorite story, or about the exciting things to come the rest of the day. And most importantly don’t let them get away with lapses in self-control. We all have them and you don’t have to be mean or harsh, but when little Johnny starts throwing a fit about poptarts, sometimes you just have to say No! We’re not doing this! and take them outside to calm down. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to leave a cart or clothes inside a store to deal with a crying child. I like this tactic the best because then you can say “ok. You lost it in there. We still need to do our shopping. Let’s talk about what you did wrong and how we’re going to do it this time.” Remember, there should be no such thing as discipline; you educate. As a parent you are an educator and responsible for teaching all of those wonderful character traits that will help your child (and your sanity). (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-52731437-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);


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