Tech Giants aren’t necessarily better parents

Who cares that Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids play with iPads?[1] Or that Evan Williams makes his children read “books (yes, physical ones)” instead of letting them play with iPads? On the one hand, these parents are not child-rearing experts. They, like most of us, draw on unscientific, anecdotal, personal experience as they fumble along trying not to cause too much harm.[2] On the other hand, their more moderate policies are banal: set basic limits on what and how long your child can play on a device. And pace Ali Partovi, parents should probably apply this guideline to everything their children might want to do compulsively.

  1. We might pause to enjoy the irony here: Steve Jobs’ reportedly denied his children access to the device that he celebrated as having such wonderful potential for children of all ages.  ↩
  2. Dick Costolo’s goofy story about some guy in college who went on a Coca-Cola binge (and the old chestnut about what happens when you don’t expose children to [fill in your favorite thing here]) illustrates nicely the unscientific approach these “tech parents” bring to rearing their children.  ↩

Meltdown in three, two, one, …

“Speak louder! The man can’t hear you when you mumble.” the mother barked at her little boy without looking up from her iPhone. Her young sons cringed and looked timidly at the vitrine full of meats and cheeses, each adorned with a calligraphic label the boys couldn’t so much as read, let alone pronounce or request. The younger boy, probably not yet 4, said something and pointed at some salami.

“What? Do you think he heard you?” the mother asked, turning now from her iPhone to lean over and reprimand the boy while windmilling her right arm in the general direction of the worker behind the counter. The boys huddled together, perhaps in solidarity. The mother quickly returned to her iPhone, jabbing at it with her index finger.

I understand. It’s late. You’re frustrated and tired at the end of a rough day. You need to get food for dinner and perhaps lunches tomorrow. You need to get home, feed the progeny, get them ready for and into bed. They’re tired and hungry. But you are not helping the situation by barking at your kids and poking at your iPhone. Please stop for a minute. Take a deep breath. Put the phone away. It’s in everybody’s best interest—yours, your kids’, mine, the employees’ here, everybody’s.

Too late. Moments later, the younger son lost it. Complete meltdown in the cereal aisle spills over into the chips aisle and lingers through the checkout line.

#2 turned to me and said: “He’s sad.” You’re right, I thought, he is sad.

Limiting Screen Time

Matt Asay ends his essay—One Parent’s Losing Battle Against "TV Time”—wondering if kids suffer from too much screen time. I worry that parents today too readily turn to electronic babysitters, perhaps fearing what might happen if our progeny are ever bored.

Where it used to be TV, now we struggle with iPhones, iPads, iPods, laptops, as well as dedicated handheld video games, gaming consoles, and dedicated DVD/video players. eMarketer’s recent report seems to confirm what people have probably suspected: TV watching seems relatively steady while non-TV screen time is on the rise.[1] No shortage of people have argued that all this screen time has profound psychological and physical effects.[2] In a nutshell: we risk, apparently, raising fat, lazy, violent children.

Whatever the effects, adults and children today squander staggering amounts of time in front of screens. Adults fritter away more than 12 hours per day. Kids 8–18 are more efficient, multi-media-tasking almost 11 hours of media time into the 7:38 they spend staring at a screen per day.[3] Toddlers and kids under 6 are reportedly spending more than 2 hours a day in front of a TV.[4]

Parents wishing to limit their progeny’s screen time are clearly fighting against society norms. Rules and guidelines are apparently not terribly effective. Apparently, kids do as we do more than as we say. Instead, a recent study found, parents should close their own laptops, put down their own iPhones, put their own iPads back in the bag, and turn off the TV. If nothing else, we might get to know our children better.

  1. The report studied adult usage, but it seems as likely to reflect childhood usages as well. See: Digital Set to Surpass TV in Time Spent with US Media – eMarketer. Anecdotally, I would guess kids are spending much more time in front of screens. Think about how frequently cars come with video systems as standard equipment now or how many kids are watching an iPad or playing a Nintendo while waiting for dinner or how many kids are playing with an iPod while walking through the mall. Hell, on a recent trip to Disneyland I watched a kid walk for 10+ minutes playing a Nintendo before standing in line for another 10+ minutes still playing the Nintendo.  ↩

  2. The Center on Media and Child Health offers a clearing house of such research.  ↩

  3. This according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds  ↩

  4. Seriously, toddlers? Two hours per day? I didn’t work to find the source of this claim, but find it repeated all around, e.g., here. Whether or not there are any negative effects from watching TV, I find it vaguely depressing to think about spending two hours in front of a TV. A not too small part of me hopes this number is internet lore.  ↩

iPhones, Forks, and Conversations

At one table a young mothered typed furiously on her iPhone using only her left thumb. Her right arm cantilevered out over the table toward her diaper-wearing daughter. In her right hand she brandished a plastic fork on which she had skewered a piece of egg. Without looking up she urged her daughter to eat. In a brilliant demonstration of reciprocity, the daughter ignored her mother and the forkful of egg, and instead danced happily on the bench. And so it went until the mother collected the breakfast carnage so the little girl could “finish it in the car.”

At another table, an older father was sitting with his late teen daughter. He spoke fondly to her, almost doting her. At one point he asked, “Can you carry the bagel and drink, or do you need help?” They looked at each other as the ate and talked about what her plans for the day. No smartphone or other electronic device intervened between them. He held the door for her as they left.

How do we understand these different parenting styles? Different generations? Different relationships—mother-daughter vs. father-daughter? Different expectations? Different habits? And what effects will these different parenting styles have on the parent-daughter relationships?

Boredom is a Precious Commodity

#1, #2 and I had breakfast yesterday at a local cafe that has outdoor seating. It was a beautiful morning, perfect for sitting outside, watching the birds and butterflies, and listening to people chat. At one table two women were talking while a little girl sat in a highchair playing with mom’s (?) iPhone. I’ve been there. I’ve wanted to talk to an adult. I’ve played all the finger games I can handle for the day. I’ve colored my last picture. I’ve [fill in the repetitive activity you can’t stand] all I can endure. I’ve given one of my progeny an electronic babysitter and been happy. But I’m not happy for having done it.

My discomfort stems not from some fear of how spending time in front of small electronic devices is bad for little progeny, or some belief that video games are the root of all violence and evil in our society. Instead, I worry that children today are simply not bored frequently enough.

We have convinced ourselves that kids need to be entertained all the time. Industries have rescued us and our children from ever suffering an idle moment. We think little of giving tiny people electronic gadgets, often disguised as learning games or educational videos. We have to have kits filled with activities. We schedule “playdates” for their free time. Perhaps out of envy, we have eliminated boredom from our children’s lives.

Boredom is wonderful. How many adults wouldn’t appreciate some time to be bored? To do nothing? As we age, life’s demands increasingly eradicate boredom. Family, friends, school, job, house all conspire to fill your time with tasks. Boredom, by contrast, is time you get to spend with your own thoughts, not the thoughts someone else forces on you.

Boredom also encourages creativity and observation. Sit for a few minutes on a bench. Soon you will notice people, birds, bugs, and plants. You will sense the breeze as it changes. You’ll hear noises, snatches of conversations, the sounds of people walking, a faint rushing as water flows down a gutter, or the stray cough. You might notice a small dedicatory plaque on the bench or the contractor’s mark embossed in the sidewalk cement.

#1, #2, and I sat silently while we waited for breakfast. Although I was enjoying the quiet time, I wondered briefly, “Are they bored?” When our food arrived, #1 and #2 chatted pleasantly about all the things we had seen—the “purple butterfly that tried to kiss me,” the “mangy bird in the bushes,” the “fast train” heading toward the city, and even “the little girl playing with her mom’s iPhone.” I guess they found something to do.