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Pay Attention

The Guideposts senior editor shares why parenting requires play time with your little ones.

One of the saddest sights I see here in New York City takes place at the playground. A child calls to a parent, taps a knee, tugs a pant leg, begs. The parent stares at an iPhone. Finally, distractedly, the parent’s gaze lifts. “What, honey?”

I always thought such scenes depressed me because I’m basically a Luddite. Kate and I don’t own a television and we use our junky old cell phone only when we travel. I’m on a computer most of the day at work and I heartily wish I wasn’t. Computers are dull, unimaginative things. I resent being forced to use one. I love to write but I wish every day I could do it by hand, preferably outside.

That’s not the world we live in, however, and it’s especially not the world here in New York. New Yorkers rich and poor are addicted to their personal devices. That’s fine and I’m happy if they’re happy. What I hate is seeing kids ignored by parents staring at a screen. What a waste. Kids are kids for such a short time. Soon they’ll be grown up and all parents will have is memories. How will it feel to look back and remember…yourself reading the latest pointless update on Facebook?

Anyway, as I said, I thought this was just a personal prejudice until I read a new series that began this week in the New York Times. It’s about America’s addiction to gadgets, especially to the mental rush that accompanies the constant flow of new information such gadgets provide. Turns out I’m not the only one with a dim view of all this screen time.

Research is preliminary and inconclusive but, according to the Times, many studies show that constant access to electronic gadgets is changing the way people think and act, indeed changing brain chemistry itself. Heavy gadget users are more distractible, less productive, less creative and more easily bored. Parents glued to devices are measurably less apt to engage with their children, robbing young minds of crucial early exposure to language and affection.

It’s too bad but I’m not surprised. Distraction is a temptation we all face. Human relationships, relationship with God, honest assessments of life and love are all supremely difficult. They require focus, courage and a healthy supply of humility. How much easier it is to get lost in trivia, in whatever’s new, in whatever makes us feel important right now this instant?

I could go on and on (and I do, in my head, all the time) about the irony of so-called labor-saving devices that end up tethering us ever more tightly to work, or about Americans’ disturbing eagerness to worship at the altar of technology companies that in the end simply do what all corporations are legally required to do, that is, turn a profit at whatever cost. Certainly, no successful technology company is inventing new products out of the goodness of its heart. It’s about the money.

For today, though, I’ll keep this post grounded at the playground. A University of Chicago language researcher recently tried an informal experiment. She recorded families talking to one another for two separate hours. During one of those hours the families’ electronic devices were turned on. During the next they were off. During the hour with no devices parents spoke up to twice as many words to their children. The families talked. The children were engaged. You’d think it wouldn’t require an experiment to reach such a thuddingly obvious conclusion. Kids have more fun and learn more when parents pay attention.

I like going to the playground. I like climbing on the bars and throwing the ball with Frances. I like the sounds of kids’ gleeful shouts. In the summer here in New York most playgrounds have spray fountains, a legacy of the days before air conditioning when getting wet was the only way to cool off on a hot city day. How on earth could anyone in their right mind sit staring at a screen while their child runs shrieking through a fountain? I know parenting is hard. I know relationships are hard. But come on, this one seems pretty easy. Let’s put down the devices. Let’s run through the fountain. Let’s play.

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