Can You Hear Me Now?
April 30, 2012
Julie A. Riess, Ph.D., is the Senior Advisor on Child Development and Education at Families and Work Institute. She is a developmental psychologist and the director of the Wimpfheimer Nursery School at Vassar College.
This article was originally published in the Poughkeepsie Journal by Gannett Publications on March 4, 2012.
Calling all adults: It’s time for a chat about kids and cell phones. This conversation isn’t about whether children or teenagers should have cell phones or about potential health risks from cell phone use.
It’s about communicating with the kids that you love.
In today’s society, cell phones are a given. How we use cell phones is a matter of choice. While they can increase our access to communication, they simultaneously can decrease our access to communicating with our children.
This may seem like an odd statement from a mother who finally bought a cell phone so that her teen-age children could reach her in an emergency. I bet five to ten years ago, many a parent got their first cell phone number with this goal in mind. I remember being perplexed when area codes started multiplying to make room for more phone numbers and I simply could not imagine the day when every member of my family would have their own cell phone number. Now I recognize each family member’s call by their number and unique ring tone. I rarely answer “Hello?” because I already know who it is.
Here’s my issue. If you are talking on your cell phone in front of your child, you are not talking with your child. But you are communicating a message to your child. It might not be an intentional message, but it is a message. It tells your child that you are focusing on something other than him or her. Because you don’t respond to your child’s bid for communication and connection, you lose an opportunity to complete a circle of communication. For example, if I say something to you and you respond to me, we complete one circle. These single circles spin and link together to become orchestrated dances that form the foundation of language and literacy development.
So, you might wonder, what’s the big difference from when our parents talked on the phone in the kitchen while making dinner and shushed us away until the conversation was over? In some ways, there isn’t a big difference. Adults have things that need to get done and children sometimes need to wait. Mr. Rogers even taught us songs to sing to ourselves while we learned how to wait.
The problem is that the phone used to be mounted to the wall and the most it could reach was the length of the cord. If an adult was on the phone in the house and child got a scraped knee in the backyard, an adult had to put down the phone to attend to the child. If a parent was giving a child a bath, chances are they weren’t on a phone in the bathroom. If a family was eating dinner when the phone rang, chances are someone had to leave the table to answer it, and the conversation at the table could continue. If a parent was driving their child to school, chances are if they were talking outloud, it was to another person in the same car.
None of these physical limitations hold nowadays. Much of the time, it isn’t a big deal. But some of the time, it is a huge deal. And in those times, timing is everything.
Here are five questions to ask yourself when you make a choice to be on a cell phone around your child.
- Am I separating or reuniting with my child? If the answer is yes, do everything possible to make your communication with your child your top priority. Silence your phone or turn it off. Let a call go to voice mail for the next 10 minutes. The communication you create with your child at departures and reunions require your focus and attention as you send messages verbally and non-verbally about your relationship with one another. In my mind, those are the most important minutes of your day because they create the foundation of trust and reciprocity in your relationship.
- Can it wait? If a voice message will provide you the same information in a reasonable time frame, it can usually wait.
- Is this an appropriate conversation to have near a child?
- Is my child needing to communicate something that is important to him or her? (Note I said “important”, not “urgent” or “necessary”.)
- In two hours from now, will it matter more that you answered your cell phone or that you answered your child?
It really is true that in the life of a young child, timing is everything.