Q: My young grandson is having problems acting out in school and at home. My daughter says they try to discipline him, but when I am over at their house, she and her husband are usually on their phones or computers while my grandson runs wild. I don’t know what’s going on in school, but to me the problem starts at home. I want to help my daughter and son-in-law, but I don’t know how. Should I recommend spankings, time out, rewards... therapy?
I would be careful about recommending anything unless recommendations are solicited. I understand you want what’s best for your grandson, but there are delicate family dynamics at work here, and your interference is more likely to result in making you an outcast than turning your grandson into an angel. Instead, try casually forwarding her this column and let me do the dirty work.
What stands out to me from your question is the amount of time the parents are spending on their technological devices. The Journal of Pediatric Research published a study in 2018 showcasing the deleterious results of such distracted parenting. They refer to it as “technoference,” the regular interruptions in face-to-face interactions as a result of smartphones, computers, and television.
It should be clear to anyone that parents who are on their devices during family time are hurting their relationships with their children. What the study discovered, however, is that it also made children more likely to show hyperactivity, throw tantrums, whine, and engage in other bad behavior. But you have probably already noticed that.
Most of us think that it’s a problem that children spend so much time with technology, particularly teens who, according to Common Sense Media, spend an estimated eight hours staring at screens every day. But that same organization reports that the parents of children ages eight to 18 spend even more time than that − nine hours − doing exactly the same thing. I’ve had students tell me that their parents will yell at them to get off their smartphones while mom and dad are simultaneously poking around on their laptops.
Despite all this, the study showed that nearly 80 percent of parents thought they were good media and technology role models. Physician, heal thyself.
When parents spend so much time on their electronic devices, it deprives their children of critical face time (meaning actual face time, not Apple FaceTime). The Pediatric Research study noted that this made parents respond with hostility when their kids tried to get their attention, and it hurt the child’s social-emotional growth.
Surprisingly, the study showed that many parents actually use their devices as an escape from their badly behaving children. This resulted in the parents being unable to supply the necessary emotional support that their kids need to thrive. Children in the study in turn ended up demonstrating more problematic behavior like sulking or throwing tantrums. That behavior distressed parents even more and they retreated more deeply to the safe harbor of their devices. You can guess where things went from there.
This is what is known as a vicious virtual cycle.
“Technoference” decreases the chances that children will ever turn their bad behavior around. Character development doesn’t happen on its own, and it almost never happens with unresponsive parents. It sounds like your grandchild may be fighting an angry dragon with one hand tied behind his back.
In this column I’ve often counseled parents to limit their children’s screen time. But in the madness of the age, it has become difficult to tell the patients from their doctors. In many cases, it’s the parents who need to put down their phones, turn off their computers, and spend more time looking up.
The thing many parents don’t seem to understand today is this: you only get one chance to do it right. When your kids are grown and they’ve become what they’re going to be, it won’t do you any good to “wish” you could go back and do things the right way. No one, whether you’re on your deathbed or estranged from your grown children, will ever look back on all of the wasted time and wish they had spent more of it spouting off to strangers on social media or cramming in an extra hour’s work for an insignificant job. Instead, you’ll wish you’d spent more time with your children. And when that rue takes root, you’ll realize with profound despair that there are no do-overs.
The investment of time, stress, and focus will be challenging for distracted parents, but it will also be immensely rewarding. It isn’t just that it will do wonders for the development of your children (though that should be enough). It’s that, unlike the technological devices that command so much of our attention, children can actually love you back.
You just have to give them the opportunity.