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You know how this goes: you are riding on the bus or airplane and you bury your nose in a book so you can ignore your seatmate completely. There’s a certain courtesy in this, perhaps, in that while you signal your unavailability for conversation you also signal your respect for your seatmate’s privacy and peace.

This trick of self-containment has spread, however. Now we no longer need to carry around a book. Now we don’t limit our avoidance of others to trips on public transportation. These days we shut ourselves off with our phones. Instead of being present for our children, we close them out. We are present for only the screen.

Jonathan Safran Foer, writing in the New York Times, recounts a recent example. He was sitting on a bench, scanning his smart phone, when he became aware that a teenage girl on the bench nearby was sobbing into hers. The girl kept saying, “I know, Mama, I know,” crying all the while, seemingly heartbroken and bereft. The call ended and the girl continued to weep. Foer describes his inner conflict: should he reach out to her, ask if he can help, offer some sort of emotional support or should he pretend he didn’t see? He realizes that he has the means to ignore her in his hand – his phone permits him to hide. He can easily attend to digital connections and avoid the opportunity for human connection right in front of him. Which, he wonders, will he choose?

This is the choice we parents face every day, many times a day. Are we connected to the children right in front of us, who hunger for our attention, or are we connected to our devices?

Poet Marge Piercy write that “Attention is love.” What we attend to is what we love. Children learn what is so, not by what we tell them but by what we do. When we pay attention, when we drag our gaze away from the screen in our hand and look steadily at the child at hand, we show our respect and we demonstrate our love.

When we refuse to be present for our kids, we are hiding out. We signal our unavailability for conversation. We love something else more.

This adds up. The distance between us grows. Sooner or later it may be our child who is sobbing on a public park bench, telling us she knows, she knows but that knowing doesn’t change some terrible truth. What is that truth? What did we miss while we were on the phone?

If you’ve been hiding behind your devices, this is your error message. Your children are waiting. Please come out.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.