"Just one second."
"Let me just check this one thing."
"I hear you, but let me finish this real quick."
Every mother is guilty of saying these phrases and many others like them. More often than not, we say them to our children, who are vying for our attention while we try to check a quick email, return a text or do one of the million other things we need to get done every day on our phones.
And usually, these things that we're doing on our phones while our children clamor for our undivided focus are for these very same children. So just give me a minute already!
But then we feel guilty. We read about how screen time is frying our brains and destroying our relationships with other humans. We vow to scale back.
And then we fail.
I have fallen victim to this cellphones-are-horrible-and-I'm-a-horrible-mother cycle many, many times. It's a constant struggle to accomplish what I need to each day and give my kids the face-to-face time they need. But a recent article in The Atlantic by Erika Christakis has made me rethink my whole approach.
The author details the psychological and development effects on children that come from having a parent who is chronically partially present, always dipping in and out of interaction to check an email, read a text or order groceries online (all things that need to get done, by the way!)
"The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, that basis of human learning," she writes.
This adult/child signaling system is essentially a "conversational duet," and when it's interrupted by a text or "a quick check-in on Instagram," young children cannot learn, she says.
So naturally, the best thing to do is to chuck my cellphone in a lake this summer and give my children undivided one-on-one attention 24/7, right?
In an ideal world, maybe. But that's just not realistic, and it doesn't get to the heart of the problem, either. As Christakis notes, we live in an era where parents spend an unprecedented amount of time with their children.
"We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable — always present physically, thereby blocking children's autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally," she writes.
So, I wondered if instead of focusing on how oftenor how much I use my phone, I need to take a deeper look at when I use my phone.
To me, the answer is this: Parents don't need to be with their children every second. It's OK to be on your phone because that is how we accomplish most of the parenting and work responsibilities of each day. But when we are with our children, shut off the phone and actually bewith them.
In my house, I strike the best cellphone versus child balance when I allow myself the time I need on my phone by setting aside "phone time."
Yes, it sounds ridiculous. I schedule certain times of the day when I am going to do the things I need to do on my phone like reply to colleagues, schedule activities, grocery shop and sometimes scroll mindlessly through social media for a minute to relax. Generally, I aim to do this for 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes after my baby goes down for a nap, 20 minutes sometime before dinner and then as long as I want after the kids are in bed.
During those 20-minute intervals, I make sure my children have something they are engaged in or sometimes I just turn on a TV show. (Gasp! Did she just say she uses a screen as a babysitter so she can look at a screen herself?! Yes, yes I did.)
Then, when "phone time" is up, I put my phone away and I truly focus on my children.
Now, I am not perfect at this, and every day is different, but when I stick close to this routine, my time with my children is far more pleasant for all of us, and my phone time is far more productive.
What I don't want — what no mother wants — is to have my children grow up looking at my face bent over a screen while I pretend I can actually multitask my way through their childhood. I can't. It's a myth. Multitasking means I'm short-changing someone, even if I don't realize it.
But what I can do is draw a distinct line between phone time and child time, so I don't resent my kids for distracting me and they don't resent me for pitting them against a small black screen for the uninterrupted attention they deserve and, frankly, desperately need.