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Not Without My Smartphone: The Case for Somewhat Distracted Parenting

Jul 20, 2015

Somebody once told me I treated my smart phone like Wilson, the volleyball Tom Hanks turns into a friend when he’s stranded on a desert island in that movie “Castaway.” It's an apt comparison: parenting a toddler occasionally feels like being marooned and your phone is your only connection to the rest of the world. Thanks to the Internet, moms like me can now get Amy Schumer videos and Instagram to help us survive the monotony.

But fellow parents, there is trouble on the horizon. A growing army of journalists and experts are calling for an end to using phones in front of our kids. They say it makes kids feel less loved, and teaches the wrong lessons about how to use devices.

To quote my three year old: “No. Noooooo. Noooooooooooooooo.”

That phone in my hand keeps me sane, not to mention employed. If anything, I’m writing a new movie for Lifetime called Not Without My Smartphone. Here are all the reasons I’m rejecting this latest round of parent shaming, and why I’m going to keep on cherishing my screen time, yes, in front of my kid:

Parenting can be boring. Brutally, mind numbingly boring. In a dispatch from her fainting couch, Jane Brody of the New York Times writes, “I often see youngsters in strollers or on foot with a parent or caretaker who is chatting or texting on a cellphone instead of conversing with the children in their charge.” Just asking: When was the last time Brody spent an entire morning pushing a stroller around town? It is like watching paint dry. Hell yes I’m going to be on my phone.

I’m not raising a self-centered brat. My daughter’s name is Estee, not Lady Mary, and I am not her valet, at her beck and call. Study after study has shown that making your child the center of her and everyone else’s world will destroy her competence, autonomy and resilience. That blog post I’m reading while my kid gives the State of the Union to her bath toys? It benefits her as much as me. Let her understand that I am not her raison d’etre (and vice versa), and that the world does not revolve around her. Let her have a moment to herself, to come up with a new song or bathtub game without my lavish praise of her every move – research shows that doesn’t help her, either.

My kid could use some space. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist with a new bestselling book on parenting and social media, attributes a 20% increase in pediatric ER admissions to a spike in screen-distracted parents. But wait: what about all those books telling me to let my kid fail, scrape her knee, and develop independence?

Okay, now I get it: I'm supposed to nag my kid to get down from that ledge and stop trying to catch a bee for the fiftieth time. Why should my daughter learn anything the hard way if I can protect her from ever having to figure out not to touch bees on her own.

There’s no way to win as parents right now. If I hover, I turn her into an incompetent basket case. If I let go and check my gmail, I send her to the ER.

I give up.

I have a job. Steiner-Adair told Brody that “parents should think twice before using a mobile device when with their children.” All this parent-shaming is distracting us from the fact that, like the dishwashers of the 1950s, smart phones are labor saving devices. In 2015, with the Feminine Mystique in our rearview mirrors and nearly 70% percent of moms working, my phone lets me work remotely.

These experts seem to be implying that I’m spending all my time with The Fat Jewish on Instagram (and, okay, I’m spending some of my time with him, and loving every minute of it). But I can be with my kid because I can pretend to be at work, using that smart phone to respond to emails and calls.

Experts like Steiner-Adair rightly point out the times to put away your phone, like school pickup and dropoff, and meals (and obviously, while driving). And I’m sure there are parents that need to hear this. But I am growing weary of the parent police. All this finger wagging, well intentioned as it is, implies that parents – code moms – are merely vessels for their children, and should attend to their every last need and feeling at the expense of all else.

If smart phones had been around for women in the 1950s, The Feminine Mystique might never have been written. The depression and ennui of housewives would have been blunted by Pinterest and Facebook. But this is 2015. Devices aren’t going away, for us or our kids. When parents pretend they don’t exist, kids don’t learn how to use them, either. Instead of telling me everything I’m doing wrong as a mom, it’d be nice if someone cut me a break and told me what I’m doing right. It’s enough to make you want to find a volleyball for company.

Rachel Simmons is co-founder of Girls Leadership Institute and the author of the New York Times bestsellers Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence. She develops leadership programs for the Wurtele Center for Work and Life at Smith College. Follow her @racheljsimmons.

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