Dear parents: please stop looking at your phone during your child’s activities

If you ask any parent what is more important to them, their child or their smartphone, the answer would be automatic. We love our children so deeply that to even ask a question like that is ridiculous and laughable.

But as I observe my fellow parents at the playground or in the stands at youth sports, their behaviour suggests otherwise. A large percentage of them are transfixed by their smartphone screens.

Certainly, there are times when phones are useful, to tend to work responsibilities or receive urgent messages. The parents I’m referring to aren’t using their device to respond to an emergency, though. They’re tapping out “lol” text messages, perusing their social media feed, or scrolling through non-essential apps. Whatever they’re giving their attention to, it certainly isn’t their child.

Before you start thinking I’m a two-faced, judgy mom who is on her phone just as much as anyone, full disclosure: I don’t own a smartphone. Sometimes I wish I did, as it’s no fun being the only one living in the Dark Ages. When a new acquaintance offers “I’ll text you,” it’s awkward to explain that I have no way of receiving the message.

At other times, I feel relieved that I don’t own an iPhone, Samsung or BlackBerry, because it means I’m free from the temptation to constantly check it. Obsolete as this concept may be, when I leave my house, I don’t have access to any personal technology. When I’m out, I’m out.

While I’m watching my kids do their thing, I can’t help feeling mildly perplexed by the assembled parents on their phones. Call me crazy, but I choose to watch my kids not just out of a sense of duty, but because it fascinates me. Their latest session of swimming lessons was at a venue where parents were only permitted to watch from an upstairs viewing gallery. The bird’s-eye view and added distance allowed me to observe my kids’ independent responses to challenging situations.

Neither are strong swimmers, so it was like a “man versus nature” struggle as they tried valiantly to move through the water. I realize I might be painting an overdramatic picture of a half-hour group swimming lesson, but I felt very proud as I witnessed my kids’ efforts from afar. Of course, many of the parents seated around me missed the nuances of their child’s progress, because they were looking at their screens instead.

In his book, Living the Good Life, GoodLife Fitness founder David Patchell-Evans comments that

these days, we seem to have cultivated a culture of distraction rather than a culture of presence.

He makes a valid point. Are we being present for our kids? Or are we letting ourselves get distracted? A parent using a smartphone on the sidelines has personal reasons for doing so, and it’s certainly none of my business. I just want to put it out there that it may not have the most fulfilling results for the parent or the child.

What happens when your child looks eagerly over at you, hoping for a wave, but instead sees your head down? Afterwards, what kind of authentic feedback will you be able to give if you barely saw what went on? And how are your vague or nonexistent comments going to make your child feel?

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Consider how you can be truly present for your kids and the activities they’re engaging in. To inspire you to put your device away, seek out some perspective. Listen closely to the parents of teenagers who lament that these years go by so fast. They’re now clinging wistfully to the memories of those milestone moments, whether it was scoring a first goal or mastering a difficult skill.

For an even bigger wake-up call, mentally play back any commercial you’ve seen for a children’s hospital or the Ronald McDonald House. Those parents would give anything to see their child be healthy and able to participate in what you are treating as a mundane weekly activity. Your child is participating; theirs can’t. You’re there; they aren’t. Gives a whole new meaning to “fear of missing out,” doesn’t it?