As a psychologist and mom of two young children, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a parent in the digital age. A lot of people have already talked about how we feel tethered to our digital devices, and need to multi-task in order to juggle the constant demands on our attention. We’re no longer on the information superhighway – we’re in the Cloud. Which is exactly how I feel a lot of the time – like my head is in a cloud – unless I very purposefully step back and focus on being in the present with my family and friends.
But there are several issues from the standpoint of developmental psychology that I think aren’t discussed enough. I’ll focus on just two, here. The first issue is a child’s need to be genuinely seen and heard – or mirrored – by parents. The second is that we are teaching our children profound lessons about how to relate to other human beings when we multi-task with our devices instead of being present with them in the moment.
Mirroring. Parenting wisdom a few generations ago asserted that children should be seen but not heard. This is really incorrect in several ways. There is a classic concept in child psychology (originated by Heinz Kohut) called mirroring. Mirroring refers to the healthy process by which parents mirror or reflect back to children what they are saying, feeling, experiencing, wondering. Parents also look at children with a “sparkle” in their eye – that look of pride, warmth, and love that tells children they are appreciated and esteemed. Through this mirroring, children learn to understand their own behaviors, thoughts and emotions. They also learn self-regard and self-appreciation. Simply put, children learn to see themselves through our eyes.
Without this mirroring, many child developmentalists believe that children will not feel fully valued as human beings and will not as quickly and deeply learn to understand how to interpret their experiences and feelings. Imagine a world in which no one really looks at you or hears what you have to say – maybe some of us can. But then imagine you’re a child, and not really able to make sense of the world that goes on around you and the complex feelings and experiences you have. How do you give all these things a name? Mirroring would help you interpret your world and yourself.
Multi-tasking on our devices all the time is a sure-fire way to interfere with our ability look our children in the eye, hear what they have to say, sensitively pick up on their feelings, and transmit that sparkle in the eye. The multitasking mode is the opposite of mirroring and of being present.
The lessons that multi-tasking teach our children. This is a complex issue because I DO NOT think that doing some multi-tasking around children will “damage” them. That is ridiculous. From the very beginning of our evolutionary history, moms and dads were doing other things while spending time with the kids. In many cultures today, children are expected to join in with whatever adults are doing, and spend lots of time amusing themselves and playing independently –more perhaps than is expected in the U.S. on average. These sorts of cultural/value/belief differences about how to raise kids are totally ok differences. That is, no child developmentalist will tell you that we should be worried about this.
However, in this particular culture within which I live, many of us raise our children to be individualistic, with beliefs and desires that even from the earliest childhood are prioritized. The flip side of this is that while we are respecting them as individuals, we also should have the goal (I believe) of teaching them to respect and cherish others as individuals. When we multi-task on our devices every time we spend time with our children, I think we are sending at least three messages that in some ways are contradictory to this goal:
1. We don’t need to fully pay attention to other people, or be fully present.
2. When the multi-tasking is about work – there is no boundary between work and personal.
3. Even when we’re with others, it’s normal to be tethered to a device.
So, the advice I give myself goes something like this – “Alright, sometimes I’ll multi-task. I’m busy and have things I just have to do. At the same time, I will keep it to a minimum when I’m with my children and identify times that are sacred, when the devices go off (e.g., bedtime, breakfast, dinner, afternoon play time, etc,…) and stick to this.
This is my best guess at how to handle it. But only time will tell – will the Millennials (and generations beyond) lose some of what we hope all children will learn? – To deeply value others and the time we spend together, and feel deeply valued in return.