I write as a dad to other dads: Put down your phones when you're with your children!
I know how hard it can be to resist the lure of the latest update emanating from your device, but is it just me, or are fathers given (or taking) much more cultural permission for ignoring their kids in favor of their phones than mothers?
Dads, you know who you are.
We are part of that cohort of fathers who are actively involved in our childrens' lives, who go to work late or leave early for kids' events, for whom sharing home duties and caring for our kids 50-50 with our wives, partners, or significant others is not only a no-brainer, it is a priority. We are the generation pushing for paternity leaves from work, who get up early from meetings (or simply miss them) because we need to take our children to play practice or soccer, we host playdates, accompany our kids to birthday parties, we talk parenting with other dads, we say we don't want work to define our lives and we talk with each other about what it feels like to go through different stages in our relationships with children and partners as we age.
There are by now a fair number of studies that confirm this deepening shift in (middle class) fathers' self-perceptions and practices. And perhaps the most memorable talk to faculty I have ever heard from an administrator was by our Provost at Fordham, Dr. Stephen Freedman, a few years ago, when at a faculty convocation he told a moving story about a parenting memory from when his children were younger as a way of talking about the relationship between our work and our larger lives. Let's celebrate all this -- and celebrate too our spouses and partners who take an equally active role in parenting, and with whom so many of us talk, negotiate, haggle, and fumble through from day to day in making family life sane and loving.
But dads, with all this being true, why is it that we seem to be the worst offenders about our mobile devices!
In middle class USA, go to any playground, playdate, kids' party, living room, restaurant, patio, automobile, subway, sporting event, kids' play, musical performance, or classroom event, and on and on, and we men are far more likely than women to be glued to our phones while the kids fend for themselves nearby. Am I moralizing if I say that I think we are lingering longer on these devices than we realize or admit? Am I judging harshly if I ask us to imagine what it's like for our children to so often look at their dads and see them staring into screens, especially when they think the kids aren't looking? Do we imagine what this generation of children will be saying about us twenty years from now?
I readily admit that the seduction of adult contact through the device can sometimes, in the moment, seem more of what we want than whatever is happening with the kids in front of us, but time that is "down," "open," "empty," or "blank" with children is not only an important part of the rhythm of parenting, it is the very experience we will likely have wanted more fully to inhabit when we slow down to review what is really important.
I, too, love my work and find the world of instant mobile connection somewhat intoxicating, and feel a great delight in staying in touch with friends so regularly in a way never before possible. But yesterday, I was sitting in a cafe and a boy about ten years old was eating his lunch while his father, across from him, was glued to his phone for a good 20 minutes with the occasional half-attempt at conversation with his son without eye contact. "Dad, come on," the boy asked, but the father had to get through a few more emails or check one more website. The pleading went on for many more minutes before the phone grudgingly went down. From what I have observed, far fewer mothers would think this is okay.
If you're a father and this does not apply to you, cheers for being present. If this does apply to you, I am just saying from one dad to another, take it or leave it: life is too short. Of course kids need their own healthy space and differentiation from us, and of course we need to use our devices sometimes to get something pressing done, but our children need us to be "around" even when we are not directly engaged with them. Because I have not been able to say this on the playground yet, I'm putting it on this blog.
New York City, USA