When Parents SHOULDN’T Put Down the Phone

When my son Ian was small, whenever he talked to me he craved my undivided attention, with unbroken eye contact, preferably accompanied by head nods and verbal acknowledgement.

If I was half-listening, like I often did while reading the paper over breakfast, he’d get up, stand next to me and grab my face with both hands, turning me so we were eye-to-eye, our faces inches apart. Then he’d repeat whatever pressing thought was tumbling from his mouth.

For a while I found it funny and he found it effective. Most of the time I stopped what I was doing and focused completely on him, but not always.

This memory has sprung to mind a lot lately as I keep seeing memes and articles and blog posts admonishing parents to put down the phone. The parenting pundits and child-rearing reviewers have been shaking fingers at smartphone use, which has apparently turned into abuse, obsession and addiction that’s impeding our ability to properly parent or be present with the people we love.

They may be right. Or partly right. Or partly wrong. It depends on the parent, the child and the situation.

That’s the thing about parenting. No matter what we observe another parent do at the park, airport, grocery store or doctor’s office, we never know the whole story. We just assume and generalize.

We all do this to some degree, whether recounting an encounter to a spouse or best friend over dinner or posting a perspective to social media. I do it a lot, since I regularly write about my observations, encounters and memories in an attempt to find a broader perspective or epiphany to share

That’s why I want to play devil’s advocate with the whole put-down-the-phone parental shame game.

First, we get it. We know our kids are important. We know raising them is perhaps the most important thing we could possibility be doing. We get it because we love them.

Second, we know it passes quickly. We know the days are long but the years are short and before we know it we’ll be singing “Cat’s in the Cradle” with wistful nostalgia laced with guilt. We know this because we love them.

But sometimes instead of putting down the phone, I think we should put up one finger in the universal gesture that means, “Wait a minute.”

That’s right. Sometimes we should make them wait.

My mom didn’t have a cellphone. She had a landline with a long, curly cord that could stretch all the way into the other room. I have a vague, composite memory of her talking on the phone, her head cocked to one side to hold the handset in place between her shoulder and face.

When I said, “Mom, Mom, Mom!” sometimes she said, “just a minute,” to the person on the line, tipped the phone away from her face and asked what I wanted.

But sometimes she held a finger in the air and continued her conversation. I knew I was expected to wait, “just a minute.”

One minute, or even a few, can feel like forever to a child. At the time I hated waiting but I’m glad she did that occasionally. Learning how to wait is an important life skill that comes in handy when you’re an adult.

I’m glad she taught me that I’m not the center of the universe with her world orbiting mine at every moment. I’m glad I learned that sometimes other people have more pressing needs than mine.

And I’m glad I learned that I can capably entertain myself while waiting, though I wish that one time I hadn’t occupied myself by going through her sewing room drawers and playing with the stack of hand-sewn Barbie clothes I found. That ruined my own birthday surprise.

As a parent I’ve held one finger aloft since before I had a smartphone that I needed to put down. Just like my mom, I’ve given the “just a minute” gesture when talking on the phone or face-to-face. I’ve given it when writing an article or answering an email.

If the child didn’t obey the gesture during business calls, the finger turned into an angry point with arm waggling intended to usher them from the room.

Sometimes I even made them wait while finishing a gripping passage in a novel or while enjoying a leisurely conversation with a friend.

They knew that if someone was hurt or they had a legitimate emergency, they could interrupt me. Otherwise, they learned that sometimes they can wait, that when I’m finished I will give them my undivided attention, no face-grabbing required.

This column originally appeared August 7, 2015 in The Spokesman Review 

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