Do you recall life before cell phones? The days when mothers and caregivers strolled with their young and talked to them on the way to the park? How we looked into our child’s eyes with love and attention whenever possible? When we took the time to pass on the social cues and social graces that children need to socialize throughout life? Remember when we walked with a friend, our children, or our partners to a movie or café, engaged in a relaxed conversation with good will and held hands instead of our cell phones?

This was not very long ago, and yet, it seems lost and buried deep into the past, and doubtful of ever resurfacing again.

It has long been a pastime of mine to watch families and children in my community wherever I have lived. What I experience time after time, in many American cities are young children trying earnestly to connect to their parents, only to be told to “hush” or be halted by a raised hand, that signals “I am on the phone right now.” Our children wait all day for us; and at the end of a long day in school, want to reattach, only to encounter more delay in actually accessing our full attention. I have seen toddlers or preschoolers try to get their parent’s or their nanny’s attention while on a cell phone at least fifty times over the past year. What are we modeling? What are we really teaching?

The old adage, “children learn not from what we say, but what we do,” is a profound reality here. We are continuing to interrupt and downsize time for our children in our daily life. How often do we make time for a fluid conversation and full eye contact? My guess is that we should not be too surprised to get this modeled right back. After all, it is what we are teaching. When we stop for anyone and listen, with eyes that say, “I care, I am here, you matter,” we send a message of love and importance.

Here are just some of the many important social cues we are teaching when we interact with our child:

  • To listen
  • To focus
  • Establish eye contact
  • Language expression
  • Self concept

We are increasingly a society that does not feel complete without checking our emails and phones throughout the day—countless times. This also means that we let our work lives seep into our family time, and it is shrinking. Recently, an eighth grade girl shared with me that only three of her class mates out of 30 ate dinner with their families. A study by a psychologist from Seattle, Washington in 2014 interviewed 1,000 school age children and found that the children said their parents were not listening to them because they were on their phones, and that it made them feel sad and angry. NPR reported that the children referred to the phones as “stupid phones” instead of “smart phones.”

Father and son talking

In my parent education classes, I often ask parents to make a family rule that cell phones are checked at the door until the next day, and to make a promise to themselves and to their children not to check phones until the children are in their beds. I also advise that computers not replace family time to talk and gather, and that they are placed in a central location, so that use can be monitored. When computers are allowed in our children’s bedrooms, we lose control of the usage and sometimes their safety.

Connecting to another human being through conversation, laughter, and friendship is important to our children’s sense of well being. Put the phones away when you are with them. We want to instill that family values matter, and that time for one another, after a long day apart is the most important gift we can give one another.

In her book, The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine, PhD writes with one example after another, of teens who come to her feeling “empty”. Children who have everything in their rooms that a teen could have, but feel disconnected and lost in their young lives. Time is something that we cannot buy or exchange for a fancy electronic. Our children need us for reassurance, attention, and to teach them the rules to live by. It sends the messages that they are valued, and that they count.

Time waits for no one, and yet, our children are often waiting for a connection. Take a long look at your weekly interactions, and the time you set aside for your children at the end of the day. It might reveal a need for revamping your habits this New Year.

Mechele Pruitt, BA, is the Director of Parents Place in San Francisco.