• Allison Lee Pillinger Choi

How I Scaled Back the Touch Screens, and Up the Human Touch

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Learning to Be the Parent, with help from Naomi Schaefer Riley

“It’s not that there is no reason to use technology. It’s that ‘I want them to prioritize human interaction.’”

Stop banning seesaws and start banning Snapchat.” Assuming that phrase makes your ears perk, we are 100% positive that you want to read on. . .


If there’s one smart, practical, motivational gift you can get for yourself that is also a gift for your kids, it’s this book: Be The Parent, Please (BTPP) by Naomi Schaefer Riley. You’ll thank us for the rec, and later (well, way later) your kids will thank you for the “counter-intuitively” tech-savvy parenting.


Written in 2018, this book is relevant now more than ever. Now that the COVID era has us diving headfirst into classrooms via Google Chrome books, after-school activities on Zoom, and FaceTime gatherings with distant family and friends, BTPP is a vital resource to balance the screen time mania.

BTPP is like the Ghost of Christmas Future. . . telling us all the tech-related nightmares we’re in for as our kids get older. Why is this important to read now, at the Primerrily kid age? Naomi takes us through how habits and expectations -- in chronological age and developmental order -- begin in preschool, further solidify throughout elementary school years, and become ingrained in the high school teen years. By the time college and adulthood arrive, it’s as thought tech habits and expectations become the status quo lifestyle. It has me ask myself, “Is that what I wish for my kids?” To help answer that, BTPP’s introduction and preschool- to elementary school-aged chapters are informative and relatively straightforward to translate into “action items.” Later in the read, you’ll notice things get trickier and quite a bit uglier in the “big kid” and teen-oriented parts of the book.


This dynamic reminds me of a quote from Russian socialist dissident and world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, in which he observes, “Once you give power to the government, it is nearly impossible to get it back, and it will be used in ways you cannot expect.” As this relates to parenting in an increasingly tech-tuned world: once you give your kid some access to screen-tech, it is nearly impossible to reel it in, and that access will be used in ways you cannot expect.


While reading this book, I came to view the author as a type of personal trainer. Instead of a personal trainer in fitness, Naomi is like a personal trainer in parenting. One typically doesn’t need a fitness trainer to count your push-ups and remind you to do them correctly. However, having that “coaching” in something you care about is sometimes essential to do what you know you should do (or not do) and do right, with integrity. And then, at the end of the day -- rather, at the end of the read -- you can take it or leave it! The author can’t judge you. ;)


Naomi is also like that dependable straight-shooting friend who gives you realistic and honest feedback, as well as suggested solutions (e.g. “you’ve got something in your teeth, you should carry floss.” Or “Those pants are just not flattering, try this style.”). She also points out the obvious truths you need to hear from someone else: for instance, that screen time moderation for yourself, the parent, has a direct correlation with your kids' screen time exposure.


While some of this information might be common sense we’re already aware of, I’ve found that reading the obvious backed by large-scale studies, academic analysis, widespread interviews, and personal anecdotes is an effective catalyst to “tech” parenting the way I want. To be sure, Naomi also cites studies that run counter to her thesis and explains the fallacies she sees in them. We find this to be an interesting addition that also speaks to the integrity and authenticity the author put into her work.


I could go on and on about BTPP because 1) I love how this book has reset my approach to raising kids with (and without) technology, but also 2) I want my kids to grow up in an environment in which their peers’ habits and expectations are not centered around tech and all it entails: social media, soundbites, virtual over tangible experiences, etc. Instead, here are some exceptional excerpts from the earlier “Primerrily-related” parts of the book to whet your appetite:


OVERVIEW

· “Our friends, our communities, our institutions -- everything seems to be pushing us to give kids more time with screens, not less. Our culture, our economic system, and our schedules make it harder and harder to refuse our children’s demands. . . We are living in a world where phones and tablets and laptops are ubiquitous and we rarely pause to think about the effects of them. . . Very few parents look at their children and their families and think, ‘You know what would make my children happier and healthier? You know what would make my family’s life calmer, warmer, and more fulfilling? More screen time.’”


· “Screen time is getting away from us. Now is not the time for guilt about what we’ve done. It’s time to take a deep breath and look at where we are, where our children are, and where we want our families to be.”


· “Kids are [already] on screen for so much time, and we don’t know what the effects are. Parents are hungry for guidance.” And for self-discipline!


· “I don’t think occasionally using technology to distract our children makes us bad parents. It makes us human. Still, that doesn’t excuse us from understanding the temptations that technology presents to us as mothers and fathers, the effects it has on our children, and then tradeoffs we are making when we give our children access to technology and technology access to our children.”


· “I don’t want to sound like one of those ladies in line at the supermarket telling the mother with a screaming toddler that she should ‘enjoy these years’ -- Lord knows I’ve been tempted to hand them my bickering children and head for the parking lot! But parenthood is all about keeping things in perspective, and many of us are losing it.”

INDUSTRY COMPLEX

· “New technology is referred to as a ’disrupter’ [of industry] . . . As consumers, we see the positive connotations of these changes.

But technology has also become a disruptor for families, disrupting our conversations, our dinners, our trip to the zoo. And it is disrupting the way our children pursue their goals, both in school and out of it. . .

We cannot turn back the clock. It is up to us, then, to teach our kids how to shut out some of those distractions.”


· “Instead of thinking about what will help them in the long run, we are thinking of what will keep them quiet in the short run. Technology allows us to do all of those [short run] things more easily.”

· “It’s not that there is no reason to use technology. It’s that ‘I want them to prioritize human interaction.’”


· “There is nothing wrong with the desire to keep our kids occupied. But what does it mean to occupy a child? And is technology the only or best way to accomplish this?”

· “The childhood virtues of spontaneity, purity, strength, and joy, which Rousseau saw as natural to our young selves are getting harder for our sons and daughters to recapture. We assume they are as jaded as we are, that they are going to recoil in boredom and annoyance as soon as they are left to their own devices, instead of their own “devices” . . . How do we let our kids get a little bored, a little more willing to daydream, to think for a longer period of time about something, without rushing to offer them something else to do? . . . Our desire to cater to our children’s desire for more entertainment did not spring from nowhere. Here are companies, schools, and a whole culture that are using our anxieties against us.”

PARENTAL REAL TALK

· “For children between infancy and three years old, the impetus for the increase in screen time is coming from parents, not children.”


· “Gone are the onerous requirements of time and patience on the parent’s part – the endless story readings, the tedious card games . . . the listening to whiny complaints, the steady need to restrain impatience, to maintain sympathy, to act more lovingly than ever,” writes Marie Winn, author of The Plug-In Drug: Television, Computers, and Family Life.


· Per a study conducted by a researcher at CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Michigan, “Not only were parents on their phones more distracted and less likely to interact with their children, they were also more likely to be short-tempered.” I may or may not have been guilty of this once or twice, or more.


· “Many of the parents I spoke to acknowledged that they needed to reevaluate their relationships to their devices before they could tell their children to limit their screen time.” So guilty again.


· “We know that screens are affecting our children in adverse ways, because we know they are affecting us, too. . . We can see the effect that these digital devices have on our kids, our families, and on ourselves. And we can make a conscious choice to stop, or at least slow down. . . Some of the parents I’ve interviewed. . . have inspired me to wonder about whether it’s possible to make a different set of choices for my family, to find like-minded parents, and to create a culture where those choices are the norm as opposed to the exception.”


· “I have become convinced during the course of research for this book that there are more parents out there than you think who want these same things for their children.” That is, a less tech-centric upbringing and the developmental benefits that come with it.


· “It’s time to stop sugarcoating the truth. The more we know, the better equipped we can be to push back against the pressures coming at us from all directions [e.g. parent-shaming over too much screen time or too little screen time, kid-to-parent pleads and begs, social and commercial pressure, etc.]. . . We parents will have to simply do what we’ve been doing for a long time. Put our foot down. Power to the parents.” Like that NBC PSA jingle, “The more you know” . . . the better informed your decisions will be!

IMPACT ON OUR KIDS

· “Whether it’s movies on Netflix or songs on iTunes [or in my case, Spotify], immediate gratification is the order of the day. . . But as anyone who has experienced adulthood knows, successfully navigating the world of work and relationships requires the delay of gratification. How can parents teach their kids the proverbial marshmallow test in a world where all you have to do is push a button and it seems like marshmallows fall from the sky? Or at least from drones.” To practice delayed delayed gratification is to achieve delayed gratification!


· “The world of people is unpredictable. The world of computers is not. . . At an age where kids are supposed to be learning more about the world around them -- both their physical environment and in their interactions with other people -- technology can seem to provide more information, but often it detracts from time spent on other things. . . it is possible that these touchscreen and button-pushing activities are inhibiting them socially and intellectually. We are habituating them toward activities with predictable outcomes. Over time, they may become more drawn to these activities because they are easier than the alternative -- trying to navigate new social situations or exploring new physical environments.”


· “From interviews with engineers and software designers, Naomi notes, “They want their kids to have the space to develop their minds and their social skills before entering the frantic world of communication and information that we adults must live with.”


· “The psychologist Adam Cox says that the major effects he sees of technology on kids are a loss of empathy and a loss of ability to slow down the mind. The two are related, though, because the reason kids don’t have empathy is because they have lost the ability ‘to consider what others want from you.’ It’s a kind of ‘emotional intelligence’ that is developed through careful thought. . . slowing down is just too boring for them, Cox notes, after they have spent so much time getting immediate gratification from a screen. ‘Kids who have been raised on technology can feel physically ill when they are not being stimulated. They have translated boredom into physical distress.’ As another academic researcher put it, he “worries that children’s ‘moral imaginations get shrunk or changed by devices.” Correlated characteristics also noted include narcissism, lacking compassion, and low tolerance for disappointment.

“TIPS FOR CUTTING BACK”

· “Ban the phrase ‘I’m bored.’ There is enough stuff to do in any twenty-first century American home to prevent boredom. Send your kids outside for at least half an hour. Teach them a new card game. Tell them to read a book. If they can’t find anything entertaining, there are dishes to load and laundry to fold.” And beds to make! Productive boredom is an impetus to great new things, ideas, experiences.


· “Books: don’t leave home without them. You never know when a trip to the pharmacy is going to turn into something longer. If your children can read, make sure they always have a book on them. . .” Or a picture book, if not yet a reader!


· “Community standards are not just set by other people .If you want to change the way that others near you think about how children should use their time, speak up -- and not just with words. Instead of buying things that light up and make noise for birthday presents, have your kids pick out books for their friends.” That’s action through transaction. Express your values!


· “It’s okay to be a hypocrite. Yes, we can all use a little less time on our screens -- adults included -- but stop thinking the rules have to be the same for you and your kids. You don’t give your kids alcohol or the keys to the car. Why should they have the same access to devices as you?” As Naomi puts it, “we [adults] have come to understand the enjoyment of reading or walking outside or having a face-to-face conversation.” Whereas our kids, not so much yet.


So if cutting back on screen time and unnecessary tech access is on your list of to-do’s or on your 2021 New Year resolutions (yep, we’re starting to noodle on our own!), you will love reading Be The Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat. It could also serve as a meaningful, thoughtful gift for any friend or educator you know also looking to lessen their kids’ view of technology as more than a productive tool. Be sure to share with us some of your own savvy tips and tricks to breaking up with too much screen tech.


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