The other day, I was listening to the 1974 Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle” and was struck by the theme—a father doesn’t have time to spend with his son during his son’s most important developmental years. Later, once the father is retired, his son returns the favor and avoids him. (Read the song’s poignant lyrics.) The theme of Chapin’s song is that much more critical now that so many of us parents are distracted by our phones and devices.
Sorry, I’m Busy
A 2014 observational study led by the Boston Medical Center pediatrician who developed the children’s screen use guidelines for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Jenny Radesky, MD, found that when parents are sharing a meal with their children at a restaurant, they exhibit a high degree of absorption in their smartphones, often spending more time on their phones than interacting with their children.
Even more disconcerting in terms of how we are allowing our phones to shape our parenting, the children often escalate their bids for attention from their distracted caretakers, which are often met with harsh responses. Reading Radesky’s study broke my heart. A few months later, I asked her how the effects of screens on increasingly distracted parents are affecting children. Here’s what she told me:
Starting from the moment of birth, kids are really wired to be looking for other human faces and other human voices in real time to be learning from … They do it through their senses, through touching … and they really rely on adults … consistent, reliable adults that they have attachments with to be able to learn about the world.
But I Need You
Whether you are a mother, father, or concerned adult, we must all man or woman up and take responsibility for the guidance and healthy growth of our children, which requires our frequent, continual, digitally unmediated presence. The second reason we must protect them is, as George Benson, Whitney Houston, and others have reminded us, they are our future. We have not led well, and they unwittingly (and, one could argue, involuntarily) followed, ending up in their current predicament.
Now—like it or not—where they lead, we will follow. The person you will rely on to visit you in your old age and buffer you from the ever-encroaching tentacles of loneliness: a Digital Native. The people who will govern our society and usher it into the future: Digital Natives. If their youth is any indicator, unless we make some significant and transformational changes—rapidly, decisively, soon—an uninviting future awaits all of us.
The Most Precious Gift
I remember a family we sat next to at a restaurant before this social distancing began. Both parents were on their phones for the entire meal. Their three children were each on a tablet. Once in a while, I watched their daughter put her tablet down, put her chin in her hands, look around the table sadly, and then pick the tablet back up. I wanted to shake the father and shout, “What’s the matter with you?! This is your one chance, and you’re blowing it. You’ll never have this time with your kids again. You’re squandering your inheritance.”
If many of us were blowing our inheritance well before the pandemic, are we recouping it now? How is enforced social isolation changing us, if at all? For some, the pandemic is a giant monster, trampling on essential freedoms. For others, it’s a giant reset button.
I hope many of us will remember it later as a wake-up call to change our ways; a watershed event in our lives that taught us to spend much more quality (i.e., phone- and device-free) and quantity time with our children, other family members and close friends while we still have the chance. A once-in-a-lifetime lesson that the less time and energy you invest in your kids and the people you love now, the less they’ll invest in you later.
The ominous final verse of Chapin’s song serves as a critical warning to all of us:
I’ve long since retired and my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, I’d like to see you if you don’t mind
He said, I’d love to, dad, if I could find the time …
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me …
My boy was just like me.
About the Author:
Anthony Silard, Ph.D. is a world-renowned leadership educator and coach. He has coached G-20 cabinet ministers and the CEOs and senior leaders of Fortune 500 companies such as Disney, IBM and GE and the world’s largest nonprofits such as CARE and Save the Children. He has taught leadership at the Monterrey Institute of Technology, California State University San Bernardino, Claremont McKenna College and IESE Business School and has lectured on leadership at Harvard, Stanford and Georgetown. His new book, Screened In: The Art of Living Free in the Digital Age, was just released in March 2020. You can find more articles on his weekly blog The Art of Living Free.