I am a Luddite by nature, but I finally jumped on the BlackBerry bandwagon a few months ago. I had resisted for as long as humanly possible, but because I’m a freelancer and never home, I finally had no choice. (Editors, it turns out, don’t take the constant on-the-go of parenting as an excuse not to answer e-mail.)
I had been duly warned how this Personal Digital Assistant would change my life. “You’ll be sorry,” a friend had said, shaking his head as he checked his for the millionth time that day.
“I’ll be just fine,” I said.
Maybe, in hindsight, that was a bit too cavalier. I am fine, now, a few months in, but the transition to available-all-the-time has been a tough one for my family. It’s one we’re still navigating, and I see signs all around me that it’s tough for other families, too.
We’ve all heard stories of the accidents caused by P.D.A. use while driving, or of kids falling out of strollers while Dad sent a text, or of toddlers running or rolling into the street while Mom e-mailed her friends. Phones were one thing, but now we are walking around faces down, our eyes off our biggest prizes. Bad idea.
A New York barista told me about a couple he saw one day on a bench in front of his caf’, texting side by side while their toddler played on the little makeshift fence around a tree.
“I’m steaming milk for a drink, I look out, and the kid has tumbled off the fence into the street and is sitting there, legs raised in the air, as a car begins to back up.” He shook his head, remembering seeing the parents still totally engaged with their devices as their child nearly died.
He re-enacted his Superhero save, leaping out of the caf’ in a single bound to stop the car from running over the child. The mother, he said, finally looked up when he put the child safely down next to her.
“She just said, ‘Oh my God, thanks.’”
He laughed. “I wanted to say: remember this thing?”
Sometimes, as we parents all know, it is easy to forget “this thing” – our child. While the positives of the P.D.A. abound in theory (they free us from being chained to desks or even to any particular city, they make family time easier to schedule, etc.), real family time has definitely been encroached on by the little screens. We are present but not paying attention, alerted by a ding to every possible disaster back at the office or with a family member or friend, told by a little tinkle about every juicy bit of gossip we are anxious to hear about to save us from the drudgery of sitting at baseball practice or talking to other parents.
Signs of the backlash are well under way. Everyone from Arianna Huffington to Gretchen Rubin (author of The Happiness Project) has recommended “getting unplugged” to save relationships and lower stress levels. It’s been called a secular Sabbath, a one-day-a-week reprieve from technology, but maybe instead of just taking a day off a week, we just need to remember that face-to-face connections always trump virtual ones.
Still, as parents, we’re often forced (out of both boredom and necessity) to pay attention to things other than our children – and that’s not a bad thing necessarily. I once got in trouble at the playground for saying vehemently, “Kids don’t deserve our undivided attention!” I was making a point that babysitters being on the phone was okay because we moms did it too, that it was good for kids to be left alone, to gain a little independence and figure things out themselves. Maybe it came out wrong, but maybe the line of how much attention is too much and how little is too little is not so easy to draw. P.D.A.s are clearly not helping things.
I was reminded of this by my six-year-old a few weeks into my own BlackBerry ownership, back when I still left the ringer on.
It was a Saturday, and he and I were walking down the street, ostensibly together. I was answering a text.
My son sighed loudly with an “Uch.” I looked up, innocently.
“What?” I said.
He just shook his head. “You look at that thing more than you look at my face,” he said sadly.
I immediately put the device away and walked along with him, hand in hand, focused anew on his little gap-toothed grin and the story he was telling me about a dream he’d had, really making a concerted effort to connect. A bit later, I pulled the BlackBerry out again, only because my husband had taken both of my kids to the playground bathroom. But I got absorbed, as one does, and in the middle of texting, another text came through.
“What r u doing?” it said. It was from my husband. I looked up to see him and my children standing there, not two feet away, just watching me and shaking their heads. I started laughing. So did they. It was funny, but not. It is now our family’s cautionary tale, a reminder of what can happen if you’re not careful.