Mom or dad is pushing the stroller down the bundle of joy inside the stroller. One hand of the parent pushes the stroller while the other hand holds a cell phone. Something engaging must be on that piece of glorified plastic because rather than interacting with the child, the parent is preoccupied with whatever is happening on that screen. Parents will do this under many circumstances, including while walking in a crosswalk, despite traffic (which is something I don’t get).
This is an attention deficit disorder. It is epidemic. It does not have to happen.
You might think it is funny, especially when you admit to yourself (albeit privately) that you too are part of this raging epidemic. Sadly, both you the parent and your child are suffering and the consequences will be long term. Allow me to explain.
Let’s start with your child.
You, my dear parent, are one of the most important people and “influencers” in your precious child’s life. Prior to birth, you are already bonding this this precious gift from G-d. This baby is born knowing your voices and so much more. He or she relies on you for everything, from food and shelter to love and so much more.
One of the biggest gifts you can give your child is stimulation. When you interact with your baby – including cooing at them and making faces — you are stimulating them. This means that you are arousing their sense of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Stimulating your baby will help to improve your baby’s attention, memory, curiosity and nervous system development. In addition, stimulating your baby’s senses will enable them to reach developmental milestones faster. It will also aid in the development of motor skills. Frontloading this during the first year of life is the time when your baby’s brain is growing at the fastest rate it ever will. You are beginning the process of helping your baby to develop a sense of “self.”
Babies are marvelous to observe and they provide endless delight. I am advocating for interacting with your baby because in this case, interaction supersedes observation. Just don’t plunk him down in a playpen and walk away. Gather age appropriate toys and get down on the floor and play with him. You can make these inanimate toys come alive for your baby by giving them voices and showing how to play with them. By doing so, you are helping to nurture your child’s imagination.
Imagination, which the Webster dictionary defines as “the ability to form a picture in your mind of something that you have not yet seen or experienced: the ability to think of new things,” fosters social and cognitive development. Imagination is the door to possibilities. It is the intersection of creativity, ingenuity and thinking outside the box. Through imagination and creative play, your child learns about the world. This helps to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills in children.
Try not to just plop your baby in the stroller and start power walking and feel you’ve achieved something. Okay you have – you got out of the house and you’re doing something positive for yourself and that is no small thing. But let’s try to maximize the moment to its fullest potential. Your baby should face you, Mommy or Daddy, especially a little one. He can watch you and your gestures. You can smile at him and babies love when parents smile at them. When you have your baby’s full attention – which is but a fleeting moment – you can accomplish a lot, provided you are tuned in and interacting with him.
Babies are naturally curious and when you satisfy your baby’s curiosity, they will naturally want more. Why? Because they are experiencing pleasure! Once they experience something in which to find pleasure, they will endeavor to learn more about it. Therefore, you, mom and dad, are key in nourishing your baby’s thirst for knowledge. You should seek to provide your baby with opportunities to experience different stimuli to pique their curiosity and to encourage them to learn more and more.
The child-parent bond can be an antidote to the anxiety that abounds among children today.
1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety and the reasons are multi-factoral. Some fears are built into the cycle of life. For example, normal development includes the stranger anxiety phase which usually sets in at about 7 months of life when your baby recognizes familiar faces like mom and dad, and then avoids the unfamiliar. As healthy attachment to parents grows, separation anxiety, as manifested through crying and sadness emerges, and then improves over the next several years. Generally, most children are past this stage by the end of kindergarten.
Although I could take this article and further describe today’s anxiety, I’m not going in that direction as I’ve already written about it (“Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! When did we become so anxious?”). Rather, I am underscoring the important role that parents, especially mothers, have in being with their children, talking with them, hearing their hopes and fears, processing information and just plain enjoying them without the cell phone, iPad and other such distractions. When parents are tuned into properly to their children, anxiety can lessen and so much positive can happen. It requires work. But what in life is meaningful that comes without work, hard work?
Parents stand so much to gain by properly interacting with their babies, nurturing and raising them through the toddler and early school years, through middle school and then the roller coaster called adolescence and so forth.
We parents want to know that we have done right by our children. Not for one moment am I saying to strive for perfection. Not one of us is a perfect parent. Being a parent entails responsibility. When you know that you are doing your best to maximize your child’s imagination and developing his sense of self, there is no greater feeling (including exhaustion).
Ideally, we want to be connected to our children at all stages of life. The earlier it happens, the better for all. I know I’m dating myself (by about 50 years) but Harry Chapin had a song called “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It was inspired by several relationships between fathers and sons which Chapin knew about firsthand in which the parent is busy, busy, busy and by the time he is ready for a meaningful relationship with his child, the child, who is now a grown adult, has no time for the parent. There’s a rather poignant line when the parent reaches out to his busy, busy, busy adult child. That child is too busy to see his father who then says, “He’s grown up just like me.” How sad. Everyone loses and the damage is irreversible.
We have all seen one-year old children who are facile and quick on cell phones. They use their tiny fingers to swipe until they find the videos they want. I don’t find this amusing. Too many parents capitulate to the screaming child who requests/demands the cell phone. Children have the lost ability to turn the pages of the book but try to enlarge and swipe them instead. How sad. The lack of parenting, interaction, stablishing of boundaries and parents being in charge is negatively impacting children’s social and other development. Perhaps this is the root of increased anxiety among parents and children today.
It is Elul, the month of introspection as we prepare for Yom HaDin. There is a subtle reference in the Torah portion about the arei miklat, cities of refuge, to Elul. What’s the connection between the cities of refuge and Elul?
The cities of refuge were places where people who killed unintentionally stayed and lived and learned Torah. The person’s Rebbe came. The Kohen Gadol was involved. Something was open in the perpetrator’s avodat HaShem that went awry and the ir miklat offered an opportunity for rehabilitation.
Elul is our ir miklat, our city of refuge as the Jewish year is in its final stretch. It is an opportunity, a gift to each of us to look at ourselves and determine what’s open in our own avodat HaShem. Not being fully engaged with our children as HaShem would like us to be is one area in which to work over the next several weeks. Imagine how this world could be if we would fully appreciate HaShem’s blessings and gifts and give back to Him?
As always, daven.
Thank you to Dovid Chaim Hoffman for his thoughts on this.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.