Fatherhood is a great blessing and responsibility. We all face great challenges in these modern times when it comes to tablets and smartphones. This post was inspired by a 15 hour airport stopover.
21st Century Fatherhood
I love being a father. Fatherhood is both a blessing and a responsibility, but like most good things in life, fatherhood comes with lots of challenges. In early stage fatherhood you literally have to drop what you’re doing to stop your toddler from near annihilation several times a day.
I remember eyeing balconies and power sockets nervously when visiting friends. But somehow death was avoided! If angels belonged to unions it’d be at around 3 years that the labor dispute would break out between the workers and management.
Fatherhood doesn't come easy or naturally for many men and there's a real inner transformation that needs to happen. I wrote about this in a previous post, From dude to dad: journey into fatherhood.
Throwing in the towel
Somewhere around 2 years I started noticing that parents had thrown in the towel and handed their children over to tablets and smartphones. I first noticed this on airplanes. Come on guys! Parenting and fatherhood is a lifelong gig. How can you quit in year 2?
Where exactly does it say in the good parenting guide that this is ok? I’ve searched high and low and I can’t find any mention that using screened devices is recommended for children. I guess that’s the problem, the parenting guide never made it past the manuscript stage. But there it is. Every other parent I know thinks it’s acceptable to abdicate parenting while traveling.
I’m definitely the dad you want to avoid at the kids’ party. When I start talking about children and screen time, I’m guaranteed some peace and quiet. Before looking over my shoulder and drifting off to say hi to someone they dislike only slightly less than me, I often hear the defensive retort, “Well, our kids need to learn how to use digital devices, it’s the world we live in.”
As a designer I can tell you quite confidently that interface designers have got you covered, bro. Their mission is to make all our devices instantly accessible to anyone of any age. They are in fact designed to be so easy to use that a child could use one.
Are you feeling tired yet?
My first question to any parent who hasn’t figured out that I’m not the dad to be chatting to after they’ve defended their parenting bailout is, “And how are you sleeping at night?” After all, the internet is awash with sleep hygiene tips for adults about reducing blue light and screen time. So, how does exposing your child’s developing brain to extended screen hours stack up?
One of my heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former ‘governator’ of California and screen time terminator, has a zero screen policy in his bedroom. Like me, he’s also an early riser. Go Arnie!
Don’t make me laugh
The truth is, yes, parenting and fatherhood is hard work and it’s tiring. Especially if you refuse to sleep train your child. It makes me laugh how people say that sleep training is child abuse. Normally this is delivered by parents on the verge of their next breakdown, who are systematically abusing themselves, their partners and their children through their own chronic sleep deprivation.
It’s not possible to make good decisions and regulate your own emotions when you’re suffering chronic sleep deprivation. As Gabor Mate knows from his work with addicts, there are worse things in life than being separated from your parents for a few hours at night.
The most common problem I see with parents trying child-centred parenting is confusion between the difference between wants and needs. Child centered parenting advocates placing the child's needs at the centre of parenting, NOT the child's wants.
I see lot's of parents treating their children like adults. Transferring too much responsibility to them, too early. Children are not adults, they don’t need a menu for dinner and they certainly don’t need to be making lots of decisions in the household. That’s the adult’s job. And children are certainly not living in some kind of prison where they have no freedom either. That place is reserved for adults who make bad life choices, inevitably blaming their own parents (or children) along the way.
Parenting is not the same as running a hotel with an in-house restaurant. In fact, our sacred duty is to teach our children how to look after themselves and function in society. I like to think of parenting as controlled exposure to suffering and disappointment, slowly helping the child build up resistance to life’s knocks and let-downs. So, they don’t completely lose their shit when they get fired from their first job or their partner dumps them.
Of course, this is not only what fatherhood is about but it’s certainly a big challenge to gently guide your child through their failures and successes. In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman writes how we can scaffold our children using a technique he calls ‘emotional coaching’ to help them find their own creative solutions for their difficulties, instead of jumping in and trying to solve all their problems for them. This is uncomfortable territory for most of us, because being a provider is so hardwired into parenting.
Just say ‘no’
A child's job is to play (aka learn) and explore the limits of things. The parent’s job is to create a safe space in which they can do this by setting and holding boundaries, so that the child knows where the edges are. One of the main ways you set and hold boundaries is by saying ‘no’.
If you’re not good at saying ‘no’ firmly but kindly, then your child is gonna crush you. Children know when a ‘no’ is actually a maybe and they’ll delight in grinding you to dust under their will. Don’t take it personally, it’s just human nature.
‘No’ is the most underused word in the human language in our times. Whatever you do, don’t try and justify your ‘no’ either. Children like Hitler are masters at negotiation and rationalization.
Before you know it, you’ll be agreeing to all kinds of shady compromises and end up looking like Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 waving a piece of paper and saying nonsense like, “I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Of course, Germany invaded Poland less than 12 months later, plunging Europe into the horror of the Second World War.
The best advice Chamberlain had to offer was getting a good night’s sleep, which we all need especially if we’re going to be effective parents.
The difference between fatherhood and the Second World War is that the latter only lasted 6 years, whereas fatherhood is a much longer project. With my references to Hitler and war you may be forgiven for thinking that I hate parenting or children. I don’t, I love both. The real war we each have to battle is the war within.
I’m sorry, am I bothering you?
So, back to those parents and children glued to their devices on the airplane. It looks to me like boredom and interacting with other people (e.g. our own family) are the worst crimes we can commit, seeing as aging is now completely optional these days. Boredom is the unacceptable feeling that parents need to avoid and parenting means making sure that your kids are never bored. Passive and compliant yes, but not bored.
But here’s the thing. Boredom is a very important emotion because it leads to creativity. When I tell parents I have a zero TV policy at home, some nod approvingly because most sensible adults agree that children should be exposed to only a little TV at best. But when I say we travel without a tablet or phone they start looking very nervous.
How did we become so dependent on using these devices as nannies? When did interacting with your own child stop being part of parenting 101? When did we remove the opportunity for boredom and therefore the resulting creativity that comes from it?
My son and I have lots of fun coloring in those inflight magazines in a kaleidoscope of colors and getting to know the people next to us or behind us.
Don’t burst my bubble
But it’s not all plain sailing. I can tell that some people really just want to be left alone. One of the many strange things about modern society, and the corresponding rise of hyper individualism, is that we expect to be left alone in public. We are not fellow adventurers on a mysterious journey of discovery, as we sail several kilometers above Earth in gleaming metal tubes. Instead, we are separate: I’m in my bubble, baby and you’re in yours, and don’t poke, prod or disturb me.
We certainly don’t expect or look forward to being sat next to a heavily tattooed, chatty South African and his fiercely curious and energetic son.
The age of distraction
How did distraction become the norm? Sitting on planes and in airports, it seems like a lot of people don’t want to be there and they also don’t want to be with the people they're with.
Adults aren’t talking to each other or the kids, and interactions are limited to exchanging power banks, charger cables and finding available power outlets.
Does this sound a bit far fetched? I recently spent 15 hours at Schipol airport waiting for a rebooked flight when I noticed how everyone around me was buried in their devices. I was really struck by one family of three generations, all sitting separately with their faces glued to their tablets and phones.
As a father and a business owner, I know that distraction is the enemy. It stops me getting the important things done. Social media is especially designed to offer unlimited distraction, while YouTube has also perfected the art of stealing your time with their recommended videos. All of us, whether we think we’re creative or not, could better spend our time relating, playing or creating rather than zoning out or passively consuming.
One of the many gifts of parenting and fatherhood is that it gives you permission to play again. Playing with your child shows you things from another perspective. When we play together, my son and I are completely absorbed in our world. It’s an amazing, hyper-creative and focused space where anything can happen.
When we zone out through distraction, we disconnect from ourselves, each other and our children. A good question to ask is: What are we avoiding? Is there another way that we could turn towards ourselves, each other and our children, instead?
Where are we headed?
Personally, I love airports and travel… they tip me into a creative in-between place where I'm able to reflect on life and myself in a different way. I wrote about this liminal space in my blog post What are rites of passage and why are they so important?
But I’m troubled by our lack of interaction and especially the lack of interaction between families. I can’t help wondering if people just act like this when they travel or if that’s what the rest of their lives look like too.
Don’t be a stranger
So, here’s an invitation for you, seeing as you made it this far. The next time you’re sitting next to a tattooed man on an airplane, just tap him firmly but politely on the shoulder and ask him what his tattoos mean. You might learn something new from a stranger. And don’t forget to ask his son what he’s drawing – he’ll be very keen to invite you into his world!
Technology has changed our world for the better in so many ways, but with it comes a heavy price. The world our children are growing up in is not the world we grew up in, and it’s down to us to help our children navigate their digital world without losing the art of boredom and the creative potential within. If you’re troubled by the world you see your children growing up in and want some support working out how to do things differently, do reach out. I’d love to help.