I’ve seen other newer moms with similar good intentions fall prey in this tiny room to the wiles of technology. The mom could be sitting there reading a book and feeding cheerios to her toddler, perfectly content, and a well-meaning grandma who has just discovered the joys of technology will plop her grandchild down on the floor to play a game on her hot pink iPad. The toddler will catch a glimpse, wriggle away from mom and hop down on the floor to see what’s going on. Suddenly, the equilibrium of the waiting room gets all out of whack as the toddler wants to touch the screen and the child with the iPad pulls it away. Occasionally, the child may have a different reaction and offer to let the child play along, even if the mom wasn't ready for him to use technology yet. Too late. There’s no escaping it here.
I used to be like the tote carrying mom in the waiting room when my kids were that age, albeit much less organized. Now my minivan has bags full of books in it and a fancy sunglasses carrier on the ceiling where most kids expect to find a DVD player. I’m in a new phase now where I don’t scramble to stuff food in my purse every time I leave the house with my kids any more. I have spent the last twelve years experimenting with various methods to teach my kids how to balance their use of technology, how to wait patiently, how to manage their time, and frankly how to be bored. We've had quite a few technology free weeks (some as punishment, some as cleansing experiments). Now, if I do have a tote bag, it’s full of my own homework that I might actually accomplish during an hour in the waiting room. I don’t have to chase runaway toddlers down the hall while another kid is in class. My kids all know to grab a book (or an iPod or Nintendo DS if homework is done- see, I’m not a total luddite!) if we’ll be waiting for a little while.
You may think I’m setting a double standard since I will let my kids bring a DS, but not a tablet to this place. Here’s the thing. I can’t concentrate when there’s a lot of noise. I make my kids either bring headphones or turn the volume all the way down on a DS. While my kids won’t say no to their friends if they bring iPads to the waiting room to play together, they agree that its size and colorful images do make it hard for other kids around them to resist and stay focused on their low tech toys. A DS is a little subtler at least. And if you want to bring something to share with others, crayons and markers are the easiest way to appeal to all ages. Always developmentally appropriate, unless the child wants to eat the crayons.
I run into similar clashes with technology with playdates. It’s not that we don’t like or even love technology. We just don’t want it to rule our lives or rob our kids of their ability to imagine. We’re not a household that has a television on all the time. Our kids have to ask to watch TV and ask to play video games. Yup, even the 12-year-old. It’s not an issue with my youngest, who still has a vivid pretend play world, but it’s tough with my 9-year-old when he has a friend over. (He recently told me that he always brings a book to lunch at school because all his friends talk about is Minecraft, which we don’t have here, the poor deprived soul). When my kids have friends over, I set very clear expectations about technology use ahead of time. If it’s a two-hour playdate, I don’t see why they need to use it at all. They can talk, play chess, cards, ping pong, or go outside and pick a ball game to play if it’s not too cold. Longer than two hours and they can play something electronic, but only for an hour. Different rules apply for Just Dance and Rock Band, because well, that’s singing and dancing and I don’t think you can do enough of that!
After the holidays, my daughter’s friend came over and told her that she and her sister each got their own iPads for Christmas. Hannah said, “Oh, my family got a Kindle Paperwhite to share.” That about sums us up. It’s also not that I’m cheap or don’t appreciate what iPads have to offer. I recently found out I can do a running record (a reading accuracy assessment) on one with my students which would be so cool. That’s enough to make me want to get one. I’m just not sure if I’m ready to handle the monitoring that’s going to come with it. We’re in this blissful stage right now where everyone is devouring books and I don’t really want to mess with that.
I’m not saying that I have all of the answers when it comes to technology and kids. It’s only going to get harder. I know it’s tempting to get the most out of these expensive and engaging items before they become out of date and I need to get the next model. I’m just asking us all to reflect for a minute about how we let our kids use it and how it affects the people around them. Ask yourself: Am I afraid of being out in public with my child without an electronic device to distract him/her? Does my child complain of being bored a lot? Does her attention span seem shorter than it should? Do I respond with offers of technology? Can my kid socialize at my house with another child without the aid of technology? What would happen if my kids (and I) unplugged for a week?
Perhaps after reading this you might consider how you monitor or don’t monitor your child’s use of technology each day. Maybe you’ll consider going low tech and throwing in a couple of matchbox cars and a box of crayons in lieu of your iPad the next time you come hang out in the waiting room at dance class. No batteries required.