How to Shed Distracted Parenting Guilt and Transform into a Digital Hero

What example are you setting when you’re glued to Candy Crush or texting during dinner? Is your obsession with work at all hours destroying quality time with your kids? A growing chorus of voices are amping up the volume on distracted parenting. Has that guilt inducing memo landed in your inbox?

You’re not alone. And you’re not a horrible parent.

I’ve been interviewing tech savvy parents about how they manage gaming and digital media in their family lives. Past posts include why we should drop screen time rules, game time limits that work for real families, and how to make gaming time into family time.  

It’s not just about managing our kids. Experts agree that parents need to set a good example. But just piling on the guilt is not particularly helpful. Here I review some research, then share what I learned about what makes parents digital heroes. They practice empathy not hypocrisy, value routines over rules, and embrace joy more than guilt.

Distracted Parenting or Parent Shaming?

According to Common Sense Media, parents of teens and tweens engage with media at about the same rates as their kids, an average of 9 hours a day. The same survey also indicates that 78% of us think we are good media role models. Most parents seem pretty comfortable being just as engaged with devices as teenagers.

But media coverage seems intent on ratcheting up our anxiety levels. A recent headline in The Atlantic screams, “The Dangers of Distracted Parenting. When it comes to children’s development, parents should worry less about kids’ screen time—and more about their own.” Common Sense Media has been mobilizing for “device free dinners,” including a TV spot on distracted parenting.

In my family, mobile phones and Alexa are a regular feature of our family dinners. I subscribe to a “no tolerance for ignorance” policy when we debate issues. We look up facts on Wikipedia to back our assertions. We ask Alexa for the weather report when discussing our weekend plans. We share photos off our phones of what we did that day. Does that make me a distracted parent?

In The Art of Screen Time, Anya Kamenetz devotes a whole chapter on reviewing the research on devices and distracted parenting. She concludes that the research is limited and inconclusive as to whether devices in the hands of parents are net negative for families. Family backgrounds, routines, and specific situations are much too variable to make blanket claims. She is crystal clear on one point though:

What we can definitively say is that the practice of publicly blaming, shaming, and policing mothers–by the scientific community, the media, and society at large–is well established and far predates the advent of any digital technology.

Today’s outcry over distracted parenting can shade into unhelpful parent shaming. So let’s drop the finger wagging and technology blaming, and look at what actually works for real families having fun together.

Empathy Over Hypocrisy

Amy Jo Kim is a game designer, an expert in all things digital, and author of Game Thinking, a new book distilling proven strategies for designing great products. She’s also mom to an 11-year-old daughter who loves games, dancing, and their dog. Her daughter gave her a plaque for mother’s day that says “Don’t be so busy earning a living that you forget to create a life.” Amy Jo laughs. “She gave me that plaque with the sweetest smile and I said ‘Wow, that’s sweet, kind of.’” The subtext was “Oh mom, that’s just a lovely gift for you to remind you how great it is to really have a life, mom, who never closes her computer.”

Amy Jo and her daughter have a relationship that allows for this kind of honest exchange. When describing how their family manages games and media, Amy Jo starts with reflection on her own habits. “I’ll be honest. When we go to the gym, it’s as much about getting me off the computer as to get her off…I would like to be off the computer more.” She translates her struggles with time management to empathy for her daughter. “We’re not watching the clock. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. You know, if she wants to watch a video and she gets her room clean, I don’t want to police that…. I don’t just say shut your computer and sit there. It’s like, what’s the thing I would like to do?”

Routines Over Rules

Even tech-loving parents aren’t immune from guilt over distracted parenting. Steve Isaacs, a Minecraft educator, organizer of Minefaire, and gamer dad muses, “I believe society says there should be more structure and rules, and I either don’t agree or am a bit lax. The important part is that for me when my daughter brings to my attention that I am paying more attention to my phone, I try to honor that.” He doesn’t have hard rules about devices, but instead has family routines where media helps him stay connected with his daughters, aged 15 and 18. “One of our nice routines is that we lay down and watch an episode of a show we’re enjoying.”

Amy Jo describes how she sets up “self-regulating systems and habits” so she doesn’t have to rely on rules and monitoring. “That’s part of why we got the dog. You have to go walk the dog. You can’t be on your screens… if there’s a binge there’s a binge. Then there’s healthy things like go to the gym or take the dog for a walk. So break it up.” She models this same approach in her own life, and her daughter has come to mirror it. “She self-manages a lot.”

Tara Brown, tech entrepreneur and co-founder of Connected Camps has a breakfast routine where she sorts out with her eight year-old son what their day is going to look like. This includes discussing what is important, like personal hygiene, healthy eating, and other responsibilities, and making a list of things for him to accomplish for the day. “I used to make the list for him. We would discuss it, but I would write it down for him. It works better that he’s writing it. He knows what he needs to do.” Last summer they had a different process where he earned points for screen time. It worked, but “It was so much work for us to manage…. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

The key is that parents felt happier and more in synch when they have shared rituals and routines and weren’t having to monitor and enforce rules. Jim Pike, another leading Minecraft educator sums it up. “The second we start putting on rules, it’s going to make everyone’s life more difficult.” Just as Amy Jo’s daughter reminds her of what makes for a meaningful life, Jim’s seven-year-old son also helps him prioritize. “He’ll catch me. He’ll say, ‘Dad, you’re supposed get off now. It’s dinner time.’”

Joy Over Guilt

Amy Jo reflects on her own strategies for maintaining a healthy balance and getting off the computer. “I give myself a bright shiny object” like going to the gym. If the family needs to clean the house, they’ll play loud music and give themselves twenty minutes to see what they can accomplish.” Housework and exercise can be joyful, not a bitter pill. And every once in a while they will binge on a series of movies or a game. “When it’s Zelda, all bets are off.”

Just like it might take a little pep talk or a new workout outfit to get us out to the gym, kids might also need a reminder of how fun non-gaming activities are. Tara notes how her son loves games, but he also likes a lot of other activities like baking and gardening. “He has to be reminded that these are things he likes to do.” Their daily list helps with that, as does Tara’s own commitment to maintaining a healthy balance of activities herself. Tara is most into reading these days, and her son is also an avid reader. They read together every night.

Jim says, “If I notice that my kids are on YouTube way too long, I’ll suggest another activity that I know they like better. We’ll go to the park, or go on a Poke-walk, or play a board game…. We’ll bust out the Legos or Beyblades.” Jim’s joyful enthusiasm for all these activities is infectious. It’s no wonder he’s a digital hero for his students as well as his own children.

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