How to miss a childhood: The dangers of paying more attention to your cell phone than your children

By Rachel Macy Stafford, For Hands Free Mama

Published: Wed, Aug. 20, 2014, 12:00 p.m. MDT

(Rachel Macy Stafford of Hands Free Mama )

Editor's note: This post by Rachel Macy Stafford originally appeared on her blog, Hands Free Mama. It has been reprinted here with permission.

By sharing my own painful truths when it comes to the distractions of the modern age, I have gained an unexpected insight. In the 18 months my blog, Hands Free Mama, has existed, I have been privy to a new distraction confession every single day.

Up until now, I never knew what to do with this unusual collection of painful admissions from an overly connected society. But today, in a moment of clarity, I knew. And a woman with 35 years of experience as a day care provider held the key.

It came as a message in my inbox after the woman read my post "The Children Have Spoken," which included heart-breaking observations from children themselves about their parents excessive phone use.

As soon as I read the first sentence of the caregivers email, I knew this message was different than any I had ever received. The hairs on my arms stood up as I absorbed each word that came uncomfortably close to home.

It was a voice of heartache, wisdom and urgency speaking directly the parents of the 21st century:

"I can recall a time when you were out with your children you were really with them. You engaged in a back-and-forth dialog even if they were pre-verbal. You said, 'Look at the bus, see the doggie, etc.' Now I see you on the phone, pushing your kids on the swings while distracted by your devices. You think you are spending time with them, but you are not present really. When I see you pick up your kids at day care while youre on the phone, it breaks my heart. They hear your adult conversations. What do they overhear? What is the message they receive? I am not important. I am not important."

In a 100-word paragraph this concerned woman who has cared for babies since 1977 revealed a disturbing recipe: how to miss a childhood.

And because I possess hundreds of distraction confessions, including stories from my own former highly distracted life, I have all the damaging ingredients.

All it takes is one child and one phone and this tragic recipe can be yours.

How to Miss a Childhood

Keep your phone turned on at all times of the day. Allow the rings, beeps, and buzzes to interrupt your child mid-sentence; always let the caller take priority.

Carry your phone around so much that when you happen to leave it in one room your child will come running with it proudly in hand — treating it more like a much needed breathing apparatus than a communication device.

Decide the app youre playing is more important than throwing the ball in the yard with your kids. Even better, yell at them to leave you alone while you play your game.

Take your children to the zoo and spend so much time on your phone that your child looks longingly at the mother who is engaged with her children and wishes she was with her instead.

While you wait for the server to bring your food or the movie to start, get out your phone and stare at it despite the fact your child sits inches away longing for you to talk to him.

Go to your child's sporting event and look up periodically from your phone thinking she won't notice that you are not fully focused on her game.

Check your phone first thing in the morning ... even before you kiss, hug or greet the people in your family.

Neglect daily rituals like tucking your child into bed or nightly dinner conversations because you are too busy with your online activity.

Don't look up from your phone when your child speaks to you, or just reply with an "uh huh" so she thinks you were listening.

Lose your temper with your child when he "bothers" you while you are interacting with your hand-held electronic device.

Give an exasperated sigh when your child asks you to push her on the swing. Can't she see you're busy?

Use driving time to call other people regardless of the fact that you could be talking to your kids about their day — or about their worries, their fears or their dreams.

Read emails and text messages at stoplights. Then tell yourself that when your kids are old enough to drive they won't remember that you did this all the time.

Have the phone to your ear when she gets in or out of the car. Convince yourself a loving hello or goodbye is highly overrated.

Follow this recipe and you will have:

Missed opportunities for human connection

Fewer chances to create beautiful memories

Lack of connection to the people most precious to you

Inability to really know your children and them unable to know you

Overwhelming regret

If you find this recipe difficult to read, if you find that you have tears in your eyes, I thank you, and your child thanks you.

It is not easy to consider the possibility that the distractions of the modern age have taken an undeserved priority over the people who matter in your life. In fact, when I admitted this difficult truth to myself almost two years ago, I experienced an emotional breakdown. However, that breakdown became a breakthrough that propelled me to begin my life-changing "Hands Free" journey.

Here's the thing: You don't have to follow the above recipe. Yes, it is the 21st century. Yes, the whole world is online. Yes, the communications for your job are important. Yes, at times you must be readily available. But despite all those factors, you do not have to sacrifice your child's childhood, nor do you have to sacrifice your life.

May I recommend this recipe instead?

How to Grasp a Childhood:

Look into her eyes when she speaks to you. Your uninterrupted gaze is love to your child.

Take time to be with him — really be with him by giving your full attention. The gift of your total presence is love to your child.

Hold his hand, rub her back and smooth his hair. Your gentle touch is love to your child.

Greet her like you missed her when she was not in your presence. Seeing your face light up when you see her is love to your child.

Play with him. Your involvement in his activities is love to your child.

Set an example of being distraction-free while driving. Positive role modeling behind the wheel is love (and safety) to your child.

Create a distraction-free daily ritual. Consistently making him a priority each day is love to your child.

Talk to him. Ask him about his day. Listening to what he has to say is love to your child.

Focus and smile at her from the stands or the audience. Seeing the joy on your face as you watch is love to your child.

The recipe for "How to Grasp a Childhood" requires only one thing: You must put down your phone. Whether it is for 10 minutes, two hours or an entire Saturday, beautiful human connection, memory making and parent-child bonding can occur every single time you let go of distractions to grasp what really matters.

The beautiful, life-changing results of your "Hands Free" action can start today, right now, the moment you put down the phone.

You can follow this Hands Free Mama and her revolutionary approach to letting go and living life by joining The Hands Free Revolution on Facebook or through her blog at www.handsfreemama.com.

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1. Joe Moe
Logan, UT,
May 14, 2012

Oh wow. What a reality check. If people will seriously think about this, lives will change. I'll go first. Thanks Ms. Stafford.

2. Colorado Reader
Littleton, CO,
May 14, 2012

OUCH! That is a little too close to home! Glad my children are mostly grown, but I think this is a good reality check for interaction with people of all ages! Great article!

3. bikeboy
Boise, ID,
May 14, 2012

Cellphones, and more particularly "smart phones," are a bane to society. We are devolving. Remember the Good Old Days, when you didn't have to be in constant contact? Remember when you could attend to your driving? Not to mention the loss of up-close-and-personal togetherness that Ms. Stafford so vividly describes.

The streets are full of Smartphone Zombies, lurching about... staring at their little screens or clicky-clicking on their tiny little keys.

My favorite times are those when I can leave the cellphone on top of the dresser, rather than packing it around. Freedom!

4. Go Utes!
Springville, UT,
May 15, 2012

I started leaving my phone at home several months ago; i check it three times a day, when i get home from work, when i get home from school and before i go to bed. Strange thing, I find my relationships far more fulfilling and i am closer to my loved ones than i have been since i got a cell phone.

Put the phones away everybody! it is the best thing you could possibly do for yourselves and your families.

5. Utah Native
Farmington, UT,
May 15, 2012

It's not just the phones, but all online browsing and social media. I'm an adult in my 40s and yet when my own Mom comes to visit and is glued to her laptop the entire time, looking for bargains on eBay or checking her Facebook, I think, "Really? Would you seriously rather be shopping instead of connecting with your grandkids? Is Words with Friends (with friends who are miles away) more pressing than having a real conversation with those who are actually in the room?" So, it's not just a warning to parents but to grandparents as well. Be present. Choose reality over virtual imitations.