Sunday, July 19, 2015
Having spent so much time in airports and on airplanes the last few years, I’ve had a lot of time to watch parents and children all over the world. Sadly, the one thing they all seem to have in common, no matter where I am, no matter where they are, is distance.
The children, from preschoolers to teenagers, are almost always focused on tablets and iPads, watching a movie or playing a game. Beside them, their parents are hunched over the smartphones in their own hands scrolling through emails or Facebook posts. Occasionally one will speak to the other but for the most part they are lost in their personal entertainment. There is a brief flurry of activity as we board but once the seat belts are on everyone either goes back to their handheld toy or turns on the seat-back screen.
I find it all vaguely alarming.
I know how hard it is to control a child who is bored, miserable and trapped in some kind of adult environment. Keeping my own four happy—or at least keeping them from spinning out of control—was exhausting. I went to great lengths to be prepared. I kept storybooks and treats in my purse. I cajoled. I made threats. I held them in my lap and whispered made-up stories. I sometimes wore a necklace that had a tiny bottle of bubble solution on a silver chain and I would blow bubbles to amuse them.
When my son and daughters were small each of them participated in some kind of organized activity. Over the years there were ballet lessons, music lessons, art classes and a variety of sports. While they danced or tumbled or played the scales, I gossiped with the other mothers, flipped through a magazine or, when I didn’t have a little one in tow, read a book. But always with one eye on my child. My daughter just signed up her three-year-old daughter for a movement class and I tagged along for the first one. We took our seat and watched her as she followed the other children and the group leaders. Looking on as she played, I was reminded of all the hours I spent watching my children.
I looked around at the parents—my daughter’s generation—seated in chairs around the room and I was dismayed to see exactly what I see in so many airports: Men and women bowed over phones, endlessly scrolling and texting. At least half of the parents who’d brought their kids were either looking at their phones or talking on them. My husband often takes her to the park and he tells me it’s the same there. Children play while parents stare at tiny screens.
Helicopter parents have been replaced by drones.
How will we ever teach our children to be present in their own lives and the lives of others if we take every opportunity to distract ourselves?
Sometimes, when my children were small and older women would see me struggling with a stormy toddler, they would smile and remind me to enjoy it. One day, they would say, I would look up and my children would be grown.
Now I am one of those older women and I find myself wanting to say the same thing every time I see a man or woman missing a moment with a child that will never come again.
One of these days, I want to say, you’ll wish you’d looked up.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the author of Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org