Moms and dads who are better than you have something new to feel superior about: parents on phones.
A tumblr Web page in the same smug spirit as People of Walmart, Parents on Phones collects photos of mothers and fathers neglecting their kids while texting, surfing and probably playing Draw Something. The mom who’s using her iPhone while her baby forlornly waits to be pushed on the swing set, the dads riveted to their phones at the Bridgehampton Children’s Museum.
Parents on Phones is not the only place that wants to tell you how bad you are for text-parenting. Hands Free Mama blogs insufferably about helping “people think about putting down their electronic devices to interact with the people they love.” Why, some psychologists even posit that distracted parenting is a “social disease.”
The better parents have a stern message for the rest of us. We may be physically present, but we’re emotionally abandoning our children. Unlike (and here you should pick your option) parents of a generation ago, parents of a century ago, parents in small-town America — you, phone-obsessed caretaker, are destroying your relationship with your children through electronic neglect. You are missing the wonder and glory of truly being with them. You are teaching them that email is more important than they are.
I have neglected my children in every way it’s possible to neglect them with a mobile phone. I play Scramble with Friends rather than watch them cavort adorably in the bath. I send emails — sometimes shockingly unimportant emails — during dinner. I have drunk deep from the mobile Web during the third, and fourth, and fifth inning of my son’s Little League game. I hope and expect to see my distracted self, dead eyes glued to the screen, on Parents on Phones very soon.
Truly, the self-righteousness of the phoneless parent is unbearable. The prologue to Parents on Phones asks: “Have you ever checked your email or surfed the Web when you should be playing with your children?” That word “should” — it galls.
Parents are not entertainment delivery devices for our children. We must keep our kids safe and happy and mentally engaged. Sometimes that means playing hard with them on the floor or on the playground. And sometimes that means setting them loose into the world, by themselves, to find a kid to play with, a stick to poke in an ant hole or a jungle gym to tumble off. Sometimes that even means — horror of horrors — letting your kids be bored.
The idea that parents should be attending to their children during every single minute they are together is absurd. The true ailment of the kinds of parents who own iPhones is not underparenting, it’s overparenting — being too intrusive in their children’s lives. (Also, it’s preposterous to claim that parental neglect is a pathology of the smartphone age. My childhood was punctuated by my parents — highly attentive and loving parents, I might add — ignoring me so that they could read, talk on the phone or work.)
It’s true that distraction creeps up on parents. If you carry the iPhone to the playground, you will check it. If you send one email, you will send five. Even so, the smartphone is in fact one of the greatest gifts ever made to working parents. I’m on my iPhone for a couple minutes at the Little League game so that I can be at the Little League game. I’m sending an email during dinner so that I can be home for dinner, not yoked to my desk.
If the price to pay is a bit of distraction and mobile indulgence, it seems a small loss. What is gained is time together. No dad who texts at the Children’s Museum only texts at the Children’s Museum. He texts, then he shows Leo how to work the ball-sorting machine. He texts, then he checks to make sure Leo is bouncing on that bouncy castle, not being suffocated by it. He texts, then he sits criss-cross applesauce with Leo at the sing-along.
The irony of Parents on Phones is that it seems to consist of photos taken by other parents, who are — certainly for that brief moment — ignoring their own children to play with their iPhone.
David Plotz is the editor of Slate.