Why Can’t Kids “Just Wait” Anymore?
A few weeks back, the kiddo and I ventured to her semi-annual eye doctor appointment. She’s been wearing glasses to correct esotropia in her right eye. Each appointment requires a lengthy examination and, therefore, a good deal of waiting.
First, we wait for the assistant to take us back.
Then, we wait for the doctor to come in.
Then, the doctor examines her and dilates her eyes.
Then, we wait again while her eyes dilate.
Then, we get taken back into the room again.
Then, we wait AGAIN for the doctor.
Then, we wait to get her glasses adjusted.
Then, we wait to check out.
As I said: lots of waiting.
My 5-year-old is a trooper through all of this. We’re usually there for well over an hour and a half. We use it as a time to chat, to read, to hang out, and to ponder what type of 14,000-calorie donuts we’ll ingest at our traditional post-eye-doctor visit to Dunkin’ Donuts. Sometimes, there’s a Disney movie playing in the waiting room on low volume, and sometimes she’ll watch it. Sometimes, she won’t.
At one point during her last appointment, I looked around, and every single parent and child in the waiting room except us and one other little girl was using a smartphone or tablet. Every. Single. Person. Despite the plethora of toys and games that the doctor’s office provides, none of the children had even been given an option to do something else. None of them had been “acting up.” They just sat down, pulled out a device, and got sucked into their gadgety vortex.
It seems that everywhere we go, anytime our kids have any sort of “downtime,” they are staring at handheld devices.
As soon as they enter a restaurant, a grocery store, or a doctor’s office, kids are handed a parent’s tablet or smartphone (or take out their own) and immediately begin tap, tap, tapping on the screen. Why?
Adults are just as guilty. Check out the line at Chipotle, for example; during that 10-minute march up to the counter, nearly every single adult, whether 25 or 55, is staring at a device in his or her hand.
Circling back to that aforementioned eye doctor visit, one grandmotherly type, who I’m assuming was actually a grandparent, sat down with a boy who was about 18 months old. Immediately, she reached into her bag and handed him an iPad. She had loaded an alphabet game at full volume and was trying to teach him the alphabet. For the next 15 minutes, while we waited for my daughter’s eyes to dilate, we were incessantly peppered with the equivalent of auditory vomitus from Grandma’s tablet.
“A-A-A-D-D-D-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F!” the machine said.
“No,” Gram said. “ Touch the O. It’s ‘opera.’ See, the O!”
Did I mention the fact that the child was about 18 months old? Tap. Tap. Tap.
“E-E-E-E-E-E-E-E-Z-G-G-G-G-G!” the machine sputtered.
“No,” honey. “It’s ‘opera.’ Touch the O,” said Gram, apparently unaware that anyone else was in the room with her and her young charge.
While my kid’s pupils were growing larger, I gave Gram the stank eye for about 5 minutes. It didn’t work, since she was too busy trying to teach junior how to spell to realize that she was being annoying or disruptive. My favorite part was when he threw the iPad on the floor and yelled “No!” Take that, Grandma!
Anyway, I’m pretty sure that the little boy would have preferred the germ-filled bin of dirty Little People over learning to spell “opera,” but that’s just a guess.
Now, before you get your knickers in a twist and start asking me who the hell I think I am for being Ms. Judgy Pants, please understand that I’ve been there. Yes, I’ve used electronics to pacify my daughter. I even blogged about it. See? It’s in writing. So cool your jets. I also happen to love technology and all that it can do, since I wouldn’t be able to work from home without it. I just don’t like what it’s doing to our kids.
Thanks to the lure of the smartphone, for example, kids no longer know how to wait patiently – or to simply just “be,” staring off into space — without being immediately gratified by a shiny (or, if it’s like mine, a sticky-finger-smudged) electronic screen.
Here’s why it’s a problem: Plenty of research, including massive studies involving thousands and thousands of kids, have shown that too much screen time can negatively affect a child’s communication and language skills, his emotional well being and even his risk for obesity. One Australian study of 3,000 children ages 2-6 found that a child’s risk of emotional problems increases with every additional hour of TV, gaming or computer use. As children age, this risk increases, since monitoring a child’s use of handheld devices becomes even more difficult.
Conversely, parents seemingly undervalue the importance of teaching kids how to wait patiently. Please note: this isn’t the same thing as waiting quietly, smartphone in hand. Teaching kids to be patient also teaches them how to delay gratification — a critical social skill that contributes to their emotional maturity. Learning to wait patiently not only adds to a child’s inner sense of calm, but also to his ability to self-soothe. It also helps them grow into teenagers and adults who are respecful of other people’s time.
Look, I’m not an expert. I’m a parent and a former teacher. I’m also a freelance writer who spends hundreds of hours per year writing about parenting and educational topics. I’ve interviewed countless doctors, social workers and child development experts over the past decade about innumerable parenting and educational subjects, including the harmful effects of kids and electronics.
And I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, long before cell phones and gadgets existed. Yes, I learned how to wait. I took my doll, or a book, or I talked to my mom or whomever I was with. You probably did, too. I’m willing to bet that you survived an hour at the doctor’s office or a half-hour walk through the grocery store without needing a handheld device. So why do we assume that our children can’t control themselves unless they’re tethered to electronics? That they’ll “flip out” if they don’t get to watch Umi Zoomi while cruising through a store in a shopping cart?
In our family, we try to limit E’s screen time to an hour or two per day. This includes time spent in front of the TV and/or on the iPad. Are we perfect? No. There are days where this amount far exceeds an hour or two. And there are days when she won’t even ask for or think about electronics because we’re too busy doing other things. When it comes to the art of waiting, however, we try to keep gadgets off limits. We read, we play, we chat about donuts. Patience, she is learning, truly is a virtue.