04/22/2013 08:05 am ET | Updated Sep 23, 2014

The Pre-Empt Chronicles: Are iPads And iPhones The New Pacifiers?

Courtesy of Melissa T. Shultz

Yesterday, I saw a toddler playing a game on an iPhone.

I wonder if she ordered it online. I heard kids today can do anything that involves technology. They're born with their thumbs wagging. While she was on the phone playing the game, her mom was multitasking: shopping for groceries, pushing the shopping cart and talking on her own phone encased in a Little Kitty protective cover.

A few weeks ago I watched several boys in the park near my house play Nintendo DS. And by play I mean they were gathered around a picnic table on a beautiful day, each fully engaged in his own individual Nintendo DS. Now and again, one would glance over at the screen of the person sitting next to him, laugh, and go back to what he was doing.

At a restaurant last month I sat across from a mom with a baby who looked to be around 6 months old. She was alternately feeding herself and him, while he watched something on an iPad. When he was done eating, she picked up her phone to text, never saying a word to him, and he continued to watch whatever was on the screen.

This all got me thinking.

My husband and I have saved a lot of our kids' toys, and bound books, and boxed games -- the special ones from their early childhoods -- in the hopes that one day, they might want to pass them along to their own children.


There are wooden blocks and miniature wooden trains with a wooden track. There's a red wagon that we pulled the kids around in and that they pulled around pretending to be delivery men. There are wands, plastic swords, hero costumes, hats for kings, Vikings and cowboys. There are shoeboxes full of toy cars, the kind that you have to push to make go and when you do you say Vroom, Vroom. There are firetrucks and Legos, some of which are still in the shape of whatever the kids came up with. There's a horse on a stick, a box with pebbles from our backyard and shells from the seashore. And Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards. We have Mr. Potato Head, Twister, Chutes and Ladders, Stratego, Boggle and Scrabble. And we have books made of real paper that we read so many times I can still recite many of the lines. Books that include The Stinky Cheese Man, Good Night Moon, Chicken Sunday, The Giving Tree, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Rainbow Fish, On the Day You Were Born and I Love You Forever.

And with every one of these toys, and books, and games in boxes, there are memories of watching my kids in unstructured play where these toys became props, or the inspiration for a story they made up on the spot.

So here's the thing: I'm curious -- does a game that you download today to a telephone or an iPad stand the same test of time? Are they merely props or all consuming? Can you pass them down to a child 20 years from now? And will children who use them today be able to occupy their time, be socially adept and look up at the natural world around them (as opposed to down at a screen) when they are adults?

Yes, I know, just because small children are using iPhones and iPads to play games doesn't mean they're not also playing with actual toys -- toys without big price tags and chargers. And yes, I know, some of these iPhone and iPad games are, in fact, educational. I get it. What I don't get is why parents today are so stressed, or impatient, or tuned out that they need to use these toys as pacifiers. That they're okay with using them as pacifiers.

Kids are supposed to be kids. And to make noise and run around and talk to us, and us to them. And when it's time to be quiet or to eat, we're supposed to teach them how to do this -- not flip a switch to shut them off. Because that's our job. Not the machines.

So I'm saving our wooden toys and bound books and games in boxes. My hope is that someday soon, I can start an essay with this simple sentence:

Yesterday, I saw a toddler making up a game with pebbles.

Join me next Monday for another installment of The Pre-Empt Chronicles, as I transition from full house to empty nest.