I tried the screen-free parenting model recently -- having a screen-free day in order to be a more present parent -- and I was colossal failure. I'm a life-long multi-tasker, and I manage the multiple roles and responsibilities of parenting, work and household management with a typical 21st century, 24/7 sense of urgency. I juggle and prioritize in the moment, as opposed to following a strict online/offline parenting model.
That flexibility complements my personality and it allows me to make decisions in the moment. There are days when I don't use my screens or answer my phone, but more commonly, I'm helping my kids with homework while texting at the same time.
Parents I've spoken with limit their screen use when parenting because they want to be more "present" for their children, and I get this. But let's face it: We can't parent at the same level of intensity all the time. Our parents may not have been using screens, but they were multi-tasking. My mother wasn't texting when she picked me up at school, but she was distracted by talking with other parents rather than always being attentive to me when I bounced out from my school. To a child, it doesn't matter what the reason is: If their parent isn't waiting with anticipation and excitement to greet them, it's a letdown.
I parent more often than not while doing other things. Whether I'm texting, making dinner, doing laundry, cleaning the car, or running errands; I'm parenting the entire time, interacting, asking the kids to help me and using teachable moments as they come. It's a fluid place, my house.
There are a few exceptions to this. One of them is during what I refer to as a "high need moment" of childhood. I've been late for work, I haven't responded to important calls and the only two people that matter are myself and my child during one of these rare high need moments. These are the times when children first experience a negative life event that causes them significant emotional pain and distress. Adults may overlook these events because compared to adult stresses they are minor, but to a child, they are a crisis.
Examples are first-time peer rejection at ages 3-4, or when they have a potty accident in school at age 5, or when they recognize they aren't the only friend of their best friend at age 7 or when they have some other first disappointment. Or maybe I'm the culprit, like the first time I was late picking up the kids at school. I better put my phone down and be very sensitive to the anxiety they are experiencing at these times, regardless of whether it is a result of my mistake.
These are significant life events for children and if they are ignored, dismissed or minimized, they can result in feelings of emotional neglect or abandonment. Whether children feel anger, sadness, disappointment or failure, when parents recognize their children's pain and help them through it, they learn how to manage and accept their difficult emotions.
And yes, there are a few predictable daily times that I am solely focused on the kids and their needs. These include the school drop off and pick up (and any other drop off and pick up times), the 30 minutes before school and after school, during mealtimes and at bedtime, otherwise its fluid and I may or may not be on screens or texting.
Many parents are more comfortable with the all-or-nothing method of parenting. That may go something like I can't be at all distracted -- including using screens when I'm parenting. And likewise, when I am taking care of my work and personal needs, I won't be available and someone else can step in and do the parenting. We can't be available 24/7 to our kids, nor should we be. It's our choice as parents how we want to structure things to work best for us and for the kids.
For me, the screens are OK even in my children's' presence as long as I am tuned in, sensitive and flexible enough to put aside all distractions during their high need moments and during the few other daily occurrences where I want them to feel they have all of me, even if they don't need it. Homework is important, but it's just not as important and therefore if I need to, I'll text when helping out.