“Put down your phone when you get home”: Dr Laura Markham

Read about one of the world’s leading authority on parenting talk about connecting with children in this exclusive conversation.

By Team ParentCircle

“Put down your phone when you get home”: Dr Laura Markham

In the previous conversation, Dr. Laura Markham, creator of AhaParenting.com, and author of bestselling book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting talked about the three big ideas of parenting and the right approach to disciplining our children.

In the following excerpt, she talks, in an exclusive conversation with Nalina Ramalakshmi, founder of ParentCircle, about how working parents in a nuclear set-up can also connect with their children, and how gadgets adversely impact our connection with our children. She also suggests strategies to deal with children whining over gadgets.

Read on for a truly engaging conversation.
Today so many parents are working. You get back home tired and are not in any mood to engage with your child. But it is an important time to connect with your child. So how should the parent handle that situation?
We have to recognize that both people in the interaction have their needs. We need to just have a bit of chill-out time and the child really needs us because they haven’t seen us all day. So the question is whose needs get met first. The child is still a child, they didn’t ask to be born, they need the parent, and if you don’t give them some connection time, the child might end up having big feelings of being unseen, unloved, and will act those feelings out. They will be unlovable, will misbehave all evening until bedtime, and might even be worse the next day. Meeting their needs doesn’t only mean giving them dinner and putting them to bed. We also need to give them our love and attention. They cry and are not able to cope up with what life throws at them and they get anxious if they don’t feel safe. So it’s very important that they get the connection. What I tell mothers and fathers is that your child will need you when you get home. So, before you leave your workplace, if you are in your office, take a few minutes and breathe. If you can change into more casual clothing that is even better, because you will already be in a relaxed frame of mind by the time you see your child. And before you walk in to your house just take a few seconds, check in with yourself, just stop and feel your body and say, “It’s going to be pandemonium in there, it’s going to be chaos, it’s okay, they need me, I am going to go give them my love and once they go to bed I will take some time for me. What do I need? I need to relax, need a hot bath, I need to just watch TV for a few minutes, connect with my husband, and pay those bills.” But promise yourself that you will take care of your needs once the children go to bed. And then you walk into the door, put your things down, hug your children, and get them laughing.

Why laughing?
It changes the body chemistry. At the end of the day, we have higher levels of stress hormones because we got stressed out through the day. So when we laugh, it reduces those stress hormones (sleep is another way to reduce them) and puts us in a better mood. Also, when you laugh with another person, our brains release oxytocin, a bonding hormone. So when we laugh with another person we are bonding with them. So when you come home, pick up your child and swing them around, and laugh with them. Sometimes parents will say, ‘How was school today?’, because they have nothing to say. For children school was a long time ago, and it’s a whole another thing to think about. They are just happy to see you, so connect in the moment, say, “I am so happy to see you and I missed you today and I love seeing your beautiful brown eyes and I have the best children in the world and I am so lucky to be your mother!” Now, you just connected. Your children feel safe and feel that my mother really cares about me.

In your book you say quality time is a myth. Won’t that make parents feel guilty as they feel they can’t give quantity time to their children?
What I mean is that quality time does matter, it matters that you connect with your child. What I just described was quality time and it’s essential. But if that is all you ever did and give your children back to the nanny and went out for dinner with your spouse and you did it every night, that’s not going to work for your children. 15 minutes is not enough even if it is high quality time. So that’s what I mean by quality time is a myth.
But I don’t want parents to feel bad, I do not think that women need to stay at home and not work outside. I think men need to step up more and be more involved. First of all I think in the mornings and in the nights and on weekends, men should be more involved and it should not all fall on the woman’s shoulder. That is very clear because a) children need their dads and b) women cannot do it by themselves, working in and outside the home.
But also I think we just can’t do everything. I often find that women expect themselves to cook an elaborate meal when they have worked all day outside the home and it’s just not possible. When your children are young they need you more, when they are older they don’t need you as much, you can do other things then. Right now when they are young, your priority is to take care of your children, connect with them, take care of yourself, communicate with your partner, and work on your job. Don’t do the other extra things. If you have the money to pay somebody to do it, do it. If you can pay someone to clean your house or cook for you, absolutely do it. We are given each 24 hours in the day and that is it. And your children need a lot of it.

The situation even in India is the same. In urban sectors there are nuclear families living on their own. The other thing that influences connection these days are gadgets. Any thoughts on that?
The biggest impediment to connecting with our children is our addiction to our gadgets. When we are always looking at the phone the child senses we are not available to them. Maybe you are at home washing the dishes and the child is playing with his sibling and it’s all fine. Then suddenly, you get on our phone and suddenly the children are fighting with each other. So why is that? Because you are not available. The genetics of young children are still from the stone-age. When adults who are supposed to be responsible for them are not available, children sense it, and start worrying. Gadgets are designed to make you stay immersed in them for longer – your children can sense it when you are not available for them. So, your child doesn’t feel safe and he acts out.

So, what can the parent do?

  1. Acknowledge:

Understand that gadgets can get addictive. When you get a text or email notification, you get a little dopamine rush. So, your neurotransmitters interact with the phone, in the same way any other addiction works.

2. Keep away

When you get back home. Plug your phone and turn it over or put it on silent. For some people, when your phone is at a visible distance, you tend to feel the need to check on it. So, if that’s the case with you. Just put in a drawer until your children are asleep. Use that time to connect, play, and interact with your child.

3. Unplug

When you use a gadget to keep your child busy, you are setting your child for early gadget addiction. It’s okay to use it sometimes – when you are on an aircraft and let your child watch a movie – that’s fine. But if your child is on the phone every other day, it’s an addiction. Your child doesn’t actually need a gadget until he is older, when he probably may not have a responsible adult around him. But until then, keep the device for special occasions only. That means you’ll have to say No a lot. You will have a lot of crying and whining but research shows screens make us anxious. If you say No to screen-time, you are lowering your child’s anxiety levels. Also, when children use phones more, they are less creative, less original, they are less capable of playing independently by themselves. If you want them to play by themselves, do not give them the screen.

So now parents keep saying that, ‘I don’t know how to get my kids off phone, gadgets, TV or video games. However many times I tell them they are not turning it off so I don’t know what to do.’ So, a lot has to do with role modelling as well as the way we use it as our convenience.
Regarding video games, I think no child needs video games. It’s not like it’s good for them. If you are going to give them video games then you need to be prepared that they are going to get addictive and every time you turn it off there may be a fight.
Before you give the child a video game you could sign an agreement about how often they are allowed to use it, when they are allowed to use, when they should turn it off, and what the procedure for turning it off would be. Because we all know it’s very hard to turn it off or to tear ourselves away from the screen (like when you’re watching a movie).
So, together you and your child you have to figure out a way to set a timer for a pre-decided duration. When the timer goes off and he knows he has only 5 more minutes. Then, at the end of that either you or he turns it off, and following that he has an activity to look forward to. Usually the best thing is to move physically. You could tell him to get up and run around 3 times the room or do jumping jacks, or do roughhousing or just laugh with him. Physical activity will enable him to switch gears from the computer. The key is planning all this out in advance and practicing it.

But what happens, if despite all this planning, at the end of 5 mins your child still begs you for more time? He might say, “Please! I just need to get to the next level. I almost got this and you interrupted me”. He might get angry at you. But you can say, ‘I know sweetie, it’s so frustrating and it’s very hard to turn off, but I know you can handle this. If you are ready enough to play the video game then you are ready enough to handle turning it off. I know you can do handle this. Let’s do this together. You want me to turn it off or do you want to do it yourself?” And if he still says ‘No no’, then you just get him off the chair and move away, turn it off, and move on to the next thing. And later when he has calmed down you say, “It was really hard for you turn off the game, it’s very hard, the corporations who make these games design it so you never want to get off. It’s not fair because you have other things to do in life. You have to come to dinner, have to do homework and play with your little brother”. And your child might say, “No, I just want to play my video game.” And you say, “I know, because that’s how it’s designed, that’s how addiction works. The way addiction works is that we give up the things that are important to us, even if that is not what we ultimately value. What we value is our family, doing a good job in school but we give those things up because of the addiction. So, if you are ready to have a video game, you are ready to turn it off and handle it getting turned off. If you are not able to do so without yelling at me sweetheart then you are not ready for the game.” And then they don’t get the game. It’s not punitive, it’s not punishment. It’s their earning this privilege by how they are handling it.

So it’s like a logical consequence?
Yes, it is. And it is not a punishment. I want to tell parents that sometimes consequences turn into punishments. Parents will say, ‘alright you won’t get any video games’. That is not what I am saying because that is a different tone and voice and a different attitude. What I am saying is that you are the partner with the child. You are the managing partner and if the child cannot handle it they are not ready for it. You don’t have to be punitive. You just say when you are ready. It’s like you wouldn’t let them walk on the street alone until they are ready or you wouldn’t let them have a video game till they are ready either.

Read the first part of the conversation with Dr. Laura Markham here.

In a Nutshell

  • Parents putting themselves in a relaxed frame of mind after a day’s work is important to make space for connecting to their children
  • The biggest impediment to connecting with our children is our addiction to our gadgets
  • Before you let your child play video games, it’s a good idea to make a pre-decided agreement in which you spell out the total duration your child will be allowed to use the gadget. Follow this with an activity your child likes to make the transition easier

What you can do right away

  • When you reach home, keep everything else aside and spend some time connecting with your child. Take care of your own needs after your children go to bed
  • Draw up a pre-decided agreement for gadget use with your children

Published by Team ParentCircle on 24 December 2019.

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