As I race from the school run to the babysitter and from ballet lessons to football practice, my phone is ringing constantly and I know that I have at least 40 e-mails and phone calls to return.  But Friday is my day with the kids so I pretend to ignore all this work — at least until I am sitting at the sidelines of a football game. Then I pull out my smartphone and get some things done. Nobody knows the difference, right? Sure, I saw the goal you scored.

Then on the way home from the game, we stop for a quick bite at a fast food joint as a treat to us all on our only proper day together. When I’m there and the kids are talking amongst themselves, I munch on my burger, sip my Diet Coke and return a few more e-mails. Everybody’s happy. I have gotten all my jobs done. I have gotten the kids from all the point A’s to all the point B’s. We have had fun. We have eaten. This is the way life is now, right? Maybe, but it’s not how it should be. Multiple research studies are now showing that these habits are not conducive to our children’s academic success, intellectual development, social and emotional skills and much more.

There’s more to being together than physical presence

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A recent study published in the medical journal “Pediatrics,” conducted by a team from Boston Medical Center, found that parents who use their smartphones in fast food restaurants talk less to their kids than parents who do not use such phones. One third of all parents observed used their phone for the entire meal, never once interacting with their child.

This is bad news for intellectual development because one of the single best predictors of intellectual advancement is the amount of face-to-face conversation kids get with their parents. It is also important to know that according to psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley in their book “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” it is close to impossible to make up for lost time after the early years of life.

In their research, Hart and Risley had three main findings. The first was that the variation in children’s IQ scores and language abilities is relative to the amount parents speak to their children. Their second main finding was that children’s academic successes at ages nine and 10 are attributable to the amount of talk they hear from birth to age three. The third is that parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced. So the implications of these findings from the Boston Medical Center team for our children’s welfare may not be so heartening.

We now live in a fast-paced world in which people are always remotely contactable and in which there is very little room for “down time,” even when we are technically “off the clock.” So if parents are frequently or almost continually responding to e-mails, voice mails, SMS texts, Twitter feeds and LinkedIn alerts during their “quality time with the kids,” the long-term consequences may be felt in terms of reduced intellectual development, and in terms of the effects of such poor interpersonal experiences on emotional and social development.

The importance of talking to your child

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If we consider Hart and Risley’s research, it is clear that by increasing early language interaction and increasing the number of words spoken to a child, we may be able to significantly impact on the child’s IQ and academic success even several years later. And while it is not yet certain that this is the case, it is increasingly certain that reducing the social interaction we have with children increases the risk of a whole range of problems during intellectual development. We now know that the parents of less intellectually advanced children have had less language interactions with their children. So the clear message to parents is that our face-to-face verbal interaction with our kids is at least as important as the emotional bonds we form with them. Simply talking to our children often and with our full attention will increase their chances scholastically, and failing to do so may actually reduce their scholastic achievement.

All of this is not to say that every parent should abandon their smartphone or indeed let go of the multitude of responsibilities of the modern work place. But it does suggest that parents need to be more aware of the effects of communication devices on their relationships with their children. Setting boundaries for their use is a good place to start in curbing their negative effects, but this may involve some hard choices about our family values and what we expect from our careers and how they dovetail with what we want for our families.

The importance of eating meals together without distractions

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Interestingly, it turns out that the even if it has to be in silence, it is a good idea for families to eat as many meals together as possible, undistracted by TVs and mobile devices. The more meals a family sits down to together during the week, the better the outcomes for the kids mentally, emotionally, and intellectually.

The Purdue University Center for Families (CFS) has produced several reports on the benefits of families eating together. The positive outcomes include better-developed vocabularies, higher reading scores, better school grades and overall better long-term academic outcomes. Indeed, eating meals together was a better predictor of school success than coming from a two-parent family, which has long been considered more advantageous for school results than coming from a one-parent family.

The CFS at Purdue has also found that children of families who eat together are less likely to smoke, drink and take drugs. As if that was not enough, these kids also have better conversational skills, are more courteous, and feel more connected to their families. Finally, the CFS reported on the importance of family meals for promoting healthier eating habits in children and reducing their chances of suffering with eating disorders and obesity (see www.cfs.purdue.edu/CFF/publications/publications.html).

These findings may serve as a reminder for modern parents to slow down, switch off the phone and pay attention to the little people in front of you. It has never been more clear that what kids need to thrive is not just “quantity time” with their parents, but genuine quality time.

family watching trains

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