My toddler's toy cellphone gave me the wakeup call I desperately needed

May 3, 2016 at 9:42 a.m. ET
Image: Hero Images/Getty Images

Remember the first time your kid copied you? Perhaps it was the way you put your hand on your hip or the way you sip your coffee. It’s adorable, right? I mean, our kids learn by watching us — they copy our behaviors. It’s instinct. Learning from Mom and Dad is how they learn to survive.

But imitation is not always the finest form of flattery. I was trying to get my kids ready to go out. Every parent knows that trying to get your kids dressed and out the door on time is the ultimate test of one’s sanity. Let’s not even talk about the ever-occurring missing shoe dilemma that always presents itself when we are running late.

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On this particular morning, my precocious 3-year-old was “talking” on his play cellphone. I told him it was time to get dressed and to put his toy away. He turned his back on me. What? I took a deep breath to help quell the annoyance and told him again to put the phone down and come to me to get ready. He waved me away. Now I was really mad. I yelled, “Get over here now!” He gave me an exasperated sigh and said, “Hold on! I need to check my text messages!”

I was speechless. It hit me square in the face. He was imitating me. This is how he sees me when I’m on the phone and he’s trying to get my attention. I never imagined that I looked that rude and impatient to him. Needless to say, I felt ashamed.

I work from home full time and I freelance, so I am glued to my phone and computer. I’m constantly checking my email or answering calls for various projects I work on. Like any parent of young children, it’s uncanny how your child needs you at that very moment you are on the phone.

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So, do I wave him away and/or ignore him when I’m on the phone? Yes — all the time. It wasn’t until I saw it from his point of view that I understood how it made him feel.

I am addicted to my cellphone. Not only do I use it to communicate with friends and family, but I use it to read electronic books and magazines, watch shows, check the weather and jot down notes. It’s an extension of myself. It’s even an occasional babysitter when I’m out running errands and need my 3-year-old to occupy himself so he doesn’t throw a fit in the store.

Let’s face it: Mobile devices, whether it’s a smartphone or tablet, are part of the modern parent-child relationship. Is it a good or bad thing? Nonprofit Common Sense Media surveyed 1,240 parents and their children earlier this year to examine this relationship. The results were astounding and insightful.

This statistic did not shock me:

59% of parents feel their teens are addicted to their mobile devices

50% of teens feel they are addicted to their mobile devices

However, this one did:

27% of parents feel they are addicted to their mobile devices

28% of teens feel their parents are addicted

I expected the percentage of teens feeling that their parents were addicted to be higher. But the plot thickens with this finding:

69% of parents and 78% of teens check their devices at least hourly.

Guilty. I am a part of that 69 percent. I didn’t think that many parents check their devices that often. We expect our kids to respond to their texts immediately; it’s part of their social networking. I do it because it’s part of my work (and who am I kidding, it’s social too). What does all of this mean? For me, it means I need to set a better example.

I put away my phone during play time with my kids and at meal times. I make an effort to give my kids attention without looking at my phone every five minutes. Also, if I have to take a call, I give them plenty of warning to let them know that I need to talk without them trying to get my attention. It doesn't always work, but at least they know I'm aware they are trying to get my attention and ironically, it makes me feel less annoyed.

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Mobile devices are a part of our culture and it’s not going away anytime soon. Our kids are supposed to be a reflection of ourselves, and I did not like what I saw in the mirror. What’s my next step? Put down the phone. A few minutes of undistracted attention to help my son put together a puzzle or dig a hole won’t make or break my career. Those few minutes mean a lot to him. If you need to get ahold of me ASAP, leave a voicemail. I’ll check it later.