Attentive parenting and parenting the digital age

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A long read

This article was inspired by a number of conversations that I’ve had with parents over the past two years. Talking about their kids, clients and people who have attended my parenting and couples workshops have expressed the following concerns:

‘He’s only quiet when he’s in front of a screen’

‘My husband lets them watch too much TV. ‘

‘She spends all evening checking her Facebook, Insta and Twitter’

‘He’s become addicted to COD, sometimes he plays until 3 am’

‘We were in a pub garden the other day. There was a family at the next table, mum, dad and two kids. They were all staring at their screens. They didn’t even talk to each other during the meal. I don’t want my family to be like that.’

‘I saw a woman the other day in the park. She was sitting on a bench looking at her screen. Her toddler, I’m guessing not even two, was sitting in the pushchair, looking at a screen. At first I felt really angry, then I just felt sad for both of them.’

In a world where we can download apps for cats, it sometimes feels hard to draw the line between real life and screen life. I have thought a great deal about worries that have been voiced to me, an in response, I have developed this very unempirical theory of attentive parenting.

Attentive parenting is exactly what it says on the box: being present and attentive when you are spending time with your children.

Before I became a counsellor, I was a teacher, trainer and education consultant. During the latter of my career, I worked with adults with severe learning disabilities, their parents and carers, and children aged between 5 and 13 with severe emotional, behavioural and mental health difficulties. I’m talking about children who have been expelled from infant or junior schools before arriving at the door of the school I where I worked. Places were at a premium and very expensive. If a child was accepted it was at the recommendation of their psychiatrist, education psychologist, social worker and support from the local authority.

Some of these children were the off-spring of severely damaged parents, others came from the most amazing families who were exhausted by fighting the system and being judged as ‘bad parents’ despite the fact that they gave their children every ounce of love and attention they had in their bodies. Part of my job was providing a listening ear and support to these parents who were often lacking in self esteem and self confidence due to what they had gone through in preceding years.

A couple I worked with in my early training had 4 children between the ages of 10 and 5 who were constantly emotionally present in the room. The eldest had a diagnosis of Asperger’s, the children in the middle were being tested for ADHD. The couple said that it seemed that the youngest just went with the flow, he seemed to live in his own little world taking little notice of what was going on around him.  I learnt very quickly that part of my role as a therapist was holding the couple whilst they explored their issues and the effect that these had on their relationship with their children.

Since then, I’ve accepted that the dynamic children create is an integral part of supporting couples while they explore and build new paths to the future.

As a result, I always find that I’m checking myself whenever I broach the subject of parenting. There is a lot of information out there. Some of it is sound, some of it (in my opinion) is not so sound. Whatever enquiries you type into google it will produce a plethora of information, much of which is contradictory and counterproductive. I believe whole heartily in the nature and nurture approach: children are their own people but they are heavily influenced by your behaviour, views, beliefs etc they learn behaviours and ideas from you as if by osmosis by they also develop their own.

My son is now a adult. As a child, he didn’t sleep much, was hyperactive during his waking hours and an extremely picky eater. I remember clearly the agony of bringing him up in a highly competitive parenting environment whilst juggling work, home and social obligations. I judged myself and found myself wanting. Unbeknownest to me, I transmitted my anxiety to him and his hyperactivity could have been as much due to watching me whizzing around, never resting and not being really that present, as it was to his innate personality.

Those early years and my later experiences taught me that you don’t have to be the best parent, it’s OK to be a good enough parent. Being good enough means that you give yourself a break, accept that it’s OK not to be the best. Lowering the impossibly high standards  you have set yourself and your lofty ambitions for your offspring may give you a greater measure of peace of mind and your children a bit of a break. Kids are who they are and your wishes for them may not be want they want.

Being a good enough parent means that you love them with all of your heart, support them, nurture their passions and give them all the good attention that they need to grow up into happy, healthy, independent and hopefully emotionally literate human beings.

Always remember that what children want most is your attention and they will get it any way they can. If they can’t get the kind, loving, nurturing attention, they will opt for bad attention, which is what none of us really desire, want or need, but it is better than nothing.

Photo by Alena Darmel on

Which brings me to the topic that I really want to explore:

Electronic devices, screen-time and parenting

I was lucky. Screen time was not a battle in our house until my boy was 8 years old when I bought him his first Gameboy. Before that, I was in sole charge of how much time he sat in front of a screen. I was pretty strict. NO TV before 5 pm in the evening and no more than 30 minutes a day on the desktop playing the educational games that I chose. This worked like a dream until the Gameboy.

Shortly after it arrived, I noticed that he would rush through his homework so that he could play on it. All of his conversations and play activities were about the Pokemon games that he was playing. Even when I did manage to persuade him to put the bloody thing down for five minutes he would use his imagination to design Pokemon games for us to play, where I was always cast as the slightly psychotic character.

This all came to a head during a school holiday. I’d been at work all day. When I got in, our babysitter was visibly at her wit’s end. She told me that he had sat in his favourite chair all day playing on the game boy. He’d refused to do anything else.

Well, that was that. I removed the gameboy and hid it away for two weeks. He hated me for 24 hours, but then went back to playing with Lego and his other toys. I watched him as he used his imagination to develop the characters for his games. My heart swelled with pride as he sat at my desktop writing his first stories. When I gave him the Gameboy back, he limited his screen time without my intervention.

The point I am making is that back in the day, the issue about screen time was about the time children were spending in front of a screen playing games and watching TV.  This was in the pre smart-phone days, so the number of devices and access to the internet was limited and very expensive. 

Since then, the screen time problem has become more universal and pervasive. This problem will never go away, and over time, as technology develops, the problem will become even more invasive. However, the issue is far bigger than kids frying their neural pathways by spending huge amounts of time online, what they’re accessing and who they’re talking to:

I believe that the far more pressing issue is how much time we, parents and carers, spend in front of multiple screens and when we’re with our children.

It is altogether inevitable and indeed critical that many of us spend much of our working/studying lives online. That is the world we live in and it won’t change anytime soon. What I think is an existential threat is the amount of leisure time we spend on our screens, surfing the web, shopping, socialising and engaging with social media, and the amount of time we spend online in the presence of our children, texting, checking out our social media and doing ‘essentials’. Before I go on, here’s a quick question:

When you hear your phone ping, how long do you leave it before you check the notification, read the message then answer if required?

In my practice, I can count the number of couples I see on the fingers of one hand who don’t have some sort of primary or secondary issue with screen time. Some couples come to me because Social Media has caused them to argue on numerous occasions to the point of causing a serious rift. 

Some people are distressed because their partners do not make a big enough fuss of them on SM or make too much of a fuss about other people. 

Others have discovered that their partners are addicted to internet porn,

Others have found or had the evidence of an affair presented to them via their Social Media. Others struggle with the boundaries around the use of MMS in their relationships: Is it OK to check each other phones? Is it OK to like pictures of people of the opposite sex? Is it OK to become friends with a person who is the same sex as your partner?

More often than not, when I ask a couple why they have decided to seek the support of a counsellor, the reply is that they are not ‘communicating effectively’.  When I dig into this, they talk about their arguments, then reveal that they spend their evenings on either end of the sofa interacting with their phones or an online game. 

They are not present with each other as they are giving their good attention to their screens and not to their partners. These couples have become lonely in their relationship and isolated from each other not knowing  how to reach out to bridge the gap.

If you have ever googled ‘distracted parents’, you will be hit by page after page of articles about  the damage that distracted parents are doing to their children. A slightly better version of this is ‘attentive parenting’. Although these narratives are slightly less harsh, it all amounts to the same dire warning: If you, the parent, spend too much time on your screen instead of giving your children quality attention you run the risk of raising a psychopathic, sociopathic narcissist who will live in isolation and die alone in a garbage filled flat, only to be discovered three weeks later being eaten by rats. 

I know none of the articles really say this, but if you even feel slightly guilty and on edge about your parenting style and the amount of time that your kid(s) spend online, this is the conclusion that your understandable anxieties could lead you to.

In her article ’The secret to attentive parenting in the age of smartphones’, ( Rivi Rotenberg describes a small non empirical study that she undertook over a period of three weeks, after scaring herself half to death having failed to notice that her baby was choking on a piece of paper whilst she was answering a text. 

She observed parents/carers and young children interacting in her local play-park over a period of two weeks. She then designed and carried out a small survey amongst the parents/carers she had observed and conclusions she’d arrived at. Once this was done she set out a series of principles to follow to help her and her children manage their social media use more effectively.

Her observations revealed that:

  • Children need to make several attempts to gain parent/caregiver attention when the adult is using a device
  • Children become increasingly frustrated when they are trying to gain their adult’s attention
  • Children are more likely to gain their adult’s attention if the adult is interacting with another adult
  • Adults react to their child(children)’s bid for attention with less frustration when their attention is focused on a person rather than a device. 
  • She also observed that children whose adults were less invested in their devices played more with their children, whilst those heavily invested in their devices tended to sit on a bench focussing on their devices for the larger part of the time spent in the play park.

So let’s take a step back and think about those observations. Try to be mindful and not judge others, just think about your reaction to this small scale survey, then think about how you spend your time with your children, and what your feelings are when your child is trying to get your attention whilst you are engaged with a screen.

I know that if my son, who is now in his mid-twenties, tries to gain my attention when I am doing something on-screen, I can react with a frustrated or sometimes even snappy: ‘Can you just wait until I’ve finished please?’

So, now that I’ve worried you to death, I’d like to propose some ideas that will help you to limit screen time and increase engagement with you children and your partner ( if you have one).

Buy in and consistency

First, make your children part of the solution. This is about gaining buy in and taking responsibility. If children know that you respect their input, they are more likely to comply with your request.

Second, consistency is key. 

There is absolutely no point in coming to an agreement if you’re not prepared to enforce it.

You have to be consistent. I know that you’re probably knackered and that shit happens, but in order for your kids to feel safe and to respect decisions, you have to be consistent.  Learning to do this takes time and many failed attempts, so don’t give up. If you drop the ball, apologise, pick the ball up and start again. An apology from you is necessary because it is a strong demonstration that you take responsibility for your behaviour, actions and inactions.

Involvement and incentives: rewarding  compliance

Remember that whatever you decide to do, you have to get buy-in from your kids if they are involved in the decision making and feel that they are being rewarded for desirable behaviour they are more likely to comply with your request. So if you impose a rule such as ‘No screen time on weekdays’ it’s likely to cause more frustration and difficult moments. Whereas if you have a  series of conversations and ask them their opinion about their views on their use of screen time and what they feel is appropriate, you will be rewarded by not having to deal with sullenness or screeching hissy fits and their voluable views on your unfitness as a parent.  

You don’t have to have a big ole family meeting to talk about devices. Just ask you kids what they think and show them that you value their opinions by doing your best to incorporate their suggestions into the solutions.  Oh, and by the way, whatever you decide has to be seen as a treat, and not a punishment. 

So, instead of the blanket, and what I consider to be draconian rule of  no screen time on school days, you could instead negotiate 15 or 20 minutes of screen time on school nights, maybe as a reward for getting homework done or helping with the chores. You then add the incentive of a sticker for switching off the screen when the time is up. Once you’ve agreed the rule, you have to gain further buy in by working out the reward system together. There is no point in saying: If you manage x for a week you will get y. Instead, manage the rewards on a short-term basis, so for example: you will earn a sticker for turning off your devices at the end of screen time. 

You will also have to give a lot of thought to what they will be doing when they are not having screen time. By which I mean it’s probably best not to  swap a tablet or phone screen for a TV screen. If you have the rule, you have to make off screen time fun and maybe even productive.

To make rewards even more worthwhile and a greater incentive, you may agree that stickers can then be converted into physical rewards such as a favourite meals/food, toys, games or even hard cash.  You can also use the sticker system to encourage children to save, and to teach them how to defer gratification. But the incentive must be worthwhile. For example if 5 stickers collected  and cashed in earns you a small bar of chocolate, 10 stickers will earn you……20…….30 etc

Remember rewards must be meaningful to the individual child. There is little point cashing in stickers for a game if your child likes saving money. Tailor  made rewards and incentives to the individual’s interest.

You also have to consider that younger kids have no real concept of time passing, and can use this to their advantage, so you have to help them out by setting a timer with them that signals the end of screentime time. You may also have to give them a verbal five minute warning. It is also a great way of helping them to tell the time. If they know their numbers, start by using a digital clock with an alarm (not your phone) then as they become more confident you can start to introduce them to the mysteries of the analogue clock. Believe me, their teacher will LOVE you for that.


How often do you play with your children? And I mean really play with toys and games.

The following is one of the foundation stones of Carolyn Stratton-Websters Incredible Years Programme

While I was delivering the programme and with my counselling clients I have seen the following strategy work like magic:

Decidcate 10 minutes of one to one playtime with each of your children. This has to be discussed with your children and a plan has to be put in place concerning what they others will do in that time. When  you are one to one, they get to choose what to play (there has to be a no screen agreement for this time), so you will have to guide them to a suitable activity that will only last 10 minutes ie a game of cards, play dough, a dolls tea-party, a quick board game.The choice is theirs, but the aim of those 10 minutes is that your child will get your focused and undivided attention whilst  you get the pleasure of relearning how to play in an innocent childlike way.

Family meal times

Not all of us have the luxury of a dining room table where we can sit together as a family for meals. That’s OK, because the important thing is that the family eats together. Family meals are a place where families can catch up with each other, chat, be silly, have fun. They are also a great way of finding out what each member of the family contributes to family life, voice their opinions, explore new things, share ideas and be heard. So it could be a safe space away from mobiles and electronic devices. Some people are quite strict insisting that phones are switched off and left in another room. I favour a more gentle approach. No phones at the table and the TV is switched off. 

Family outings

Be mindful, be present, be there. Taking the odd photo or video is great for making memories, but ask yourself how much more fun would you have if you were taking part in the activity instead of viewing it through a lens?  And of course you want to share the memories of special days out with family and friends, but do you have to do it in real time or can the sharing wait until the kids are asleep?

Kids learn from us

If you spend a large portion of your leisure time on a device your moral authority is eroded when you insist that your kids limit their online time. If you want them to do something that you consider to be more constructive, you have to show them the example of being constructive.

During lock-down, many parents discovered the joy of doing stuff with their kids. Stuff like gardening,  walking, cooking, playing board games, making up quizzes, building with Lego, knitting, sewing, making art, playing music. Many kids discover their passion by doing things with family members. The beauty of sharing activities with your kids is that it opens up many different avenues of conversation and it extends your knowledge.

My son started gardening during lockdown, we spent many happy hours together working in our garden. Now we often chat about what he wants to grow this year. I cannot tell you how much pleasure working outside together gives us. I am teaching him what I know and I’m learning from him. 

As well as creating a more connected and present life with your children by disconnecting yourself and them from the numerous devices in your home, you could also enrich your relationship: you never know where switching off your smartphone might lead.

By ericapcounselling

Systemic and integrative counsellor/therapist Specialisms: Couples counselling, relationship counselling, addiction, bereavement and loss, mental health, stress management and self-care. Counsellor by day, singer by night!

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