On the subway the other day I saw a couple with a fussy baby. He was bored and wiggling and squawking, and his father held onto him while his mother tried to pull up a game on her phone. In the meantime the baby became interested in the lights flashing past the window. Rather than take this as an opportunity to participate in the baby’s learning, as well as his fun, they broke his attention on the lights and pressed the phone into his hands.
Some people are calling the tablets and smartphones we are giving our toddlers the modern-day pacifiers. They help us get through a conversation with a friend, or a meal, or our favorite TV show in peace. That’s nice. The difference is that we can still connect with a baby with a pacifier in his mouth. Once we’ve put a gadget into his hands, we’ve lost eye contact. We’ve lost all contact.
As a coach, I’m often asked to help clients increase their engagement when they’re speaking. It can be a hard thing to learn as an adult, if you’re not used to really connecting. And these days, the more I see people offering their children gadgets rather than engaging with them, I worry that it’s going to get harder.
So I’ve dug into my pre-Internet, pre-tablet memories in order to offer ways to succeed in managing a toddler that can develop much more than just your bond with your child.
Memory #1: Paper Chase
A young mother was seated next to her small son, who was probably about 15 months old. I don’t know if she had any toys in her bag, but what she had chosen to play with were her subway card and a receipt. When I got on the train she was playing a game where she folded the receipt around the card. I thought she was just making the card disappear for him, but she was way ahead of me. She pushed the card down so that a little of it peeked out from the bottom of the receipt, and invited him to pull it out.
“Wow!” she said when he succeeded, and he was very pleased with himself. Then she took the hand holding the card and helped him slide it back into the folder paper, and they’d start again.
Every once in a while he’d want to try to do it alone, so she’d let him, but before he got too frustrated or tore the receipt, she’d help him again. This went on for several station stops.
When that game had lost its charm, she rolled the receipt into a tube and invited him to stick his finger inside. Toddlers his age don’t have very fine motor skills, so this was tricky for him. When he succeeded, she’d pull the tube off his finger with a funny noise, and they’d both laugh.
Then, inevitably, he wanted to crumple up the receipt. Here’s where this young mother really impressed me. Rather than scolding him for what is perfectly natural toddler behavior, she let him squash it up for a while, and then said, “Let’s put it in here,” slipping it into one of the small side pockets of her bag. The pocket had a Velcro closure. “Can you get it out?” she asked him.
Beyond entertaining her clearly active little boy (and many of the train’s passengers), this mother was also helping him develop his hand-eye coordination and reinforcing the parent-child bond by supporting his natural curiosity rather than trying to subdue it.
Memory #2: Bag of Tricks
When my daughter was 18 months old, I took her from Tokyo to the U.S. East Coast to see my family. Toddlers take to long-haul journeys and seatbelts like rats take to leashes. To manage the 24-hour journey, I borrowed a friend’s practice for maintaining onboard peace: I bought my daughter a tiny backpack and a bunch of little toys to go inside: a small car, a cardboard book, a little box of crayons, a tiny stuffed animal. I also bought a few snacks. Then I wrapped them each in pretty paper before stowing them in the backpack for the journey.
Wrapping the gifts served two purposes. First, it eliminated the likelihood that she would open the backpack, see what the toys were, and demand them all at once. I could take one out for her and put the bag away, and she wouldn’t scream, since she was too busy wondering what was in the little present in front of her.
Wrapping also bought me a few more minutes of playtime, because I had stuck the tape on firmly. It took her little fingers a good while to get the paper off.
If you decide to do this, I recommend you devise some way to play with the toy your baby has just opened, at least for a while. Open up her tray table and make a tunnel for the car with your hands. Give the stuffed toy a voice and ask her where she’s taking you, and what you’re going to do there.
Remember when you do open the bag up again, it’s best to put any opened toys back inside. Having them all in front of her at once will mean you won’t be able to bring ones she opened earlier out again and delight her anew. Plus, you might lose some, and risk upsetting your drink or strangling yourself with your earphones when you have to lean down to try and find it.
During this airplane journey, or one extremely like it, there was a mother who had trouble keeping her little son in his seat with his seatbelt fastened. For what seemed like hours, she battled with him about it. For a while they slept. Then the battle began again before landing.
In order not to become the worst nightmare of a planeload of tired travelers, come with a bargaining tool. Tell your toddler he can open up his backpack and choose a present only if he’s got his seatbelt on. And while you’re at it, make the fastening itself a game. Are they Grandma’s hands giving your baby a hug? Are the two ends like two snakes? Does one snake bite the other one? Or are they a fish and a bear?
Memory #3: Rock and Roll
Once we arrived in the U.S., we spent some time at a lake. While paddling, my daughter picked up some smooth gray pebbles, which made a pleasant clicking sound when she tapped them together. We took them with us when we left the lake.
A few days later I had a meeting with a magazine editor, and no babysitter. My daughter was fine on my lap for a few minutes, and fine exploring the underside of the conference table for a few minutes, but then she was not fine.
“Would you like your rocks?” I asked her, slipping them out of my pocket. She gave us a few more minutes of peace while she tapped them on every surface of the room that she could reach.
“Wow,” said the editor. “What a Zen toy.”
Memory #4: Entertaining Accessories
I used to wear jewelry my babies could amuse themselves with: smooth, durable pendants on long, sturdy chains, and bangles they could take off and put on my wrists, or merely chew on. Charm bracelets are also entertaining for them, as are silk scarves you can take from around your neck or out of your bag for a game of peekaboo.
Remember, to a toddler, everything is a toy. Until we disconnect him or her from the real world and put a virtual in their hands.
Our little children will need to know how to use gadgets to succeed in the future, that’s pretty clear. I think it’s important to remember, though, that the people who first invented these amazing technologies for us didn’t grow up with tablets in their hands.
So give them gadgets. Just not at the expense of the connection they need with you, and with the world around them, in order to grow up curious, communicative, creative and confident.