How Screens and Smartphones Can Empower, Respect and Communicate Love to Toddlers (And Maybe Make Them Smarter?)

Important Author’s Note: this article speaks of my personal experience and personal views. While my observations and claims are not cited with reference to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research, they may very well be supported in relevant literature.

There is growing, legitimate concern about the role of smartphones, screens and TV content in the lives of our toddlers. Few of us parents feel totally at ease, and some of us feel downright distressed, when we see our active, curious children sucked into the passive consumption of televisual, pad-presented or otherwise screen-communicated content, content putatively “created for kids.”

But screens are inescapable, and there are definitely times when the demands of a patient and potentially fruitless wait for your child to calm down at a restaurant, or sit still on a long drive, are overpowered by a need for a few minutes’ focus or a little quiet. Young parents are frequently instructed on the hallmark behaviors of a “good parent,” but rarely given advice on how to take care of themselves and maintain their own sanity. Yet it requires little imagination to understand that if you are miserable, your kids probably will be too.

One solution to this high-tech bind — our need as parents living in the 21st century to find a healthy balance in our interactions with the hand-held dopamine-releasing everything brick that connects us to work and urgent (and not so urgent) promptings — is actually at our fingertips. The solution is not an app that develops the whole child; it is not a show or series of shows that empowers your daughter to be self-confident and shoot for the stars.

The solution is your child herself, and the role that technology can play in documenting and presenting her experiences to her. It’s a solution that I have found to be startlingly effective and which redefines the perceived meaning of those smart devices in our children’s lives. It is a solution that is really not that hard to realize, but it does require an ability to step back, observe and document. It means that you, as a parent, have to reorient your stance in relationship to your child’s play and reconsider why you take videos and pictures in the first place. You have to push past the desire to capture “cute moments,” or the urge to redirect your child’s attention to the fact that you are taking a picture. It does require some patience, but the rewards are many.

When children engage in self-determined play, play that emerges from their own interest in the physical and social conditions that make up their environment, they appreciate your presence and take pride in your appreciation of their discoveries and accomplishments: “hey dad you saw me do it!” The flip-side is that children generally do not appreciate interruption: “honey, try using the shovel to fill the bucket?” “Why don’t you share that with him?” “Why are you pulling on your shoes, don’t you want to try the slide?” “What do you have over there? Can you show it to me? Can you tell me what it is?” “Hurry up, we have gymnastics class in five minutes.” “Don’t jump in that puddle!” “Don’t grab, don’t argue, don’t act like that.” Imagine if you, as an adult, were deeply engaged in a task, and someone came up to you to repeatedly ask for an explanation. You would lose your focus, feel deeply frustrated and seek distance from your inquisitor.

During challenging moments out on the playground, we should also realize that many of our concerns about our children’s behavior, particularly in relationship to other children, can be an expression of our desire to be perceived as living up to specific social, cultural, educational and class expectations: “my child didn’t learn that in our home.” We therefore move to correct behavior, interrupt play, and insert ourselves into our children’s self-structured social relationships in order to correct how we are perceived by others. These anxieties are not inconsequential, and one’s status in a community may very well be impacted by how they are perceived as a parent. But if you have the social space and freedom to step back from correcting behaviors like not sharing or fighting over a toy in a public place, you might very well find that your child is quite capable of negotiating the challenges of conflict.

When we intervene in our children’s development of social understanding and social problem solving, we rob them of the ability to figure out how to navigate and establish their own identities in their own relationships, and we rob them of the agency to do that crucial, foundational human learning. In an important way, we communicate that we don’t trust or respect or have confidence in their ability to solve their own problems, or at least engage in deeply-satisfying trial and error and self-limit testing.

So first we have to allow our children to take part in meaningful, self-determined play. That means stepping back and observing, being present by manifesting a presence of engagement: keeping our mouths shut and our hands down, seeking to understand our child by watching, and not through interrupting or asking questions or redirecting. This means that we have to abandon a desire for specific outcomes.

This approach is neither a manifestation of the heavily-caricatured “helicopter parent,” nor is it so-called “free range parenting.” Your presence during play is powerful, and your absence can remove an important opportunity for you to communicate love and respect for your child in play, which for the child is a state of thinking, understanding, exploring and naming experience that comes from the autonomous expression of will. Intervention and a desire for control will stifle your child’s agency and the development and expression of competence, while at the same time, disengaged distance can be perceived by your child as disregard for the value of her experience.

An important corollary to this approach is the necessity of providing expansive time, regular opportunities for the arc of play to fully develop, minimally-structured and open-ended materials and environments that allow for maximum complexity and self-determined definitions of mastery and discovery, and the attendant development of a stance in you, the parent, of patience and a fascination in seeing the growth and learning that is taking place, and what and how your child communicates.

I use a simple litmus test to see if I am present and engaged: does my daughter, unprompted and unspoken, reach out a hand for help AND do I notice. In that simple act of HER communicating TO ME, she is not only aware that she has the space to navigate the circumstance on her own, but she is also aware of my presence. She is aware that I am engaged enough to read that subtle and momentary signal. Her extended hand is often just as quickly withdrawn if I am not paying attention. I am responding to an invitation to get involved. That small gesture is one of the clearest expressions of self-determination in an environment of love. She is making the decision about my level of involvement in her play.

There are few activities that we need to arrange for toddlers. Whatever specific thing you think a toddler should be doing, is probably not something your toddler came up with on her own. Arrange for time and places, places filled with opportunities to take risks and discover, time that starts and then ends with your child’s play intention acted upon to its natural conclusion. That place need not be a forest or a children’s museum — not bad places, but then they are not accessible to everyone. The place could be a field, or the street, or the floor of your living room. It can be anywhere that does not introduce danger beyond your child’s control.

Now we have the crucial ingredients: self-determined play, extensive time, meaningful adult presence and your growing sense that your child is capable, complex, funny and super smart (in a way that has nothing to do with her language level, or the fact that she is hitting a developmental milestone earlier than her peers, and everything to do with your experience of witnessing subtle changes, changes that you would not have seen if you hadn’t stepped back to observe). But then enter iPhone, stage right pocket, and the immediate self-soothing cycle of dopamine-releasing social media updates, “urgent” phone calls and emails, missives that probably could wait if you really stopped to think about what has the greatest meaning to you in that particular moment. You have broadcast, in your redirected gaze and agile fingers, a specific message to your child: my experience of this device, my attachment to this device and all that’s contained within it, are more important than what you are doing and experiencing, something that is deeply meaningful, new, exciting and formative for you.

When this redirection of attention happens, and when it comes to characterize your time on the playground bench, don’t be surprised if a sense of distance begins to emerge between you and what your child is doing. Don’t be surprised if a desire grows in your child to access the noisy, interactive glowing content within the device. Clearly it is more engaging to you than that leap she just made from the edge of the sandbox for the first time, or her discovery of the fact that water can be transferred between buckets and then used to make sand moldable. Moreover, it is intellectually inconsistent and toddler-maddening to say, "it’s ok for me to cradle this transfixing font of handheld experience, but you, my little buddy, are not ready and it’s not really good for you anyway." Those kinds of inconsistencies are not a foundation for mutual trust and respect.

So don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking up from Facebook only in those instances when you, perhaps mistakenly, think its time to intervene and redirect your child’s behavior, without knowledge of the context, the arc of play, that led up to that moment. Don’t be surprised if your child is trying to get your attention in that moment because things have reached a head and you missed that leap into the sandbox. And don’t be surprised if your child comes to see your interaction with her in play as chiefly your annoyance at being distracted from your true focus of interest: “mommy only looks at me when I do something wrong.”

And so now you’ve done it: you are present; your child is deeply engaged in self-determined play; over an hour your child has moved from climbing to digging to fighting over a spot on the slide, but the phone is still there and it beckons. It is the moment to take that leap, to break the instantaneous reward mechanism of something that probably doesn’t mean that much in the larger scheme of things, and turn your phone into a tool. Take video, extensive video, take pictures when you see something subtle that impresses you or gives you a deeper sense of appreciation for your child’s ability. Try to capture the full arc of play, look for where it starts and where it ends and try to capture it all. Long videos, hands-aching-from-holding-up-your-phone long.

These moments of epiphanic discovery of your child that you will feel will increase in relative frequency the more you quietly observe, and the more you are aware of what is taking place in your child’s growing knowledge of herself. If your child is engaged in deep play, she will neither notice nor object to your filming. If you are not saying “look over here honey,” “show me what your doing” “smile so I can share it with nana,” and are instead beaming when you see something amazing, getting closer when the play becomes more risky, following your child at a distance as she moves through her play space or simply filming from a distance, you will find that your child is more or less unaware of your filming, and perhaps she is feeling a sense of pride that what she is doing merits such respectful and rapt attention, that that magical hunk of rare earth metals in your hand is about you and her.

Once you have managed to get here: being an engaged presence, actively observing and making extensive video and photographic records, then the next step is easy. This step turns the record of your own observation, which you made as an extension of your desire to understand, to enjoy and to really discover your child, into a practice that creates meaning for your child and reconfigures her understanding of the role and use of technology in her life. The next step is to show these videos to your child.

The best approach (something that I have learned from the practices of Anji Play) is showing these videos to your child the same day that they were taken, when it is fresh in her mind and she is still processing those specific experiences and memories. If you can, use the technology at your disposal, iPhone to Apple TV, computer to HDMI, to broadcast these videos on your TV. Allow the replay of your child’s experience to occupy the space that is most associated with content that is valued by your family (TV shows, movies, etc.), a fixture that usually occupies a central location in your home.

Choose a video that depicts deep engagement or problem solving or conflict, and see what response it elicits. In our experience, beginning when our daughter was one, these videos, taken only a few hours earlier, got her talking and pointing. She used her limited language to describe and relive what she was seeing. She was aware—a pretty sophisticated logical inference to my mind — that the video was taken with the phone. “Daddy’s phone!” she cried with delight while pointing to my iPhone and then back at the screen. She would predict what was going to happen next in the video. “Tree” she might saw before the video moved to a big tree in the foreground. She could watch the same five minute video a number of times without losing interest, and I noticed that she would repeat the play that she had just seen depicted in the video at home with more focus, more thought and increased complexity. As our daughter grows older, I see deep metacognition in these moments of reflection. At two and a half, she describes what she was thinking in the video. “I want water in the sand.” “Bouncy plane flies.” She is reconsidering what she has done, what she has learned and experienced and why she did it that way or at all. It also works with videos of other children playing. If you want to see a child get actively engaged in video commentary, show her a video of another child engaged in exciting, risky, self-determined play.

So the final and profound conclusion that I draw from this experience of post-play reflection is that the phone, technology and the screen need not be passive media for the delivery of stimuli and pre-conceived, highly designed experiences. In our home, the phone is now an object that supports the creation of meaning for our daughter from her lived experiences; it respects and values what she is doing in the physical and emotional world; it is a tool that we, her parents, use to support and discover her; it is an object that is an extension of our love and presence.

I designed a video camera for our daughter with one simple function: press the big button on the handle and the camera begins recording; the flat screen turns on and it displays whatever is in front of the lens. Press the same button again and the screen goes blank; the video is recorded. I want our daughter to feel control over technology, to use technology to actively create meaning from her experience and to support her understanding of herself and the world.

The screen in our house is the focus of our collective appreciation of her playful brilliance. And when we are sitting at a dinner with a group of adults, when the conversation begins to bore her and she gets ready to make her presence vocally known, there is no twinge of guilt that stops us from loading a few videos on to our iPad, videos of her recent negotiation of the stairs in our apartment, or that moment when an older boy in Riverside park grabbed her bucket and pushed her out of the way. There is nothing like thinking deeply about who we are and what our experiences and decisions mean to us to make standing up in a chair and dumping a glass of pasta-filled water on our laps seem less urgent. Self-knowledge can come from wet pants or it can come from an iPad screen.

Note 1: I am sharing my experience and my view of the role of technology in the lives of young families not to pass judgement. I can only speak for myself and I would never expect any parent to change what is right for them and for their families. I do hope more people will give this approach a try and share your experience.

Note 2: I use my smartphone to obsessively check social media, monitor my emails and satisfy a need for the warming glow of faux connectedness (although I do try to keep my use to a bare, bare minimum around our daugther). This article is not meant to be a call to absolutism or tech austerity. Instead, my hope is that it serves as an invitation to reconsider how technology may be a part of your relationship with your child. People everywhere use smartphones all the time. It would be impossible to shield any child from this universal element in their environment. But it is possible to change the nature of their relationship to it.

Note 3: Once you begin to step back, observe and record, you will find that you have captured so many “cute” moments in your child’s life that your friends quickly get tired of seeing them. But these same friends will be hard-pressed to deny the essential beauty of a truly joyful and confident child.

Note 4: The more you engage in this practice, the more you will come to see how incredibly relaxing and satisfying it is. It’s actually quite freeing to step back and watch and let go of the need to say or do anything to elicit specific outcomes, and you will be immensely satisfied at seeing what your child can do. You will also become more sensitive and responsive to your child's thinking and communication in non-play settings.

Note 5: I have started using a small handheld camera because my videos frequently extend for 30 minutes or more. There is a limit to how much even the smartest smart phone can hold.

Note 6: Anyone who knows us will tell you that our daughter still gets to watch few episodes of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Classic Sesame Street every now and then. TV isn't evil, it's just not a solution.

To learn more about the source of the specific practices described in the above article, please read this.

CEO, Anji Education, Inc. and Chair, True Play Foundation. East Bay California based educator, author, translator and interpreter of Chinese, and dad.