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Quick Fix?

Before You Hand Your Tantruming Toddler a Smartphone, Read This.

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Modern-day parents will recognize this scene: errands, cranky toddler, long line at the grocery store. At the register, the threenager melts down. To avoid a scene, the parent hands over their iPhone. It buys a few minutes of quiet while she loads groceries into the car without further drama.

Parents are also familiar with the scene that follows: once the child is buckled, the parent reaches to extricate the iPhone. Cue: grenade, tornado, volcano. The drive home is miserable as the short-term fix only delayed a now screen-stimulated tantrum.

I have totally been there, and boy, I empathize. In my own parenting past, tantrums subsided when I handed over my iPhone in line at the airport, at a restaurant or stuck in traffic. At first, it really was a magic bullet. Screens "do" initially distract kids from their tantrums. But when it is time to take back your iPhone, you likely do not hear this: "Here, dear Mother, is your iPhone. Thank you so much for providing me with that little hiatus." Ha.

There are two key points to consider here. First, most parents "know" that handing over a screen delays the inevitable, but in the frustration of the moment, it feels like the only (or quickest) option. A second (and more important) concern is this: In the long-term, what are parents teaching young children about how to handle their big feelings? After a few more device-placated tantrums, what is the 3-year-old learning to expect?

Screentime is not only here to stay, but is worthy of close examination, especially when it comes to parenting.

For context, a few statistics may help in understanding the current state of affairs when it comes to technology. Kids spend more time with electronic media than any other activity in their lives, except for sleeping. The first onset of screen use used to be 4 years old; now it is 4 months old. The average age an American child gets a smartphone is 10.3 years. Common Sense Media reports that kids are spending upwards of NINE hours per day on screen-based media (outside of school time).

We know that children will live in a screen-saturated future. And while there are many amazing things about technology, we must consider some bottom-line premises:

Parents are children's first teachers. One of our most important jobs as parents is to teach kids how to behave in the world. We do this verbally (Say, Please; Take off your shoes; Don't hit your brother), but more often we communicate our values and expectations through our actions. The old adage, "monkey see, monkey do" is apt: our children watch us to learn what to do. They are also quick to call us out if our own behaviors clash with our dictums. Kids hate hypocrisy.

Our kids learn from us how to handle big feelings, which is an important part of child development. If frustration sends our tempers soaring and voices rising, kids learn to cope with anger by yelling. If sadness shuts us down and silences us, kids handle grief by turning inward. If our solution to hurt feelings is to eat a pint of ice cream, our kids will soothe their feelings with food. And if our toddlers see that emotions so huge they explode means time on Daddy's iPhone, they learn that the way to manage these big feelings is by burying their face in a screen.

Adults are guilty of using screens as a balm, too, no question. But as parents, our job is to teach our kids how to express and work through these big feelings in ways that equip them with lifelong coping skills. There is an appeal to an immediate quick-fix to get through the line at the store, but it is a slippery slope: When we opt to give our kids devices mid-tantrum, we create an expectation that "tantrums = screentime." Long-term, is this the solution we want our kids to choose? Or do we want them to learn to talk things out, look for a supportive adult, write, draw or dance their feelings? As a former middle school teacher, I know this gets much harder later. Setting the expectation in early childhood that screentime is not a tool for processing big feelings and meeting emotional needs will reap benefits later when your middle-schooler gets phubbed by her friends or experiences FOMO on Instagram.

The good news is— and research shows— that adults matter when it comes to setting limits on screentime. No question: it is much harder to say no to the phone, kneel in the crowded restaurant and look your screaming toddler in the eye to say, "I see you are upset. When you calm down, I am here to help," and then ride it out with them until they are ready.

When it comes to screentime, kids will not change unless adults do. The skills that matter to your child's future success are not found in building a huge Instagram following, hitting the highest score in Fortnite or watching Ryan unbox the latest toy. What matters is how children process hurt feelings with friends, solve work conflicts with colleagues and communicate values clearly to those around them.

It is worth the tantrum.

Emily Cherkin is a parent, teacher and owner of The Screentime Consultant, LLC.

We asked our readers:

"How do you manage technology for your kids at home?"


Amanda V:
Right now, we are not consistent and need to be. Pretty much, we try to limit it to a privilege, but we aren't always consistent. When there is something worth grounding for, though, electronics are the first to go!

Emily G:
Our kids are generally only allowed to play for a set time period which we control in their settings. Also, they have to do educational apps and books before they can play games.

Melodi J:
We encourage and foster social behavior in our kids in the face to face way. Their developing brains need this. That being said, we like to bear witness to these elements in movie form the most and as a reward. Our kids don't own electronics and their iPads for school are for homework, with the occasional allowance for educational or artistic-based games. Our oldest are 11, and so far, all of our kids understand and accept that this is because we believe it best for our lives and theirs. The only perceived failure could be the movie marathon— like when we are sick, or mama needs a day for some sanity or to get some work done. Which, like all things, is forgivable.

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