Five Important Reasons to Pay Attention

  by Andrew Wolgemuth

There are lots of things out there to distract us, and phones currently occupy the top spot on the list. They seem to possess a dark magnetism. We’ve noted before that “being present is more than simply being there,” and — as the story at the center of that piece illustrates — our phones are often the culprit.

An article I recently read in The Atlantic makes this point as well: “More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents.” The piece highlights five reasons you and I as dads ought to resist the screens in our pockets.

1 – Because “Continuous partial attention” is no way to live life.

In order for things to be truly and fully enjoyed, they must have our full attention. To really appreciate a book, it needs to be front and center literally and metaphorically. To really relish the final seconds of a close game, sidebar conversations need to stop. To really see the sunset, we need an unobstructed view.

To really hear our children, enjoy our children, see our children, celebrate the growth of our children, encourage our children through challenges, effectively teach our children, etc. the “continuous partial attention” (a phrase coined over 20 years ago by technology expert Linda Stone) that our phones encourage and that we too often fall into isn’t going to cut it.

2 – Because “Child development is relational.”

We’ve talked about the importance of teaching our children how to learn the back and forth of conversation, and we undercut our own lessons if we allow screens to interrupt that rhythm. The effects go beyond just conversational skills, as psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek notes: “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cell phones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens.”

This is because “child development is relational” and problems arise “when the emotionally resonant adult–child cueing system so essential to early learning is interrupted—by a text, for example, or a quick check-in on Instagram.”

3 – Because it’s not safe for our kids.

There are also physical implications when we’re distracted by our phones. The Atlantic piece quotes an economist:

…tracked a rise in children’s injuries as smartphones became prevalent….These findings attracted a decent bit of media attention to the physical dangers posed by distracted parenting.”

I know I’ve been looking at my phone when something preventable happened to the kids in my purview.

4 – Because it makes us irritable.

This certainly hits home too: “Distracted adults grow irritable when their phone use is interrupted; they not only miss emotional cues but actually misread them.”

5 – Because occasional inattention and deliberate separations are different than chronic distraction.

“Occasional parental inattention is not catastrophic (and may even build resilience), but chronic distraction is another story…” That is:

Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email.

Ouch. That’s not a message I want to communicate.

A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Perhaps these observations are familiar or you’re already convinced of the importance of unplugged time away from devices, but they make a point that bears repeating: our kids need and deserve our full attention. Don’t let the screens – and distracted parenting – win.


Good activities with our kids help keep everyone’s attention; here are a few we suggest.

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Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash