The Problem with Parenting Studies

Toddler on cell phoneWhen I was little, my mother would often let me watch TV for a short time while she did the laundry, cleaned the house, or cooked a meal. 

Although it might not have fallen under the heading of educational or enriching, watching TV was certainly entertaining and it allowed my mother the time to accomplish some necessary chores without me or my two brothers killing or maiming each other, annoying the dog, or destroying the house.

In spite of the time I spent in front of the TV, I managed to grow up normally, speak the English language quite proficiently, and get a job as a writer.  So when I had children, I saw no problem with using the same tactics with my kids. But by the time I became a mother, parental “experts” were suddenly spouting research that said too many parents were using television as an “electronic babysitter.” While it was convenient for the parents, they noted, it wasn’t necessarily in the best interest of the kids.

Back when I was a kid, there were no studies deploring the “questionable” parenting tactics of mothers (and to a lesser extent, fathers) who found a variety of uneducational ways to occupy their kids for short periods of time so they could get things done.  But today, it seems, no parenting decision is safe from the watchful eye of the parent police.  And now, a recent study by (which, by the way, is a money saving website, not a parenting authority) concludes disapprovingly that many of us are using tablets and smart phones to keep our kids entertained and occupied.

1330898_31647729Personally, my babysitter of choice was candy.  When my kids were little and I needed to keep them busy, occasionally I would ply them with candy. I remember several department store outings when I desperately needed to try on new bras to accommodate my ever changing post-pregnancy figure, and the only way I could keep my 3 and 5 year olds from turning the lingerie department into a bra and panty tsunami was to sit them on the dressing room floor with a bag of gummy worms and jelly beans.  Believe me, they also had books, toys, and bra hangers to play with, but there’s nothing like a good chewy gummy worm to buy you some time to get done what you need to. Did this make me a bad parent?  I don’t think so. Did it make me a desperate parent?  Possibly. But now at 16 and 18, neither of my kids seems scarred physically or emotionally from that experience.  Additionally, I got the undergarment support I needed, I didn’t lose my mind in the process, and no one had to call in FEMA to clean up what could have been a scene of mass destruction in the lingerie department.

It concerns me that the parenting elite find it necessary to continue to dredge up this topic. I like to think I’m doing the best I can with my kids, but since I wasn’t required to take a course or pass a test to become a parent, I’ve had to do what feels right, and yes, often times I feel very insecure about that.  When the so-called experts raise a red flag on every decision we make, especially the benign ones, it doesn’t empower us to be better parents. It makes us second guess every choice we make and wonder if we are doing irreparable damage to our children for letting them watch a silly video instead of learning a third language, for eating an Oreo instead of an organic apple, or for staying inside on a beautiful day.    If the people conducting these studies are themselves parents, they must know that we are all going on instinct – and maybe a little bit of Dr. Oz – out of love for our family and sometimes in the interest of self-preservation and the need for new bras.

When it comes to “babysitting,” I don’t know a single parent out there without childcare help who hasn’t used TV, videos, cell phone games, candy, or other distractions to keep their young children occupied for a short period of time so they could accomplish some mundane but critical task.  We can’t be 100% attentive to our kids all the time or nothing would get done.  And if we were 100% attentive to our kids, we would, in all likelihood, screw them up far more than if we let them entertain themselves with some parentally approved electronics on occasion.  The truth, as any parent will tell you, is that little kids have the attention span of a flea. While it would be nice to think you could get the job done with books and toys, any distraction, “educational” or otherwise, lasts just a few minutes, and then you have to move on to the next thing. Sometimes it’s productive. Sometimes it’s not.  But show me a parent who hasn’t let their kid do something they swore they would never let their kid do in order to have a minute to go pee alone, and I’ll show you a parent I know who has started drinking heavily by the time her kid was in pre-school.

There are certain parenting topics that continue to be raised again and again in the media. Electronic babysitting is the bad parent theme of the moment and I simply choose not to buy into it. In all fairness I have to admit, there are some hazards to letting your toddler play on your smart phone.  Recently, an Oregon dad gave his 14-month old daughter his cell phone to keep her busy, and somehow she ended up buying a car on ebay for $225. Did this teach him that cell phones don’t make good babysitters?  Probably not.  Did it teach him that his toddler is a better negotiator than he is?  Absolutely.

Since there are no studies yet on the long-term effects of excessive tablet or smart phone use by toddlers, I think most of us will continue to do whatever works to help us safely navigate the tricky parenting waters. Still, if the dad with the new car decides he wants to learn how to entertain his daughter without relying on electronics, I’m sure there’s an app for that.

©2013, Beckerman. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Who Are These Children and Why are they Calling Me Mommy

18 responses to “The Problem with Parenting Studies

  1. Tracy,
    You rock. You seriously just ROCK.
    Who the devil are these self-imposed Parenting Police?
    If we didn’t use some babysitting device & spent every moment with our children – oh, baby, then we’d be Helicopter Parents.
    You Go, Girl.
    Emma Ann 🙂

  2. So right, you are so right! I try REALLY hard not to second guess every parenting decision I make and the addition of pompous experts makes the job harder.

  3. Maron-Anthony,Tracey

    You missed my favorite “win yourself 15 minutes of time” game. I call it “Hide and don’t seek” (“you are such a good hider. Go hide again). Although I first used it as an older sister, it became a useful tool when my daughter was 3.

  4. Megan

    I’m a mom of a toddler and I have turned on the TV so that I could get dinner started or even throw a load of wash in. I agree with what you stated in your post about navigating this crazy thing called parenthood; instructions weren’t given to you in the hospital. Navigate the best way you know how (and if you need help, ask for it, from other parents, whomever) and I believe the child will turn out just fine. We did, didn’t we?!?

    • Yes! My parents bottle-fed me, sat me in front of the TV, gave me snacks with preservatives, served us red meat 4 nights a week, and let me play with sharp objects. Somehow I managed to grow up with minimal issues. There is probably a middle ground between how we were raised and how we should raise our kids today, but I think that’s for each of us to figure out ourselves!!

  5. I’m right there with you! I have a doctorate in educational policy and development, and I unabashedly allow my son to watch television. There is simply no good evidence that the children of middle class parents will have any harmful effects whatsoever from a little TV. I love my time with the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and the Wonder Pets!

    • My son was a big Barney fan and he watched the Teletubbies. Maybe it wasn’t the most educational television., but it made him really happy. (Of course he’s horrified now when I tell him he loved those shows, but it’s my job as his mother to horrify him!).

  6. Insightful post and best for ur book.

  7. Loved this.
    Especially the toddler buying the car on ebay.

  8. Great job, Tracy. You said it so well. sd

  9. Tara

    I love this! I’m eight months pregnant with number three, so when my two-year-old naps you better believe I give the four-year-old the ipad so I can get some rest, too. I refuse to let myself feel guilty about it!

    • I used to drive my 1 and 3 year olds in the car going nowhere so I could get the two of them to take a nap at the same time. You can bet if we’d had Ipads back then, I definitely would have given it to the non-sleeping kid to get a nap for myself!