Sunday, September 4, 2011

"If You Need Mommy, Leave a Voicemail"

I witnessed another instance of questionable parenting today. Fortunately, this latest scene is less distinctly shocking to me than yesterday’s example of parental instruction in amorality, but it almost makes up for that by involving not an independent-minded teenager, but a very small child, who is so much more prone to minute influences.

I was out for a bike ride in the late afternoon when I stopped to sit a while in a small suburban park that was familiar to me from my adolescence. Since the last time I saw the place, years ago, there have been various additions and modifications to the playground equipment. Being an overcast day with the first stirrings of autumn wind in the air, and the last weekend before the start of school, the park was not very active. Still, when I arrived, there was a father pushing his two daughters on a tire swing, whose delighted shrieks and laughter could be hear far across the park. Thus, the scene that got my dander up was at least preceded by the image of an involved parent having fun with his children. That is a lovely sight to see, and I’m frankly not sure how common it is.

After they all tired of the activity and moved on, I took up another perch, closer to that same swing. The playground was empty for a moment, but then another child ran alone towards the slides and monkey bars, with her mother trailing behind her. The child played on her own, her mother seated at a picnic table nearby. At first blush, that seems like a common enough scene, and it didn’t instantly lose that appearance when I noticed that the mother was speaking on a cell phone as she sat there. But the sense that the mother was fulfilling her obligation to the child by simply watching over her evaporated as the girl went on playing and the woman went on talking.

I can’t rightly expect every parent to run and climb with their children in the absence of playmates, but I do expect a certain degree of personal attention. I expect the parent to demonstrate the belief that their child’s safety and enjoyment is at least as important as the nearest adult conversation. This particular parent gave the clear impression that so long as the child did not bash her head on a piece of playground equipment, her experience was inconsequential.

The child ran about a hundred yards away from her mother towards a rocking horse on springs, and the mother stayed put, barely keeping an eye on her. Being about three years old, she didn’t quite know how to mount or operate the thing, so she clung to it for a few moments and then gave up on it. Afterwards, she moved towards the tire swing, climbed underneath it and began to lift herself into the seat. Magnanimously, the child’s mother stood up from her seat and started going towards the swing, but one hand kept her phone firmly pressed against her face. I watched keenly, disbelieving, as the mother began pushing her child on the swing with her free hand, while she continued to have what sounded like a rather banal conversation with the person on the other end of the phone. It was in observing this that I moved from being delicately annoyed to genuinely pissed off.

That few minutes, to me, was a perfect representation of the consequences of an information technology-obsessed culture. The influences of Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, and the omnipresence of cellular telephones have the potential to lead us into a worldview whereby constant communication is more important than direct interaction or quality of relationships. I am constantly reminded of this social situation, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen its influence on a parent’s interaction with their child.

I have no doubt that that mother felt that she was doing everything she needed to do in order to provide her daughter with a pleasant afternoon out. She probably took her home later thinking that the girl had gotten to play outside, had had exercise, had remained safe, and that all her needs had been attended to. I’m sure it never crossed her mind that one of the things the little girl needs at such an age is her mother. By talking to someone else who was not even present in the park that day for the entire time that her daughter was at play, the woman was at best only half-present to her child. The way we behave in the simplest of circumstances can be a clear reflection of our broader priorities, and this woman’s lack of personal attention on the playground could very well reflect a failure to properly value her parental roles of guiding, educating, and interacting with her child. Fundamentally ignoring your child because you’d rather shoot the breeze with a friend than use both hands to push a swing belies the earnestness of one’s parenting.

But again, I’m sure the woman does not believe for a moment that she was ignoring her daughter. I’m sure that some of those who read this will not believe it for a moment, either. But it is my firm conviction that a failure to see that indicates a very modern, very skewed perception of human relationships. There seem to be a lot of people out on the streets who never put down their phones. They seem to be of the opinion that constant but light and fleeing contact is sufficient to identify something as a friendship, as caring, parenting, or love. But real, honest-to-God personal relationships requires much more than that. At a minimum, they require attention, which is something that can never be offered when one is forever reaching out but never really touching anyone.

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