Smartphones and parenting


Editor’s note: This week, May 1-7, is Screen-Free Week — an annual observance founded by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Plan to unplug from digital entertainment this week and instead connect with your family. Need more inspiration? This post was originally published by Attachment Parenting International in 2015, and it is as thought-provoking today as ever:

Instinct tells you it’s been too long. She’s been too quiet. It has only been a few minutes since you held her. Probably all is well, but you can never be sure without checking.

And, even if all is fine, you long to lift her, hold her, gaze at her. You wonder why you didn’t carry her everywhere today as you often do, wearing her and, instead, have put her down across the room. As you look toward her, just out of sight, you consider loading the dishwasher. You walk toward the sink, but mid-stride, that first instinct wins out. You tell yourself it will be just for a minute and then you’ll get back to work. Just a quick check in.

You always have an ear listening in her direction as she often calls for you first.  But this time, you are the one to seek out, lift and hold the rectangular little body of…your smartphone.

Could it be that our smartphones are hijacking our inborn biological systems, the bonding instincts that are activated when we become parents? Are we actually driven by borrowed biological systems to hold these devices, carry them, interact with them and be concerned about “feeding” — aka, charging — them in ways that go beyond our tendencies with other tools?

While pregnant with our first child at age 18, I worried that one day I might forget the new baby in the grocery store. I knew I would love our baby, but what if I became distracted for just long enough to get in the car and drive away? Once our son arrived, I was thrilled to discover that not only was it impossible to forget him, but that it was challenging to leave him home with his dad because he was perpetually on my mind and I felt empty without him in my arms or at least nearby. When I went back to college, I studied maternal attachment in an attempt to grasp the science behind the apparent magic of maternal attachment. I was awed to learn from the research of Klaus and Kennell that mothers of newborns have instinctive ways of touching, holding and gazing at their babies in their first moments. How much, I wondered, did instinct support our roles as mothers and fathers?

kim allsupNow, 45 years later, I am an elementary school teacher. I started to think about a potential link between smartphone addiction and parental attachment systems just after I taught my students about the cuckoo bird. My students had looked curious when I told them how the cuckoo lays her egg in the nests of other birds that, unwittingly, raise the nestling as their own. They grimaced as I spoke about the interloper pushing the natural offspring out of the nest and how the baby cuckoos behave in ways that trigger an instinct to care and feed from their new mother.

I wondered, could our smartphones be like baby cuckoo birds that activate the magical bonding system I experienced as a young mother? Teenagers today certainly appear to be as attached to their smartphones as I was bonded with my baby back in the era when all phones were attached to a wall and did not offer Facebook, Twitter, a camera and a flashlight. Is addiction to our smartphones and their ability to connect to social media rooted in a deeper place than a fondness for cute cat videos?

In the case of the birds that unwittingly become foster parents, the calls and the gaping mouth of the chick automatically trigger the feeding instinct. Similarly, are there features of the smartphone that automatically turn on our biologically based attachment behaviors?

I can hear readers saying, “Hold on there. One baby bird looks similar to other baby birds, but my smartphone looks nothing like my baby!” This is true enough. It seems far more believable that pets, especially dogs, with their expressive faces, hijack our attachment systems. In fact, research highlighted in this April 2015 New York Times article suggests that that our dogs routinely utilize our parental attachment mechanisms, that gazing into the eyes of our own dogs and our own babies both cause a surge of oxytocin.

This bonding hormone that is released in some animals and in people in a variety of pleasant social interactions, oxytocin is especially strong in women during and after childbirth and during breastfeeding, and high levels of oxytocin are found in both mothers and fathers of babies. We are all likely to experience a surge in this hormone that reduces stress hormones when we get and receive hugs. Now scientists are discovering that contact with others through social media or a phone call from a loved one also causes the release of oxytocin.

So, while a smartphone does not look like a baby, it is — like a baby — associated with a frequent surge of this hormone that brings relaxation, reduces fear and promotes bonding. A second similarity between the smartphone and a baby is that they are carried continually or, when not carried, kept in continual awareness. We also maintain an awareness of the need to feed babies and to charge cell phones.

Finally, the classic pose of the phone cradled between the palms of two hands is very similar to the “encompassing palm contact on the trunk” along with “intense eye-to-eye contact” observed by researchers Klaus and Kennell when studying mothers’ first contact with their babies. It is not that the baby looks like a smartphone, but that our inner experience of ongoing awareness along with bursts of the bonding hormone during connection is similar whether we carry and connect with a baby or a socially connected smartphone.

Do you experience your smartphone as a cuckoo in your nest?  Please share your thoughts about the possibility that your smartphone could tap into your instinctive attachment systems.

6 games to instill mindfulness and gratitude in our children (and ourselves)

kite-1666816_1280Since I became a mom 10 years ago, I have been committed to helping my daughter see the good in things as a first reflex.

My own upbringing did not allow for this way of being in the world and, instead, instilled the typical apprehension and worry that seems to be passed down to children in Western societies.

That is not how I want my child to move through life. so I’ve made it a priority to ensure that my daughter’s natural inclination toward happiness be nurtured and even protected when necessary.

Feeling gratitude magnifies what is good, beneficial, and enjoyable.

So together we practice noticing good things — things to be glad about — with games we play:

1) “Best of the Day” Game

At bedtime, while she’s all tucked in, we go through our ritual of closing the day behind us. I ask her to tell me what the best thing of that day was. She thinks a moment, then reveals what she enjoyed most. It can be “big” and significant or one of the more sublime, little moments that came along like a sweet little bird to sing into her awareness.

At times, in reply to my question about the best part of her day, she will burst out with, “Everything!” I tell her that is sort of cheating — that I want to know what was particularly great, big or small, among all the “everything” that she experienced.

My thinking is that, by pulling out and naming particularly wonderful moments or events, she will refine her appreciation of things as they happen. But some evenings she insists that everything really was good.

By nature, we are wired to notice negative things as a throwback to primitive survival mechanisms. My daughter who reports having had a smoothly happy time teaches me that it is possible to have an unruffled experience of general good feeling during a day. Who am I to argue with that?

I make it a practice to not ask her “why” she is happy. Do we need a reason to feel good? Do we really want the set point to be below contentment only to rise if something comes along to break the sad spell?

2) “Favorite Things” Game

We have variations of our “Best Thing of the Day” game that we pull out to make productive use of otherwise empty times. When she’s bored, or we happen to be sitting together somewhere, like a bus station or in line at the bank, one of us will remember that we can play the “Favorite Things” game. We take turns doing a lightening round list of things we are grateful for.

Sometimes we just do the obvious things: blue sky, mangoes, our best friends, our kitty, that the chickens laid eggs today, that the fruit is getting riper, ice cream, birthday is coming up, and so on. But the real fun is when we go for the less obvious things. That gives the game the potential to go on and on:

I am glad I got a window seat on the bus.

I am grateful for that beautiful arrangement of silk flowers over there.

I am grateful there’s a good light above us so we can see each other.

I am grateful that I had exact change for buying peanuts.

I am grateful that toddler did not fall down.

I am grateful that my keys were exactly where they were supposed to be. 

I am glad that I easily found matching socks today.

The variations to this game are endless.

3) “Who Are you Grateful For?” Game

We can do, “Who are you grateful for?”:

The men who collect the trash every week.

The friendly cashier at the store

The people fixing the road

People who pick the vegetables we eat

People who sort the mail

That of course makes us see and appreciate the many people whose labor makes our lives easier.

4) “That’s a Relief” Game

We can do, “That’s a relief”:

I’m relieved that you caught the glass when it slipped off the table.

I’m relieved that you woke up anyway when the alarm did not go off.

I’m relieved that the lights came back after the storm.

I’m relieved we found your shoe when we were almost going to be late.

With this game, the general feeling that it’s a friendly world settles on us.

5 & 6) Other Variations of This Game

Here are some other versions of this game to help you come up with your own:

  • Being grateful for the one who invented…electricity, cheesecake, water heaters, Toyotas that never die, steel wool pads for burned stuff on the pan, washing machines…
  • What (or who) has helped you recently that you want to give thanks for? DIY videos on YouTube, my teacher, our neighbor, the man who gave us directions, the guy who fixed the tire, a person I did not know who lent me a hand.

The Result

How do you feel now that you have come along with us in this practice?

Doing these games builds intimacy between us as we toss the gratitude ball back and forth. The subtle magic of the practice never fails to boosts the mood and, most importantly, sets us up to notice and find joy in the simple things of life. What could be more essential to a successful life than that?

My Gift to You

Now it is my turn to give my thanks to you for allowing me to share my ideas with you. I’d love to give you one of my stories to share with your children: Mommy’s Story Box is a bedtime story with a gratitude thread woven into it.

I wish you the wisdom and grace to take in all the beauty your parenting journey brings.

Parental presence: A compromised human right

free images com - Sona PsotovaA little more than half of all babies in the United States — 53% — are born into families that income-qualify for WIC, a federal supplemental nutrition program that serves low-income pregnant, postpartum and breastfeeding women and their children from birth to age 5 in the United States.

Think about that for a second: Half of all U.S. babies are born into low-income families, the population segment least likely to be able to take parental leave of any type — paid or unpaid — after the birth of a baby.

We like to think that the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) covers all families so that even if a couple does not get paid maternity and paternity leave, they can at least take off some time from work without losing their jobs. This isn’t remotely true.

Unless you work for an employer with more than 50 employees within 75 miles of the company, you are not even guaranteed leave under FMLA after the birth of your baby — even unpaid. (There are some state laws that do guarantee maternity and paternity leave, usually unpaid, for companies with fewer employees, but there is nothing consistent from state to state.)  That means that millions of moms, if they are not employed by large companies, risk losing their jobs if they stay home for the medically recommended 6 to 8 weeks following childbirth.

I’ve known moms who’ve been forced by their circumstances to go back to work at 1 week postpartum, or even sooner.

This is a tragedy of human rights in itself, but what does this do to the mother-baby bond?

Bonding time with a newborn in the early months isn’t just a “nice thing” to have or for a mom to get to do if she’s privileged enough. That mother-baby bond — whether secure, shaky or absent — has a significant impact on the trajectory of that child’s life…not only through childhood and in school, but who that child will grow up to be, what socioeconomic status he or she will have, and how he or she will be as a parent, employee and fellow member of society. Just think of what the future may hold for any of those 53% of U.S. babies born to mothers who are not even guaranteed time off from their jobs for even a week after childbirth — let alone the minimally acceptable 6 weeks that is still woefully short of what research shows to be the key bonding time during the newborn months.

Privilege shouldn’t have anything to do with parental leave — paid or unpaid. Because presence, or lack thereof, can have such great influence on the future of each baby born, parental leave is a human right that should be granted to every mother and father, and parental presence is a human right for every newborn baby.

So first the United States needs to work on guaranteeing that all parents have access to at least parental leave after the birth of a baby. But a very close second is to ensure that all parental leave is paid.

Right now, only 12% of U.S. workers in the private sector have access to paid family leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This means that for the millions of moms whose jobs are protected under FMLA, they still likely cannot take off work for the 6 weeks to 3 months allowed because they cannot afford to do so. Their parental leave is not unprotected as is the case with many low-income parents whose jobs aren’t even covered by the FMLA, but it is still under-protected in that they cannot enjoy their full rights and their bonds with their infants may still suffer.

apm logoOur goal at Attachment Parenting International (API) is to keep the discussion on parental leave moving forward, while supporting mothers and fathers no matter whether they have access to paid or unpaid parental leave or even no leave. We were able to generate great momentum during our Attachment Parenting Month in October 2015 with activities centered on the theme of “Parental Presence: Birthing Families, Strengthening Societies.”

Leave-Presence cover - smallIn the latest issue of The Attached Family, we provide a recap of these AP Month editorial pieces as well as a few new articles, with features on:

We hope that this issue of The Attached Family will inspire you to find ways to balance your child’s attachment needs with your family’s financial needs, as well as to join in the national and international discussion on parental leave as a human right to be guaranteed to all families — no matter their employer size or personal financial resources.

donate buttonHelp API continue being able to offer The Attached Family free of charge as an online magazine to families around the world. API is a nonprofit organization and depends on your tax-deductible donations. Even $5 goes a long ways!


*Top photo source:ňa Psotová

Parental presence isn’t a privilege — it’s a necessity

APM 2015 logoOn occasion, we see a post circulating the Web about the cash-value of stay-at-home parents if they were paid the going rate for their hours “on the clock” and for the multiple, often-simultaneous roles they play, from “facilities manager” and “counselor” to “janitor” and “teacher.” According to one such post at, the average stay-at-home parent is worth an annual salary of nearly $113,000.

These types of analyses are meant to raise awareness of all that stay-at-home parents do, but they can also undermine the value of parental presence by underlining the fact that being at home doesn’t pay — well, not in terms of a paycheck.

But what and other articles completely miss out on when bringing to light the worth of parental presence is that a parent’s choice to balance working outside the home with prioritizing the child’s attachment needs — which very much includes presence — is not so much a choice in lifestyle as it is critical to a child’s healthy development.

The parents who choose creative — sometimes career-sacrificing — options to be able to stay at home longer with their baby, or children, are not making that choice lightly. They know and understand their child’s needs, the consequences of their choices and the alternatives, in every sense.

Whether working outside the home or not, these parents understand that a parent’s presence is not a privilege for that child — it’s a necessity.

Attachment is that important.

Parents who make the choice to stay at home with their baby longer — choosing not to work, flex time, part-time, from a home office, working opposite shifts of their partner, bringing their baby to work with them, changing jobs or even careers, and so many other possibilities — need support.

They need encouragement to continue with their personal goals of providing parental presence. They need validation of how hard their choices were and of the challenges they’ve encountered because of it — perhaps financially, but likely more socially as it can be difficult to find others who can relate. They need people who’ve been there, done that — and came out the other side for the better.

Parents who are striving to balance financial/career needs with their child’s attachment needs — you are who this year’s Attachment Parenting Month celebrates as we observe the theme: “Parental Presence: Birthing Families, Strengthening Society.”

And we thank all of the partners and sponsors who — with Attachment Parenting Internationalare working every day to support parents who put their child’s attachment needs, their need for parental presence, as priority: