Editor's Blog

Mobile phones, Community Support and our Children

I am abroad right now and one of the delights of being at leisure is sitting at pavements cafes (it’s sunny pretty well all the time here) and people-watching. If I didn’t know it before, I am now absolutely convinced that being on holiday with small children is problematic:– the mother and father need a break, but for the child, it’s business as usual - playing, exploring, learning through experimentation what’s safe and not safe, what’s socially acceptable and what’s not…… Nothing really changes for the child except that there are potentially exciting new opportunities for her primitive brain to express itself in exploration. Two incidents struck me recently.

Incident 1 – a mother is at the café where I am ensconced. She has her two sons with her, one aged around 6, the other perhaps 12. She is looking at her mobile phone for the entire time the family is eating. The boys create no trouble at all. The elder stares out to sea. The younger, rather heart-breakingly, rests his head on his arms on the table, looking at his mother, apparently resigned to being ignored.

Incident 2 – a middle-aged lady approaches the café pushing a buggy containing a very fractious two year old who is fighting to get out. The grandma (I think she is the grandmother) sits down at a table, takes the child from the buggy, still struggling and screaming, and systematically starts to calm her. She holds her close (producing an oxytocin rush in the child), talks to her (I can’t understand what she’s saying, but she speaks in short sentences, just a few words at a time), offers her a toy and a drink – and orders herself a coffee. The coffee arrives; the child is still on edge, but she’s becoming calmer and the grandmother continues to hold her on her lap and play with her for a few more minutes. The child becomes interested in spooning her grandmother’s coffee from the cup into the saucer. At this point, the waitress passes the table, laughs, and rushes into the café to get a fresh coffee for the customer! A terrific example of community support!

There’s something to be taken from the sum of these incidents about the pressures of modern parenting. I am currently working on a drop-in session about ‘one year olds’. The session will be partly an invitation to share the pleasures and trials of parenting very young children, and partly an opportunity to share with parents recent insights from neuroscience and developmental psychology. Of course, the research is quite good at telling us what is happening and why (why infants cry; don’t sleep; suffer separation anxiety; have tantrums; behave appallingly….) but less good at telling us how to manage what’s happening.

John Bowly said, ‘If society values its children, it must cherish their parents’. It has been suggested that isolation for a mum or dad is more harmful than smoking. The mother in the first incident I have described struck me as depressed and lonely, perhaps seeking human contact through her phone. I find myself worrying about the closure of Children’s Centres and libraries – places where parents can socialise with other parents; where they can relieve the pressures of parenting 24/7 – a situation that anthropologists tell us is not species-specific behaviour. Human beings have always operated a system of allo-parenting where mothers and fathers shared the responsibility and care of small children with relatives or other members of their immediate group. I believe that more, not fewer, opportunities for parents to ‘share parenting’, even if that means simply coming together for coffee and a chat at a local library, are needed. I loved the example of community support in the incident with the grandmother, and am haunted by that little boy’s look of longing for recognition from his mother whose own needs were apparently not being met.



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