Is Your Smartphone Making You a Dumb Parent?

I love people watching—especially families with little kids. They make for some good illustrations, laughs, and all in all, help you feel like you’re actually not doing too badly at this parenting gig.

Today, I’m writing from Panera Bread. I opened the restaurant at 6:30 and have watched quite a few families come and go all morning.

Here are two observations I made that sum up my time here. The first was a family of four: mom, dad, and what appeared to be a 5-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl.

The family came in for breakfast. Mom sat down with the two kids while dad ordered and brought the food back to the booth. Nothing out of the ordinary. Mom had a phone and both kids each had their own iPads. I don’t think any of the three looked up once while waiting for dad to come back. While they ate, Mom looked up from her phone twice, maybe three times, the entire meal. The kids were engrossed in their iPads the entire time. Dad had no device, but hardly said a word.

After about 10 minutes, they began their comical parade out the door. Dad snuck out the side door while mom left out the front door, never looking up from her phone. The 8-year-old daughter followed her mom, no joke, literally bouncing off chairs like a live pinball, head buried in the iPad, never looking up or stopping to put the chairs back in place. The 5-year-old son drew the most attention taking up the rear, doing all he could to hold his iPad in one hand and a cup in the other, as patrons smiled at him, moving out of his wobbly way.

The other observation was a family of six: mom, dad, and four daughters who appeared to be 7, 5, and a set of twins somewhere around 30 months. This family wasn’t overly loud, but with a few screams, wasn’t near as quiet as the first family. The parents worked much harder at making sure the kids weren’t getting out of line and that all were fed, including themselves. The 5- and 7-year-old were laughing, running around the table, and entertaining the twins.

After about 25 minutes, I watched mom round up the twins, dad dump the trays, grab the hands of the older daughters, and out the door they all went—together. I didn’t see one device in anybody’s possession the entire time.

These observations reminded me of a study published last week by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the first of its kind, revealing how devices affect caregiver–child interactions.

In the study, 40 of the 55 caregivers observed at a fast food restaurant used devices during a family meal. Researchers found that the “dominant theme to mobile device use and caregiver-child interaction was the degree of absorption” the caregivers exhibited in their smartphone. The researchers defined absorption as “the extent to which primary engagement was with the device, rather than the child.”[i]

One of the important findings is how our absorption in our devices affects how we engage with and manage our child’s behavior. In the study, highly absorbed caregivers often responded harshly to misbehavior.

Technology is not the issue. Parenting is the issue.

This is exactly what I mean when I say we live in a culture bent on feeling better rather than loving better: Parents, absorbed in smartphones, feeling better in the tranquility of a mind-numbing device, rather than taking responsibility for teaching their kids to relate in public settings.

I know the pull. I’m a parent—of a boy who’s not afraid to scream. Especially in public. But even that’s no excuse for allowing him to calm himself down or stay entertained in public by staring into a device.

I want him to become a man who will one day talk to his family at the dinner table. Engage others in public. And walk out the door with his family in hand, not wobbling around somewhere behind them, lost in a device.

And for that to happen, I must model it.

Here’s the reality: our kids imitate our behavior—everywhere we go.

Ask yourself:

Have you ever responded harshly to somebody who interrupted you while you were absorbed in your smartphone session?

Have you ever been so absorbed in a smartphone session you didn’t hear or even realize your child was trying to get your attention—pulling on your pant leg saying ‘Mama’ or ‘Daddy?’

Let’s not allow our smartphones to make us dumb parents.

There’s no question technology is changing how we relate—but make no mistake—as parents, the responsibility for our kids’ emotional, relational, and spiritual well-being is influenced more by our parenting, than by technology.

How are you doing with yours?


Joshua Straub, Ph.D. is the President and Co-Founder of the Connextion Group, a company designed to build relational connections between generations. As an advocate for parenting in the 21st century, his passion is raising the next generation to love and relate well. Josh speaks and writes on the two key ingredients necessary for building healthy families: intentional parenting and a loving marriage. He is the coauthor of God Attachment and The Quick Reference Guide to Counseling Teenagers. Josh wakes up each day striving to love others better, starting with his wife Christi and their son, Landon. You can follow him on Twitter @joshuastraub or Facebook.

[i] Radesky, J.S., Kistin, C.J., Zuckerman, B., Nitzberg, K., Gross, J., Kaplan-Sanoff, M., Augustyn, M., & Silverstein, M. (2014, April). Patterns of mobile device use by caregivers and children during meals in fast food restaurants. Pediatrics 133(4). Retrieved from: