Dad Reflects: The Importance of Reading and Playing With Your Kids
I realize I run the very serious risk of sounding like an old fogey by saying this, but I think we’re having a smartphone epidemic. Thankfully, based on a lot of recent conversations and articles, I think the vast majority of parents out there are beginning to have a love/hate relationship with their phones. But I still think this needs to be said many times, by many people, until the tide really begins to turn - smartphones are overwhelmingly not good for kids, and we need to put them away when our kids are around.
I’d like to begin by pointing out that I can definitely do better. I don’t own a phone - a sneaky, foolproof way to build up 100% immunity to screen-staring in public - but I do own an iPad I use while at home. I’d love to say that every single time my kids walk into the room I instantly throw it over my shoulder and look them in the eyes, but I don’t. But I wholeheartedly believe that I really should. Every single time. And I will constantly remind myself to do better. If my kids ask me to read something to them or play a game - the answer is YES.
I like to compare smartphones with the history of the cigarette industry. It really isn’t that far of a stretch. We all know that staring at our little screens and flipping through social media is very addictive, just like smoking cigarettes. It can be an uncontrollable impulse to reach into your pocket and browse the web for absolutely nothing during the day - or to pick your phone up off your nightstand the second you wake up. And unfortunately it’s even easier for kids to become addicted. The ability to focus on anything else at all can become a very real issue for kids - as both parents and teachers alike can attest to.
Our relationship with cigarettes had an interesting historical progression too. In the beginning there was absolutely no stigma attached at all. Smoking was cool and safe, and it was everywhere. Then it was proven to have very serious health consequences - user beware. It’s a bad decision, but it’s your bad decision to make. Generally there’s no need to tell somebody else what to do with their lives if they’re only harming themselves. And then we finally came around to the idea that second-hand smoke had very real consequences for other people too. Pretty much everybody agrees now that it is not cool to smoke in a restaurant or around children at all.
Society hasn’t exactly reached that stage with smartphones yet. As a whole we can still be a little defensive about our electronic babysitters. But I think it’s coming. I think it’s inevitable. Because we generally tend to try to protect our children. Kids were the final straw with cigarettes, after all. I believe there’s a very real chance that it will one day be common knowledge that we shouldn’t give kids smartphones, and that we shouldn’t even use them in front of children either. At the very least, I believe we’re due for a very big public shift in social norms regarding phone use.
Studies are already proving that too much screen-time in children is leading to decreased cognitive function. And you know that glazed-over look we all get when we’re looking down at our phones? Other studies prove that children (particularly babies) feel distress when they see their mothers with those dull, emotionless expressions. The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of face-to-face communication, and recommends completely avoiding screen-time for toddlers. And if you’re going to have screen time, do it together - a concept I wholeheartedly agree with as a fan of movies and games. And that’s just what science has proven - without mentioning at all the very obvious ramifications smartphones are having on the social skills of people of all ages.
But having said all of that, I don’t think screens shrinking our brains is our biggest concern. I think it’s actually the time that we lose that may be the most important drawback of all. Even if science somehow definitively proves that screen time actually makes us measurably dumber, even more important than that is what we could have been doing with our time instead. There’s nothing more important than the time we spend with our family, after all.
The two pillars of Dad Suggests are reading with your kids and playing board games with your kids - two fun activities with incredibly powerful academic and social benefits. For example, when you read to your kids their synapses are firing all over the place. They’re learning new things and making new connections. They’re building their vocabulary and their phonological awareness. Quite simply, they will be on the fast track to academic success in a way nothing else can provide.
But, even more important than that, they’re sharing those magical moments with their parents. They’re sitting in your lap and curling up with you, and they’re watching your face as you read the words. They’re looking at the artwork and using their imaginations. They’re experiencing the thrill or the humor or the sadness of the story with another human being, and they’re connecting.
And the benefits of playing board games with your kids are just as numerous. As far as academics go you have logic, strategy, problem-solving, focus, creativity and more. Check out our article on the benefits of chess for kids just to get a taste. Socially you have important skills like sharing, taking turns, cooperating, and demonstrating good sportsmanship. And, of course, simply spending time together and bonding with the family is a never-ending reward in and of itself.
Because reading books and playing board games both provide such an incredibly wide range of benefits, I love sharing them with our kids, and I get a lot of joy out of recommending them to other families. But if we want our kids to engage in these activities, we have to be very effective role models and be very deliberate in introducing them to the family. Read aloud every single night. Institute a family game night. It doesn’t matter how old the kids are. These are both things we can do until the day our kids leave for college.
Speaking of role models, I personally have fond memories of my dad sitting in his comfortable chair reading a book pretty much every single day. He was a reading role model and that made a difference in my life. But that also wasn’t completely out of the norm at that time. It’s more of an uphill battle these days, because staring at your phone in public has been normalized and even glamorized. After all, it’s basically what kids see people doing everywhere they go. But good role models have the very real power to convince kids that a phone is not a central part of their life. Through our actions and decisions we mold their priorities over time.
Like I said before, I can absolutely do better. But, simply because I am aware of that fact, it becomes a lot easier to throw the iPad over my shoulder when the kids walk into the room. It becomes easier to just save it for when they’re asleep. It becomes easier for me to say to myself, “I have a weird sensation to check to see if anything has changed on the internet in the last minute, but I think I’ll survive.” Nobody is perfect, but we can all be more deliberate. Then we can grab a good picture book or a board game and go play with the family.
Do you read with your kids or play board games together? Please let us know the benefits your kids and your family have experienced in the comments!