The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 31, 2008


We’re a generation of electronic multi-taskers – but we’re still attentive parents

The stylishly dressed grandmother, sitting near me at the indoor pool that my kids and I occasionally visit, clearly thought she’d found a kindred spirit. For most of the morning she’d watched me splashing in the water with my six-year-old daughter, holding her as she attempted to float on her back and throwing pool toys for her to swim out and retrieve.

So it wasn’t surprising that the grandmother struck up a conversation after I got out of the water and left Holly playing in the shallow end with two other little girls. Though they didn’t know each other, the three children were having the kind of water fun that doesn’t require much in the way of introductions or shared history.

“Can you believe him?” the grandmother asked with a conspiratorial smile, tipping her head toward the man on the other side of the pool who sat back by the wall so as to be close to the outlet that his laptop was plugged into. “He’s been here for as long as we have, and I don’t think he’s looked at his child once that whole time. Doesn’t he realize that he’s missing out on all her fun? And that she’s not having as much fun because he’s not part of it? What can he be thinking?”

Oh, I could believe him, all right. Two days earlier, at this very same pool, I was he.

I understand what the grandmother was implying: that there’s something remiss with parents who bring their kids to a recreational activity and spend their time working on a laptop or making calls on their cell phone or rearranging their schedule on their electronic calendar. I sincerely admire her holistic attitude, which believes that parents need to immerse themselves in the activity at hand or there’s no real point in being there.

But I understand what he’s doing, too. Because I do it myself. The reason I’d brought my laptop to the pool and used that very same outlet and table earlier in the week was that I had a deadline to meet. When my daughter asked me to take her swimming that day, I started to say no, because I needed to get some work done. For the most part, I try to confine my work hours to her school day, but once in a while it doesn’t work out that way, and I need to finish an article or write up the transcript of an interview before the next school day begins.

But then I thought about how if she really wanted to swim, she could swim while I worked. It wouldn’t be as much fun for either of us as swimming together, but conversely, it would be better for both of us than staying home.

The fact is that electronic multi-tasking is part of what enables me to be a mostly stay-at-home mother, and my children understand that. Once in a while I have to spend another hour in my office after they get home from school, or sit in the car and return phone calls during a soccer game, but the alternative for me would be heading off to an office eight or nine hours a day. And until recently, that’s just what I did. When the opportunity arose for me to be self-employed and work from home, I made it clear to them that the drawback might be that sometimes I had to work when they wanted to play. But it was a worthwhile exchange, from their perspective.

So it’s only fair that I give the pool dad the benefit of the doubt, and imagine that he might be operating under the same compromise. The grandmother is right in that if he works on his computer during every visit to the pool, every trip to the playground, every soccer game, he’s missing out on an important part of parenting. I admit to being aghast at a Concord ballfield one afternoon when I saw a dad throwing pitches to his son and talking on his phone from the pitcher’s mound at the same time. That seemed not only inattentive but downright dangerous.

But we don’t know if that’s what the man at the pool does. Maybe he’s a stay-at-home dad who wants to finish the last chapter of his book and mail it off to his agent tomorrow so that he won’t have to miss a minute of next week’s school play or piano recital. On the other hand, maybe he’s just a guy who finds it really boring to play with his kids and would rather be checking his stocks than frolicking in the water.

We can’t tell by looking at him; nor should we try to. Parents multi-task more now than they once did – because we can. It might look bad at times, but it might just be efficient and reasonable. And it might in fact be a way of spending more time with our kids than a previous generation of professionals had the luxury of doing. ∆

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito