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YO MAMA: Toddler vs. Cellphone

Image Credit: PEXELS/David Selbert

My one-year-old son had just found my cell phone in the bathroom drawer where I’d hidden it from him earlier. I was about ready to flush the stupid thing down the toilet. Or just let him have it. But that wasn’t in our parenting rule book.

My husband and I agreed early on to strictly follow the Canadian Pediatric Society’s recommendation not to allow our son to have any screen time before age two.

It was easy to avoid giving him a tablet to play with or plunking him in down front of the television — we were too greedy for his attention to do that. But shielding him from our own cell phone use proved surprisingly difficult.

At home with him during my maternity leave, I quickly realized just how much I depend on my phone for connection and information throughout the day: checking in with friends, messaging the hubby to pick up more coffee/ laundry detergent/ ice cream, researching baby food recipes, and so on.

In the days before he could crawl, twist and grab, I could send texts or look things up on my phone behind his back (I know that sounds awful but it WAS to look up fun activities to do together that didn’t involve yet another round of peekaboo). That all changed the moment he transformed from spaced-out, immobile infant to cleverer-than-heck toddler.

Once he became more coordinated, curious and alert, things became tricky. Not only was he more aware of his surroundings but he was also more interested in mimicking the adults around him.

When I brushed my hair, he tugged at my pant leg and reached up for the brush. If I mixed something in a bowl, he’d grab the spoon. If I picked up that moving-picture-flashing-lights-bring-bring thing, yep, he wanted that too.

Pretty quickly, he learned to perk up at the sound of a phone call or incoming text message. If he noticed a cell phone left out on a table, he would attempt to swipe it with the finesse of a veteran pickpocket.

I suspect that because he couldn’t have it, the device acquired a certain sheen of forbidden temptation.

That obsession resulted in some testy exchanges. If I even used my phone for a 30-second Google search like “when can baby eat kiwi fruit?” he transformed into a tiny, possessed demon whose sole purpose was to make the device his plaything.

He shrieked and strained for the screen. He squirmed and wriggled like a big, slippery salmon in my arms. If he did manage to get his little hands on a cell phone, he would sit down with it and start swiping.

It was crazy to see that just from watching us, he knew exactly what to do with it. Transfixed by the bright lights and images on the screen, he looked like a vapid penny-slot gambler. It broke my heart.

My husband and I launched Operation Cell Phone Secrecy. We began texting under tables, inside of purses and behind books.

Sometimes when my husband was with our son, I would slip into the bathroom to secretly check my texts and email. I felt like a high school student sneaking onto my phone when the teacher wasn’t looking. Honestly, it was kind of sad and embarrassing.

And then one day I realized that I wasn’t sneaking onto my phone as much. I would arrange playdates and check email in the morning before my son woke up and then forget about my phone for hours at a time until he went down for his nap.

I worried less about Googling what foods he should be eating and went with my gut. I pulled out some old cookbooks and let the kid look at the pictures. We went outside and made up games to play.

I didn’t miss my phone, but I did take less pictures. A Polaroid camera fixed that. After my brief stint as a rebellious teenage-texter, I was apparently kicking it old school. Ah well, at least my mom jeans are still cool (I think?).

Kids have a way of mirroring our reflections back to us, and I did not like what I saw when my son was swiping away at my cell phone, his face blank and his beautiful blue eyes swimming with the refracted glow of the screen.

I realized that parenting wasn’t just about restricting his access to certain things, it was also — more importantly — about modelling good behaviour. It was about self-discipline and plenty of self-reflection.

We really do learn as much from our kids as they learn from us.

— Charlotte Helston gave birth to her first child, a rambunctious little boy, in the spring of 2021. Yo Mama is her weekly reflection on the wild, exhilarating, beautiful, messy, awe-inspiring journey of parenthood.


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