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Are You Putting Your Life With Your Kids on Hold?

Cell Phones are convenient, especially for working parents. But some experts worry that children are being shortchanged in the quality-time department.

November 20, 2000|NICOLE GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It rings. You answer.

That pretty much sums up the impulse control of a lot of cell phone users. The truth is, the cell phone rules in this sprawling city. But when parents consistently give in to the compulsion to interrupt any conversation or activity to take a cell phone call, their kids suffer, say some experts.

Children of working parents are used to daily separations from their mothers and fathers, but with the advent of cell phones, some must contend with the peculiar reality of parents who are physically present, but emotionally elsewhere, on an all-important call.

"What concerns me is that parents aren't paying attention to their children," said Jane Rosenberg, director of Pacific Oaks Children's School in Pasadena. "I've seen parents come to school absorbed in conversations on the cell phone instead of watching their children play or interact." Once, when she worked at another school, she said, a father arrived to pick up his toddler, who had been at school all day and "really wanted to be with his dad." The father "kept talking on the cell phone and saying, 'Wait a minute, son. I'm on a business call.' The message we're giving children is that the cell phone is more important than they are."

One obvious advantage to carrying a cell phone is that parents can be available to bosses or colleagues without having to be in an office. "At first I was dead against cell phones," said Tim Craig, a Van Nuys child development specialist. "But over time I've seen more and more dads bringing their kids to school because they can just check in with their offices with a few calls."

But the convenience comes with a price. "I'm a working single parent, and I use the cell phone a lot," said Robin Carfo, deputy executive director of the Beverly Hills Playhouse and mother of 13-year-old Georgia. Her boss bought her the cell phone, so when it rings, she feels compelled to answer it. "I know sometimes Georgia just wants to kill me, especially if I take a call when we're doing something together." But Carfo also thinks the cell phone helps their relationship because her daughter, too, can reach her any time.

In a real emergency, such as an injury or illness, what parent wouldn't want a cell? But real emergencies are rare. More commonly, people use cell phones to handle urgent work problems.

"The idea of what an emergency is, particularly a work emergency, keeps expanding," said Nancy Gel, a Van Nuys nursery school teacher. Work calls now intrude upon family moments at any time, day or night. The result is that some kids are getting less of their parents than before. And kids know it.

"I think cell phones are annoying," said 7-year-old Paige Roth of San Juan Capistrano. One recent evening, while the family attended a school harvest festival, her father slipped out to make a business call. While he was gone, Paige and her younger sister, dressed in matching Western gear, won the prize for best costumes and got their picture taken with great fanfare. "My dad was outside. He didn't even know we won," said Paige.

Her father, Dan Roth, an e-commerce executive, said he felt bad about that.

"I'd come there right from work, at the end of a long, stressful week. A colleague called with a major concern, and no one wanted to wait until Monday to resolve it. But I felt very disappointed that work had gotten in the way of something that was so neat for my kids."

Even seemingly mundane parent-child interactions are subject to disruption. "Everyday moments like riding in the car together are critical for a child's development," said Claire Lerner, a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group devoted to promoting healthy development in the early years of childhood. "But they become lost everyday moments when you're diverted, focused on a cell phone call. . . . Children are incredibly sensitive. They know when you're not there. I really discourage parents from getting on the phone while in the car with their kids. You have to think, what does this feel like to my child?"

For many families, weekends used to be family time. No more. "We were at a fair at Cloverfield Park in Santa Monica one weekend, and it seemed like every other person was pushing a stroller and talking on a cell phone," said Mary Knobler, a Cheviot Hills mother of two. "I see the same thing at every park, farmers' market and museum we go to."

Mandy Olson, a North Hollywood mother of six, tossed her cell phone after deciding it fragmented her life. "It rang like crazy," she said. And despite its convenience, she finally realized that "when you're there [with your kids], you need to really be there."

Getting rid of the cell phone altogether is one solution, blocking the impulse to take calls during designated family time is another. Showing the same courtesy to your children as you would to adults by excusing yourself if you are going to take a call is yet another.

"If you're having an intimate moment with your child, don't break it to take a call," said Craig, the Van Nuys child development specialist. "Otherwise, your child will start breaking them with you."

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