I-tunes, Internet, texting and television… increasingly, all in use simultaneously… is multitasking good for our children?
What happens when you add family dinners or homework to the mix? Is anything really getting done with quality? Is anything really getting done, period?
In today’s hypertasking society, should we be placing a greater emphasis on teaching our children how to successfully complete one task at a time?
The truth is, our human brains don’t actually multitask. We’re not wired that way. What we really do is toggle back and forth between multiple activities, while keeping track of where we are with each. We can do this more or less effectively, depending on the complexity and familiarity of the tasks involved.1
(Which is why walking and chewing gum at the same time is far less dangerous than driving a car while sending a text message from your cell phone.)
Multitasking is by definition inefficient. All that toggling back and forth is overhead. It slows you down. If you and your family are multitasking to “get more done in less time,” you’re not.
Another drawback to multitasking is the distraction of it all. Children who try to do homework while watching television, texting friends and surfing the Web may be storing the information they learn differently than those who are more focused. The impact? They are less able to recall out of context, synthesize or apply the information learned.2
Perhaps the biggest downside: Researchers and educators alike are worried that today’s children, by living their lives in bite-sized chunks, are losing the capability for detailed knowledge acquisition, in-depth analysis, or dealing with ambiguity.3 Where, then, are our future scientists, inventors and world leaders coming from?
As a parent, my list of concerns might be even longer.
I worry about how our children will succeed in the development of mature, long-term, can’t-toggle-over-when-the-conversation-gets-too-personal relationships when their average encounter takes place by text, with dialog like: “sup?” “not much. u?” How will they ever be able to sustain a marriage or raise a child?
I wonder how these children will fare, when they are required to complete a series of complex tasks in order to keep a job, manage a household or send an astronaut to Mars. Where are those future scientists, indeed?
I am afraid that our children, who seem to experience separation anxiety from their cell phones more than from their parents – who find television too boring to watch without at least one other electronic device in use simultaneously – are losing the ability to find joy in nature, satisfaction in a job well done and peace in moments of stillness. Will they even know what they are missing?
I know, I’m sounding a bit overwrought. Multitasking may not actually signal the end of civilization, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take action. Conscious parenting means teaching our children to make conscious choices. Multitasking may be helpful – or at least, not overtly harmful – in some situations. But let’s not allow this hypertasking trend to deprive us of the qualities that make us human.
My Top Five Conscious Parenting Tips for Multitasking Families
1. Prioritize Face-to-Face Communications Make it a habit in your family to look each other in the eye when conversing. If at all possible (probably not while driving), stop whatever you are doing and look directly at your child when you have something to say to them. Teach them to take both earphones out, mute the television, or turn away from the computer.
Start each day with a personal, face-to-face, “Good morning” for each member of the family. End the day with a similar “Good night.” When someone enters the room or leaves the house, stop whatever you are doing to greet them, or give them a hug “good-bye.”
2. Make Dinner Time All About Dinner Please, please, turn off the television and cell phones while having dinner. We are all massively over-scheduled, but with just a little effort, I know we can swing a couple sit-down, everyone-around-the-table family dinners each week. Teaching our children about mindful eating is a wonderful way to develop a presence practice in the midst of a chaotic world.
It might just improve your digestion, as well.
3. Optimize Learning During Homework Time Identify a specific time and location for homework. Turn off extraneous media. Your child might need the Internet for research, or they might insist that they concentrate better with some music playing… you be the judge. Chances are good that music, homework, television and texting friends are a distracting combination.
If sitting down to complete all their homework without interruption is too taxing, try doing one assignment at a time, with short breaks in between for a snack, a call to a friend or ten minutes of basketball in the driveway
4. Encourage the Development of In-Depth Thought Processes Practice having extended conversations with your children. Here is where just a little multitasking might work in your favor. Look for windows of opportunity – while driving to school or sports practices, on a long walk around the neighborhood, during the aforementioned family dinner – and get your kids talking.
Read books together. Nice, long books that take several nights to complete. Take turns reading out loud and discuss as you go. Why did that character do that? What do you think will happen next? How would you write it differently?
5. Teach Your Child to be Still Does your child experience something akin to panic, when faced with periods of inactivity? Can they be comfortably alone, still and silent… even for just a few minutes? If not, welcome to Generation M.4
Help your child (gradually) find the peace, healing, growth and power available to them in moments of stillness. They may not be ready for a sixty minute meditation session, but try leading them into moments of calm. Pause to turn your faces into the sun and just smile. Gaze at the stars on a clear night. Snuggle in front of the fireplace and stop talking for a bit.
The Secret Ingredient
Okay, here is my final tip: You need to lead the way. Take a few moments of quiet for yourself and think about the example you are setting for your family. Do you use your cell phone while driving? Return text messages during dinner? Work on your laptop while watching TV with your kids? Just stop.
Trust that all will get done as needed and remember that these moments with your children cannot be retrieved if you miss them. No phone call is worth that.
I wrote about mindful eating and using the preparation of a family meal as a way to ground yourself in the present in, “A Presence Practice for Multitasking Overachievers.”
For more tips on grounding yourself in the present moment, please see "Parenting Presence: How to Be There for Your Children", “Deepak Chopra and My Washing Machine”, or “Happiness Now!”
1 “Is Multitasking More Efficient? Shifting mental gears costs time, especially when shifting to less familiar tasks.” August 5, 2001. APA Online.
2 Rosen, Margery D. “The Perils of Multitasking: When kids are plugged in, how much sinks in?” February 28, 2007. Scholastic Parents.
3 Wallis, Claudia. “The Multitasking Generation”. March 19, 2006. Time in Partnership with CNN.
4 “Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds”. March 2005. The Kaiser Family Foundation.