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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

August 23, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Judging a mom on her phone? She’s probably judging herself

(Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons license)

(Flickr photo by Ed Yourdon, Creative Commons license)

I was drowning in my Facebook news feed last week when I saw a link that made me stop.

It was one of those viral parenting articles on The Huffington Post, topped by a photo of a woman checking her phone at a park. Its headline: “Dear Mom on the iPhone: You’re doing fine.

I clicked and braced myself. Someone was going to write the blockbuster post shaming parents who look at their phones while with their children and this — with its obviously tongue-in-cheek headline — was it.

But it wasn’t.

“While parenting might be our most important and rewarding job, it’s not the only one,” author Jennifer Hicks wrote.

For all anyone knows, she continued, the mom at the park checking her phone has done nothing but watch and play with her kids all the rest of the day.

“Do what needs to be done … which sometimes includes taking a little time for yourself.

“Sincerely,” she signed the post, “This Mom with an iPhone who isn’t judging you for yours.”

I was stunned, confused and relieved? No, not relieved. Not yet. The reason probably is obvious.

When I check my phone while watching my son at the park, I’m convinced I’m being judged.

And I’m convinced I deserve it.

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 9.35.31 AM

I’ll be at Magnuson Park or Ravenna or Green Lake on one of these gorgeous sunny days, and my 2-year-old will find something to play with on his own for a minute.

I don’t need to check my phone, I remind myself. But maybe so-and-so got back to me on whatever it was, and won’t that be interesting, and I’ll be so quick.

So I size up the scene. If other parents are swiping screens, I breathe easier. It’s no big deal! If not, a nasty countdown begins in my head.

Every second I’m on, another parent will wonder if I’m a terrible mom.

Two minutes later, my son is calling me. I put the phone away, telling myself it was OK to use it — maybe no one noticed! — but not really buying it.

“Moms who check their phones at the park,” I asked on Twitter and Facebook, “Do you ever feel as guilty as I do?”

“I’m doing it now! And heck no,” one mom tweeted back, attaching a picture of her son by a playground.

“Never feel guilty,” said another. “I get looks, though.”

Parks mean kids can learn to play independently, parents noted. Phones mean parents can take kids out of the house and still be connected to work.

You can go too far. Ignore your kid. Lose him. Fail to step in if he’s out of line.

Coddling your phone more than your kid is never great.

“I see the kids idly playing with the napkin, staring straight ahead, and I ache for them,” one woman wrote, of seeing children ignored at restaurants.

But keep an eye on your kid, and then an occasional smartphone swipe isn’t bad parenting, my friends agreed.

It’s just life.

“Constantly watching kids play is boring,” another mom wrote. “I need a fair amount of intellectual stimulation to not go bonkers.”

People are more likely to admit when they don’t judge than when they do, especially on public channels, so I suspect private feelings are more mixed than these reactions — or Hicks’ article — make it seem.

Four Ph.D. students with the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering are digging into that, circulating a parent questionnaire they’ll use to learn where we all come down on this thorny bit of tech etiquette (Are you a parent of little ones? Take the survey here. Note: Researchers are especially looking for more dads’ opinions).

And like most issues in tech etiquette, what makes it so thorny isn’t the tech so much as the social roles the tech disrupts.

“Mom” is by far the heaviest public identity I’ve put on, weighed down by so many expectations, assumptions and consequences that many of the judgments I’ve caught eyeing me from a corner are now lodged in my own head.

Parenting is so important that we have a hard time leaving each other to it. At school. At the store. Even at the park.

Does a stroller-side phone check show you a productive parent or a disastrously self-absorbed one?

For the sake of us parents, I hope you see a moment in our day — and that’s all.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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