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If news headlines have made you feel like a bad parent, you aren’t alone

March 21, 2014

You are a bad parent.

If you’ve read news headlines, watched morning television, or seen blogs or online news lately, that’s the message you’ve heard. These headlines are referencing new research from the journal Pediatrics that discusses parents’ use of smartphones at mealtimes with their children.

Here are some examples of the recent news coverage:

Parents on Smartphones Ignore Their Kids, Study Finds

Parents absorbed in smartphones scold kids more harshly in study

Study: smartphones are making us bad parents

Don’t text while parenting; it will make you cranky

But, please, please let me tell you, it’s not true. You aren’t a bad parent, and if you’re buying into the shame that these headlines are hanging around your neck, don’t. While the sensationalism certainly gets a lot of attention, they are sending you the wrong message.

It’s them, not you

Before you bury your head in embarrassment at the failures of your parenting, here are a couple of things you should know.

First, this is a preliminary study that anonymously observed 55 sets of caregivers and children within a fast-food restaurant setting. Based on their observations, researchers concluded that many caregivers’ attention was focused on their smartphone instead of the children. When children tried to get the adult’s attention, adults tended to appear frustrated.

When medical professionals set out to make recommendations, much, much more than anonymous observations about a tiny group of people is required. This study doesn’t have the capacity to support the sensational conclusions that the headlines suggest.

Furthermore, I believe that the study was flawed from the beginning: what does 10 minutes in a fast-food restaurant tell you about the whole of parenting? Not a lot. Who is to say that these are even the children’s parents? And isn’t it possible that I could be a wonderful parent who is deeply engaged with my children throughout the day, and when we sit down at McDonald’s (which rarely happens), that might be the 10 minutes of time to myself that I need? Perhaps moms who’ve been home all day caring for kids and meeting their needs are taking a few minutes to regroup while the kids are otherwise engaged.

Assuming that this time spent in a fast-food establishment is representative of parenting as a whole is simply wrong. Shaming parents when you haven’t done the kind of research necessary to support those conclusions is wrong.

Parents are consumed with guilt; it’s not helping

I believe that this kind of public communication from the medical community does much more harm than it does good. Parents already feel like they have an impossible task, and most of us are really trying to do the very best we can. Do we need someone knocking us down when we’re barely standing as it is?

And these shame tactics could explain why some parents view the medical community with such distrust and disdain. This type of public discourse leads people to believe that their doctors are looking down their noses at the rest of the world, and they couldn’t possibly understand the real-life struggles we face.

If parents are filled with guilt and think that their doctors will just add to their feelings of unworthiness, will parents be honest with their healthcare providers and trust them with what’s really happening in their lives? Will they care what advice doctors give if they don’t think their doctor understands their struggles in parenting?

While I believe that some of these public communications can cause harm, it isn’t representative of my real-life experience, and I hope that’s true for other parents. My pediatrician is kind and caring, sensitive to the real-life struggles that I face as a mom, and he has never made me feel embarrassed about my imperfections as a parent. He is truly a support and a resource and a friend.

I hope that other parents can look past the judgment they might feel in the public arena and seek the one-on-one relationship with their doctor that can be incredibly beneficial for their children and themselves. And, I hope that medical professionals will learn to communicate publicly in a way that is helpful for parents instead of harmful.