Cell Phones and Story Times

Cynthia Compton -- March 2nd, 2020

We do a lot of preschool events in our store. There’s a themed story time each and every weekday morning with activities, several Saturday events per month, and usually a few offsite events for local MOPS groups and preschools. All in all, we sing “Open, Shut them, Open, Shut them” more than the average bear, and if you wake me up in the middle of the night, I’m just as likely to launch into “Itsy Bitsy Spider” as to stumble out of bed to let a dog outside. So I feel pretty confident in my ability to keep the attention of a group of two, three, and four-year-olds, and savvy enough to know when a case of the wiggles has taken over the group, and it’s time to wrap things up or break out some music and dance.

Or at least I once felt that confident. With each passing season, our very crowded events are more and more divided between kids with age- appropriate attention spans (meaning that if a fire engine with full siren goes by or the powdered sugar donut holes are not covered, then all bets are off) and adults who are actively engaged with their personal devices. When adults audibly chat during stories, it’s easy to stop for a minute, look in their direction to see if they have something that needs to be heard by the group, and wait for them to finish. Usually, they just don’t realize that their conversation has gotten too loud to read over – and they drop back to whispers or take a break until the end of the book. I understand. Raising preschoolers can be a lonely business. Some days, the only adult conversations you have as a stay-at-home mom or dad are with the barista at the drive-through and the clerk at the grocery store, and one of the best things we can offer at story times is a community space for parents. So yes, it is very tempting to chat, and I don’t wish to diminish this need at all. But something else is happening, and it’s not about mutual support, it’s about screens.

Last week, I looked up from our book on Thursday to see the entire row of parents looking at their phones. Not just looking, but texting. One mom took a quick picture of her son chanting along with the story and then went back to her messages, or Instagram, or whatever she was busily tapping out with her thumbs. Two other parents didn’t notice that their kids were engaged in the ever-popular “she’s touching me!” battle, and one little guy tipped over completely on the rug when his seatmate decided to scoot sideways for a better view — at which point both parents looked up and blamed the other child for the fracas. All was quickly sorted out, but it was one of those moments that crystallized for me the ubiquitous nature of devices in our lives. Smart phones are literally molded into the hands of consumers, of parents, our heads are permanently tilted down, and screens are part of each and every event and transaction.

It was timely, then, that School Library Journal posted an article about parents’ cell phone use and story time, just this week: https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=Parents-Glued-to-Their-Devices-During-Storytime-How-To-Encourage-Active-Participation-in-Library-Programs. I read with interest about how children’s librarians face many of the same story time scenarios, and are trying different approaches to encouraging adults to be more fully engaged in preschool programs with their kids. While I don’t believe that I’m owed a certain level of attention from adults (I am, after all, clearly hosting programs in my store to encourage purchases, and each customer is earned with every single transaction), I worry that seemingly disengaged parents lead to disengaged kids — and I need to stay the most interesting destination on the block to stay in business. I am actively growing my next group of customers every day, and every circle time is recruitment for future middle grade and young adult avid readers.

So I shared the article on our store’s social media, expecting a round of endorsements for parent participation, and a chorus of “likes” for our events. Perhaps, I thought, this would be a way to gently remind parents to tune back in for a few minutes during our programming, and we could just all do things a little differently. Given that the article was written by librarians, there seemed enough distance that I wasn’t calling anyone out, just noting a concern by colleagues in the field of children’s literacy.

Well, I was half right. There was a chorus of likes, and expected clucking about distracted parents, and some comments from others who are annoyed by cell phone use at scout meetings and the like. But then some customers talked back, and they were adamant in their stance that any parent’s cell phone use was no one’s business, and may in fact be the best thing they could be doing right then. In one comment, a parent stated: “I think it’s none of my business what any other parent is doing and I assume that, like me, he/she is doing their best. Maybe they’re getting something done, maybe this is their only break and that break with their phone is making them a better parent overall, maybe nothing. None of my business.”

Another chimed in to agree: “We’re expected to be “on” and keep our kids engaged during their waking hours. You really don’t know what another parent is going through and I’d encourage people to think twice before passing judgment.”

This comment followed from yet another customer: “While I agree that parents should not be glued to their phone 24/7, and often use it to “zone out” when they should be tuned in, I think it also needs to be said that sometimes the expectations and judgements on parents are too unrealistic nowadays. Some parents might legitimately be checking things off a work To-Do list and they brought their child to storytime so they could be engaged in something educational while they got a few things done. Also, just because workers didn’t witness a conversation about ‘I’m here if you need me’ doesn’t mean that connection hasn’t been established between parent and child.

OK, message heard. There seems to be a generational difference in how moms (in this case it is all mom comments — we didn’t get any Dad responses yet) view cell phone use while at events with their kids. And obviously, this group that I am concerned about is already in the “involved” category of preschool parents, given that they have made the effort to bring their children to a bookstore event on a weekday morning, so we’re not talking about neglect here. I still believe that the experience is better for the child AND the parent if it is enjoyed together, and that so many conversations could happen throughout the day if the parent could also remember the story and talk about it — and that the message of how important books and stories are to our lives begins by paying attention to them. Children watch everything their parents do, and from the way a child turns the pages of a book to the way they throw a ball, I can show you how their grown-ups do those things, too. We model our adult priorities in a million small ways, and childhood is composed of a million small moments.

But these are children who will grow up to work from screens, too, and who may balance busy lives without the constraints of an office or a time clock. So perhaps they will know that they can check off a to-do list on their phones on a Thursday while taking the two-year-old to story time. Please, please, let that story time be in a real bookstore or library, and let that book have paper pages. And let everyone look up, now and then, and just listen.

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the mom of 4 kids, a rescuer of English Bulldogs, and the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana. The 2600 sq. ft. childrens store was founded in 2003, and hosts daily story times and events, birthday parties, book clubs and a large summer reading program. She just completed her term on the board of the American Specialty Toy Retailers Assn, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and her store was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013.

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