Conversation Interruptus

by Lois Rubin Gross

I know that you’re used to me filling this space with book recommendations and words of wisdom about using the library. This sort of falls into the second category, but it goes beyond that, as well. Most libraries have signs posted in them that ask you to turn off your phones when you are visiting. For me, the most amusing visual is a person talking on the phone standing no-cell-phones right under one of those signs. The reason you are asked to turn off your phones is that phone conversations tend to be loud and disturbing to other patrons. However, in the Children’s Department, there are more reasons for turning off your phones.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to refer to all adults who accompany children to the library as “caregivers.” They may be parents, they may be grandparents, or they may be nannies. They are the adult connected to the child, so I am NOT saying that every nanny is abusing her/his phone privileges. I know some wonderful nannies who I would be delighted to come take care of me. Some nannies put up with so much abuse from their young charges that I give the nanny stickers for being good.

Let’s talk about the reason you bring a young child to the library. You may be coming to be part of a story time or another program. This is an excellent way to acquaint young children with books, stories and also to socialize them to participating in a group. With very young children, some story time “games” involve holding the child on your lap, bouncing them, or moving their hands and feet for them. When you are part of a story time group, we expect you as the caregiver to be learning to share stories and games with your child, just as the child learns new ideas and concepts. We hope that you will replicate these techniques at home by reciting the rhymes with your child, singing songs that you may have learned, or talking about the stories that were presented. This reinforces the child’s learning.

Therefore, if you as caregiver, are sitting on the outside of the circle texting or reading e-mails on your Shopping woman textinghandheld device, you are defeating the purpose of story time, in addition to being incredibly rude to the person who is presenting the program. Please, for a minute, put yourself in the performer’s place (a librarian or library assistant at the front of the room is, without a doubt, a performer as well as an instructor). How would you feel if half the people in the room were totally inattentive to your hard work?

The other day I was involved in a group where a performer was telling a story to a group of children. Two caregivers had their texting devices out and were completely oblivious to the performance that was going on. The point of family programs is so that parents who normally can’t be involved in their child’s activities because they are at work can see how their child grows and develops. You aren’t just your child’s chauffeur to these activities; you are their sounding board. You should be asking, on the way, home, “Did you enjoy the program? What was your favorite part? Can you repeat the rhyme the story teller taught you?” All of these activities shows your child you care about what they think and learn, and also reinforces their learning.

Another thing that we see frequently in the library is “parallel play.” This is a term that is usually applied to two year olds, children who are too young to interact with each other, so they play alongside each other. However, thanks to cell phones, we see this more and more with caregivers. A caregiver will be sitting at a table while a (very young) child sits next to them staring at a picture book. The caregiver is texting while the child stares at pictures that are part of a story that he or she is not able to read yet. What a lost opportunity to teach a child what a real visit to a library is all about: reading, discussing books, doing the voices of the characters in the book, making your child laugh at the humor in a book. All of this is lost if you are distracted by the phone.

Sometimes caregivers carry their problems like black clouds with them into the library. The other day, a young child was having a fairly energetic tantrum because she was not able to check out the book she wanted. Really, she wanted her caregiver’s attention. Her caregiver was attached to the phone and having an animated (unfortunately loud) conversation with someone. I felt for both of these people. The caregiver clearly was not having a good day, and we’ve all been there, but the child really wanted her attention and the only way she knew to get it was to act out. No matter how I looked at that situation, it was a lose/lose and the cell phone was one more barrier to a caregiver and child communicating.

I recently saw an advertisement for a potty with a tablet attached to it so a child can play with the tablet while he/she is using the potty. Not only does that seem somewhat unsanitary (you’d better wipe that tablet down a lot!) but it is distracting the child from the mission at hand, i.e., learning to use the potty.

Call me old-fashioned – I’m sure you already are – but to me, a phone is a device that is used to make a call or, I suppose, a text, and then should be put out of sight while we as human beings connect physically with other human beings. If those other human being happen to be the small children that we are connected to by biology or employment, something good is going to happen because we will teach or talk or sing or smile with that child. If we are so busy on the phone that the child does nothing but stare through the plastic cover of their stroller, or stare aimlessly at the pages of a book he/she can’t read, we have lost special and developmentally important interaction with the child we profess to love.

Lois Rubin Gross has an MS in Library Sciences from Drexel University. She is currently Senior Children’s Librarian at the Hoboken (NJ) Public Library. She has also worked as a librarian for children with special needs. She is a book reviewer for Children’s Literature and a blogger for After Fifty Living and Wise Women Now. Join her Facebook book community Lois Storylady.

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