Parental Presence in a Digital Age

Gloria De Gaetano

by Gloria DeGaetano
Founder, Parent Coaching Institute

[Adapted from Parenting Well in a Media Age: Keeping Our Kids Human]

The door to the apartment was left ajar, so Miriam peeked in. She knew she was expected, but after knocking several times, she wondered why no one answered. Miriam could see that the blinds were down, making the small room oddly dark for the middle of a rare Northwest sunny afternoon. She called out, "Cindy, Cindy, it's me." But no answer. As Miriam's eyes adjusted to the dim light, she could see Cindy staring at a large television. Cindy's two year-old daughter was enraptured by a cartoon blaring from another TV in the corner of the room. Cindy's son, ten months old, strapped into a car seat, watched a third small television. All three TVs were on different channels, yet all three people were enraptured by the same focus: a two-dimensional flat surface.

A public health nurse in one of my workshops shared this true story. At the time Cindy was a sixteen year-old single mother. Understanding the tragedy of this situation for both mother and babies, the workshop participants and I discussed the dire consequences of allowing screen machines to interfere with loving bonding experiences between parent and child.

This occurred 15 years ago. Since then, of course, times have changed dramatically to encase both parent and child in the peculiar world of mobile devices. Not exactly a world, yet a portal to many worlds of countless possibilities—worlds that continually tempt us away from the world of the here and now, the world of the living, so to speak. Yet, if we succumb too often and too unconsciously, we risk the danger of re-making ourselves into absent parents by default. Here, but not really. If parents are unapproachable, will children grow to seek validation from their machines, cementing an emotional bond with Siri and foregoing the messier relationships with parents altogether? As Dr. Melissa Arca, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communication and Media put it on her blog: "All the connectedness in the world, doesn't mean much to me if I'm disconnected to the ones I love."

The startling ease by which screen machines keep children quiet, yet distant, may mean parents today have to be more intentional than ever to provide a loving presence to children that children can feel because the competition for our affection is so keen. If babies at nine months are introduced to TV (the average age in the US for beginning TV exposure) and if toddlers are using I-Pads as toys for more than a few minutes daily, then parents may have to prepare for 16 more years of hassles trying to get them to become "unglued." Early exposure means that children will develop an emotional bond that will be very difficult to break. You can count on it.

Young mammals are programmed to attach to what is most present and available in their lives. John Bowlby, British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, in his classic studies found that baby monkeys, for instance, actually form emotional bonds to objects. Infant monkeys who were given a "substitute mother" in the form of a cloth monkey clung to it and tried to receive nurturance from it. Separated from their real mothers, they actively "attached" to the only "mother" they knew, even if an inanimate object.1 We think of babies holding tight to teddy bears or blankies when their parents are out or when they are alone hearing fighting from the other room. I also recall the stories of kids sleeping with their DNS or other mobile device—not to sneak in some late night games—but rather to "cuddle" with their devices. Once hooked, young children can't comfortably let go.

Scientific research confirms that babies and young children intentionally seek love, comfort, and nurturance from objects. Studies of children who have been separated from their mothers for extended periods of time show a sequence of behaviors that end in detachment from humans and attachment to things. With their mothers unavailable for nurturance, they experienced surprise, then protest, and finally despair. Not understanding that their mothers would come back, these children despaired profoundly. They attached emotionally to a toy or a doll, focusing attention on the object as a source of emotional comfort. As adults many of these children exhibited severe maladjustment, such as high levels of anxiety and aggressiveness.2 With their social capacities permanently damaged, as parents they treat their young without affection, like inanimate objects.

A loving parent-child bond is absolutely imperative to steer brain development on its right course. Love actually changes the shape and function of the human brain. Without such a bond, the child is set up early on for a wide array of future cognitive, emotional, and social problems. In fact, without on-going parental presence, most mammals grow up altered in some way. Pioneering primatologist Harry Harlow revealed how baby monkeys brought up without mothers and playmates sat in their cages alone whimpering and picking at their skin until they bled, rather than choosing to be with others of their kind, too emotionally damaged to socialize.3

This is also true of human infants. The nature of the baby's attachment to his or her parent or primary caregiver will be a primary determinant in the child's ability to relate to others. Writing about how the infant internalizes his/her "working model" of how to be with other people from the initial relationship with the primary parent, psychiatrist Daniel Siegel emphasizes: "If this model (the first relationship to the parent) represents security, the baby will be able to explore the world and to separate and mature in a healthy way. If the attachment relationship is problematic, the internal working model of attachment will not give the infant a sense of a secure base and the development of normal behaviors (such as play, exploration, and social interactions) will be impaired."4

In an age of screens, perhaps one of the basic problems is that it becomes easier for people to look away from each other rather than toward each other. But parents and children need to look at each other—often. Rensselaer Polytechnic's Linda Caporael points out what she refers to as "micro-coordination," in which a baby imitates its mother's facial expression, and the mother, in turn, imitates the baby's.5 This also happens when fathers are interacting with infants. Televisions, computer screens, and digital gadgets obviously can't accomplish such a profound, coordinated dance of intimate communication. In a sense, children don't know their feelings until the parent expresses feelings for them. Demonstrating a facial expression allows the child to understand, and eventually name various emotions.

Facial expressions act as a pathway into understanding the other person's inner state. When we think about it, this is an amazing capacity of the mammalian brain. We can't read a goldfish's mood or a turtle's state of mind by looking at. But we can read our pet dog's countenance when we take him for a walk. Mammals use their faces to express emotions. Turning toward each other, parents and young children form a very special interpersonal relationship merely by looking at each other. Since this exchange allows the parent to tune into the mental and emotional states of the child, the relationship bond deepens between them. When we look into the eyes of a beloved person, there is an intimate knowing. When we find vacuity behind human eyes, it can give us chills or cause us to wonder, "What's wrong with that person?"

As parents maintain eye contact with babies and young children it allows these new brains to develop appropriate ways to filter emotional experiences. Watching strangers' faces on flat screens, however, doesn't have the same type of effect for the child. Love must be present and felt for brain structures to respond appropriately.

Brain researchers are now uncovering the fact that in a bonded, emotional loving relationship a phenomena exists called "limbic resonance." This is a special attunement between two or more people, brining emotional comfort and shared meaning. Their limbic brains, or emotional centers, harmonize. Limbic resonance, for instance, takes place when two lovers cuddle. It's not about sex; it's about being in each other's arms and breathing in sync with each other. Before long there is a relaxation response and both bodies begin to regulate in accord with each other. As the emotional centers of both brains resonate, each person experiences a meaningful relatedness.

The writers of A General Theory of Love, one of the most important books on this subject, summarize well the gifts of limbic resonance:

The importance of limbic resonance "Only through limbic resonance with another can [the child] begin to apprehend his inner world. The first few years of resonance prepare [the child's brain] for a lifetime's use. One of a parent's most important jobs is to remain in tune with her child, because she will focus the eyes he turns toward the inner and outer worlds. He faithfully receives whatever deficiencies her own vision contains. A parent who is a poor resonator cannot impart clarity. Her inexactness smears his developing precision in reading the emotional world. If she does not or cannot teach him, in adulthood he will be unable to sense the inner states of others or himself. Deprived of the limbic compass that orients a person to his internal landscape, he will slip though his life without understanding it."6

The parent-child connection also supports cognitive development through mutual engagement in the sensory world. As parent and child play together, the sensory world pours into the child's nervous system. Movement and tactile experiences actually trigger neural networking. That is, actual brain structures, particularly the synapses that allow for communication among brain cells, are determined by a child's physical exploration of the world. These structures cannot grow any other way. There's a big difference between drawing with a mechanical device to "form" lines on a computer screen and drawing by immersing little hands in watercolor paint, forming lines on textured paper. The smell and feel of the paint, the experience of making the lines by allocating the paint, the touch of the paper—all combine to activate brain circuitry in ways that cannot be done in front of flat sterile, screen surfaces. Direct experience with the concrete world is imperative to grow the young human brain. The more parents lovingly interact with young children and model active participation in the natural world, the greater the chances that the youngster will develop more of his or her capacity. Just doing simple activities like taking a walk together sets up limbic resonance, shared communication, direct experiences, and important bodily movement. We shouldn't underestimate what a "little thing" like taking a walk with a child can do for his or her "brain gain." A summary of over eighty studies link movement with memory, spatial perception, language, attention, emotion, nonverbal awareness, and decision-making.7

Ideas for Making Your Parental Presence Felt with Babies

  • As you walk around doing light chores, use a snuggly so your baby can be close to your body and feel your heartbeat.
  • Sing quiet songs or hum restful melodies as you rock your baby slowly in rhythm.
  • Make as much eye contact as you can with your baby throughout the day by playing facial games of imitating various expressions, talking to your baby, singing, cooing and basically having as much fun interacting with your baby as you can. Delight in her every new achievement; affirm every time he tries something new.
  • Take care of yourself. You can only interact with and enjoy your baby to the degree that you have the energy to do so. Asking for help and accepting support for household tasks and other duties that require your attention means that you have more attention for your child. You will not regret the time and love you lavish on your baby. A secure infant is on a trajectory for a fulfilling life.
  • Resist the urge to put baby in front of a screen machine. Your resources are well spent for loving caretaker who will interact with your baby in the types of activities mentioned above. Remember, "Love alters the structures of our brains." Enlisting friends and relatives to lovingly interact with your baby means your baby takes the best path possible for optimal brain development.

Ideas for Making Your Parental Presence Felt with Young Children

  • Take twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening to play with your child. Make a room out of a blanket over the kitchen table or build a tower with blocks with your child, you will learn much about how your child perceives his/her world. You also strengthen your child's feelings of security, trust, and belonging.
  • When in the car running errands, point out what you see and discuss various colors and shapes. Talk about what you will be doing, such as: "First we're going to the Post Office. Then we'll go grocery shopping." Give your child something age-appropriate to do, such as dropping a letter into a slot at the Post Office or choosing apples to put in the cart at the grocery store. Affirm all efforts. Keep your child involved in the process of living with you.
  • Slow down the pace of your day by talking with your child. A conversation interlude with a little one can be very poetic and awe-inspiring. Often youngsters say and see things from an interesting and unique perspective. Their self-expression blossoms with parental attention and authentic curiosity. Some questions you may want to ask: How would you describe_________? What else could __________ be? If you could change ______________ what would you do?
  • Make sure you have enough adult conversations to stay sane, Especially if you are a stay-at-home-parent or a single parent, make it a priority to have a weekly conversation or get-together with a trusted friend. You will be much more present and available to your child when you have predictable breaks for adult conversations away from your child.

Create Space for Parental Presence

A part of our job as a parent in a media/digital age is to be a "space creator." We can limit distractions so that there is space for parent-child connecting and sharing. Some easy ways to add space for your parental presence to bloom:

  • Keep the TV off when no one is watching.
  • Sit down and take ten minutes to be there when you know your child will be in the room. Don't read or do anything. Say you are having some down time, but you can be interrupted.
  • Invite your son or daughter to a book talk or lecture at the local library or museum on a topic of mutual interest. Afterwards share your thoughts together over a meal or snack.
  • Make it a family ritual that you and your spouse spend one-on-one time with each of the children on a regular basis. Some families find that taking each child out to dinner offers opportunities to ignite conversations that might not take place around the family dinner table.
  • Carve a slice out of the weekend, such as a Friday evening, a Saturday afternoon, or a Sunday morning that would specifically be set aside for a special activity with your son or daughter—such as a long walk together (without any devices!), working together on a house project like cleaning out the garage, or discussing and helping with homework. Keep this time sacred and don't allow your child to do anything else during it.

When we pattern our lives to weave into the daily grind moments of delightful sharing with our youngsters, we positively shape our youngsters' self-identity. Also, we imprint positive messages inside our kids' heads. The parental voice is by its nature, very powerful. As adults, children who have had the advantage of the presence and availability of a loving parent are much more likely to be gentler with themselves and talk to themselves in kind ways when presented with life's many challenges. And, they are more likely to be present and available to their children—a powerful way to grow a loving society for us all.


  1. John Condry, The Psychology of Television, (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989): 14.
  2. Stephen Kline, Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children's Culture in an Age of Marketing, (New York: Verso Boos, 1995): 57.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are, (New York, The Guilford Press, 1999): 72.
  5. Winifred Gallagher, The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions, and Actions, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003): 110.
  6. Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., Richard Lannon, M.D., A General Theory of Love, (Vintage Books, 2000): 156.
  7. Carla Hannaford, Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head, (Arlington: Great Ocean Publishers, 1995): 25-26.

Copyright © 2012 Gloria DeGaetano, all rights reserved. Used with permission.