How do you raise a child without phones? Hire a coach

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock 

Parents, alarmed by the steady patter of studies around screen time, are trying to turn back time to the land before smartphones. But it's not easy to remember what exactly things looked like before smartphones. So they've taken to hiring professionals.

A new screen-free parenting coach economy has sprung up to serve the demand. Screen consultants come into homes, schools, churches and synagogues to remind parents how people parented before.

Rhonda Moskowitz is a parenting coach in Columbus, Ohio. She has a master's degree in K-12 learning and behaviour disabilities, and over 30 years experience in schools and private practice. She barely needs any of this training now.

"I try to really meet the parents where they are, and now often it is very simple: 'Do you have a plain old piece of material that can be used as a cape?'" Moskowitz said. "'Great!'"

"'Is there a ball somewhere? Throw the ball,'" she said. "'Kick the ball.'"

Among affluent parents, fear of phones is rampant, and it's easy to see why. The wild look their kids have when they try to pry them off Fortnite is alarming. Most parents suspect dinnertime probably shouldn't be spent on Instagram.

The YouTube recommendation engine seems as if it could make a young radical out of anyone. Now, major media outlets are telling them their children might grow smartphone-related skull horns. (That, at least, you don't have to worry about: No such horns have yet been attributed to phones.)

No one knows what screens will make of society, good or bad. This worldwide experiment of giving everyone an exciting piece of hand-held technology is still new.

Gloria DeGaetano was a private coach working in Seattle to wean families off screens when she noticed the demand was higher than she could handle on her own. She started the Parent Coaching Institute, a network of 500 coaches and a training program. Her coaches in small cities and rural areas charge $80 an hour. In larger cities, rates range from $125 to $250. Parents typically sign up for eight to 12 sessions.

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"If you mess with Mother Nature, it messes with you," DeGaetano said of her philosophy. "You can't be a machine. We're thinking like machines because we live in this mechanistic milieu. You can't grow children optimally from principles in a mechanistic mindset."

Screen "addiction" is the top issue parents hope she can cure. Her prescriptions are often absurdly basic.

"Movement," DeGaetano said. "Is there enough running around that will help them see their autonomy? Is there a jungle gym or a jumping rope?"

Nearby, Emily Cherkin was teaching middle school in Seattle when she noticed families around her panicked over screens and coming to her for advice. She took surveys of middle-school students and teachers in the area.

"I realised I really have a market here," she said. "There's a need."

She quit teaching and opened two small businesses. There's her intervention work as the Screentime Consultant - and now there's a coworking space attached to a play space for kids needing "Screentime-Alternative" activities. (That's playing with blocks and painting.)

In Chicago, Cara Pollard, a parent coach, noticed that most adults have gotten so used to entertaining themselves with phones, they forgot that they actually grew up without them. Clients were coming to her confused about what to do all afternoon with their kids to replace tablets. She has her clients do a remembering exercise.

"I say, 'Just try to remember what you did as a kid,'" Pollard said. "And it's so hard, and they're very uncomfortable, but they just need to remember."

They will come back with memories of painting or looking at the moon. "They report back like it's a miracle," Pollard said.

The no-phone pledge

A movement reminiscent of the "virginity pledge" - a vogue in the late '90s in which young people promised to wait until marriage to have sex - is bubbling up across the country.

In this 21st-century version, a group of parents band together and make public promises to withhold smartphones from their children until eighth grade. From Austin, Texas, there is the Wait Until 8th pledge. Now there are local groups cropping up like Concord Promise in Concord, Massachusetts. Parents can gather for phone-free camaraderie in the Turning Life On support community.

Parents who make these pledges work to promote the idea of healthy adult phone use, and promise complete abstinence until eighth grade or even later.

Susannah Baxley's daughter is in fifth grade. "I have told her she can have access to social media when she goes to college," said Ms. Baxley, who is now organising a phone-delay pledge in Norwell, Massachusetts. So far, she has about 50 parents signed on.

Do parents need the peer pressure of promises, and coaches telling them how to parent?

"It's not that challenging; be attentive to your phone use, notice the ways it interferes with being present," said Erica Reischer, a psychologist and parent coach in San Francisco. "There's this commercialisation of everything that can be commercialised, including this now."

To Reischer, the new consultant boom and screen addiction are part of the same problem.

"It's part of the mindset that gets us stuck on our phones in the first place - the optimisation efficiency mindset," she said. "We want answers served up to us - 'Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it.'"

But what seems self-evident can be hard to remember, and hard to stick with.

"Yes, it's just hearing something that's so blatantly obvious, but I couldn't see it," said Julie Wasserstrom, a 43-year-old mother of two in Bexley, Ohio.

She hired Moskowitz and found the advice useful.

"She just said things like, 'Are you telling your kids, "No screens at the table," but your phone is on your lap?'" Wasserstrom said. "When we were growing up, we didn't have these, so our parents couldn't role model appropriate behaviours to us, and we have to learn what is appropriate so we can role model that for them."

Wasserstrom compared screens to a knife or a hot stove.

"You won't send your kid into the kitchen with a hot stove without giving them instructions or just hand them a knife," Wasserstrom said. "You have to be a role model on safe ways to use a knife."

Have you considered cats?

Richard Halpern, a former school counsellor turned parenting coach based in Portland, Oregon, noticed that screen and phone issues were the No. 1 concern people had when they called him.

By the time parents got to him, they were often so frustrated they wanted to just unplug and get rid of everything, but Halpern says he cautions restraint.

"I recommend a whole life approach," he said. "This is not a one and done. It's a lifestyle change."

And for Halpern, that lifestyle change is often for parents to find a nonhuman animal, and for children to spend time with it and study its behaviour.

"I tell a lot of parents to get a dog," Halpern said. "Or I say, 'Show a screen to your cat.' They don't care. They're fully present. They're living. That's a great role model."

He tells children and adults alike to imagine what a dog would look like using a smartphone.

"I'll say, 'What if you were looking at your dog and your dog was on a phone? That wouldn't be as fun, would it?'"

The New York Times