iRelief? …or iDistraction?

How many parents do you know who readily admit that they have a problem controlling their smartphone use around their children?  I hear about it often.  Parents tell me about their efforts to curb their Facebook addictions and their struggles to text less when they’re with their kids.  They want to be more present with their children, who typically object to their parents’  phone use.  But it is hard, hard, hard for parents to separate from their phones.

It’s surprising to me that no one talks about the reason why we quickly become addicted to our iDevices, especially when the phenomenon is easily explained by psychology’s behavioral theory.  In the late 1940’s, behaviorist B.F. Skinner described a process called “operant conditioning.”  The aim of operant conditioning was to bring about a desired behavior by reinforcing it on a particular “schedule.”  He trained hungry pigeons, for example, to perform complex tasks by offering them food pellets when they demonstrated the desired behavior.  He found, from his research, that of the various reinforcement schedules he used, the one called a “Variable Ratio” was the most effective.  (Check out the cool video of BF Skinner on this website if you want to see more.)

As he explains in the video, the variable ratio schedule of reinforcement offers a desired reinforcer (e.g., food) at random, unpredictable times.  The pigeons in his experiments were trained to peck a button in order to get food.  The pigeons who were given food at random times demonstrated the most persistent pecking; they did not know how often or after how many pecks food would come.  So they pecked a lot.  They pecked constantly.  They did not stop pecking.  And it became hard for them not to peck.

Our smartphones and iDevices operate on the same schedule.  They are variably reinforcing.  We do not know after how many taps we will get a “reward,” such as an email, a Facebook message, a phone call, or a text.

What does this have to do with parenting?  I propose that when you are a parent, especially a parent of a young child, the “reward” offered by these devices is extra-awesome.  It’s extra-awesome because it can take you out out of the moment.  Away from the whining, the crying, and/or the general drain of parenthood.  Devices that are already incredibly addictive are probably even more addictive when they offer an escape from something you may, quite frankly, hate.  (And by “something,” I mean parenting.  It can be exhausting and boring for parents.  If you don’t believe me, read Jennifer Senior’s new book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood.” She has the data.)

Unfortunately, a parent’s smartphone addiction is bad news for children.  The very devices that offer escape, relief, and immediate social rewards to parents are increasing the number of injuries to children (click to read about it).  For example, parents cannot simultaneously look at their phones and watch their children.  Last fall, I attended a very impressive panel discussion about the importance of free play in childhood.  One of the panelists, Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood, reported that in spite of our attempts to make playgrounds safer, the number of children injured on playgrounds has remained remarkably stable over time (that is, children still get injured on playgrounds at the same rate as they always have).  This holds true, she said, except for the year 2007, when there was a significant spike in playground-related injuries to children.  It is no coincidence that 2007 was the year that the iPhone became available.  Children got hurt more when their parents quit being vigilant.

But, when phones are so addictive, how are parents to stop using them?  BF Skinner said that the best way to extinguish a behaviorally conditioned response is to quit cold turkey.  For moms and dads to abandon their phones, then, they have to either stop using them altogether, or somehow make tapping them less rewarding.  This is incredibly hard to do when the fleeting, momentary rewards of parenting young children cannot compete with the immediate gratification of  smartphones.  

Yet, there is a way to make smartphones a little less rewarding.  A parent who wants to curb phone use can start to focus what their distraction is costing them.  While the escape from the negative aspects of parenting is very rewarding, missing out on the bits of joy parenthood brings is not rewarding at all.  If you are a parent trying to curb your phone use, I suggest you focus on all the good stuff that you are not getting when you are on your phone.  After all, you can’t text and have a dance party with your preschooler at the same time.  But if you still find it hard to put the phone down, I understand.  I just hope that you will grapple with the extent of your phone use…and, please, at least don’t use it at the playground.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.



Enjoy The Baby! (It’s Not So Simple)

When I was a new mother, I was frequently accosted by older women in check-out lines instructing me to enjoy my baby. “Enjoy it!” they commanded.  I was tired, haggard, and bitter…and enjoyment of motherhood was not on my radar screen in those moments. The well-intended instruction to “enjoy it” did not sit well with me.  Since that time, I understand better what these women were trying to tell me.  But still, I don’t like it.  I get irritated when I see today’s new moms getting similar directions.  I am certain that I am not alone in my aggravation.

I’ve been thinking about why this is. Why is it so frustrating to mothers of young children to be told to enjoy their babies?

Here is the answer I have come to.  Enjoying a child is a parenting goal. It is an achievement for mothers and fathers.  It does not go without saying that a parent can or will enjoy their child.  This feeling is not automatic for everyone.  In fact, the capacity of a parent to enjoy their child is multiply determined.  Here is my preliminary list of five necessary elements:

1.  Time to Reflect.  Enjoyment of children does not always happen in the moment.  Children, in the moment, are often demanding and annoying. However, in moments of separation, like when the child is in bed, parents can reflect on the day…they can remember the funny or cute things their child did with a smile.  But you need time and space to make room for these feelings. And to have them in the moment is a great achievement!

2. Sleep. I can’t enjoy much of anything when I’m dead tired. Can you?

3.  Support and a Reflecting Community.  I find that parents can enjoy their children better when they have other people around who also love them.  Ideally, other people can give parents a break (and, hence, time to rest and reflect). In addition to time, though, parents benefit from being surrounded by others who can appreciate the beauty in their child.  These loving others help the parent to reflect on their child in a different, often meaningful way. Parents can then see their children from a different perspective. It also helps when a parent gets to behold someone else admiring their child. Pride facilitates enjoyment!

4.  Positive Childhood Attachments. Some parents are lucky enough to have been born into good-enough families, and as a result grew into adults with a sense that the world is a safe place. They have positive mental models of parenthood as they become parents themselves. Their secure attachment style  gives them increased freedom to enjoy their child. Other parents are not so lucky.  These parents were born into families where there was trouble, and where things went wrong in their early days.  They did not develop a sense of safety and security in the world, because, for them, they could not necessarily rely on others to meet their needs. Compared to parents with a secure attachment, parents with an insecure attachment have increased difficulty enjoying their children.

5.  Psychological Strength.  Parents who suffer from depression, anxiety or other mental disorders tend to have a hard time bonding with their baby.  I, personally, believe that these feelings are associated with a parent’s own upbringing.  (Although this is not always the case.)  When a parent is suffering, whatever the cause, enjoyment capacity also suffers.  In fact, the absence of the capacity to enjoy (i.e., anhedonia) is a diagnostic criterion for depression. Parents who are emotionally depleted cannot enjoy their children to the same degree as their non-depressed, non-anxious counterparts.

There was a great opinion piece in the NY Times last October by David Bornstein on protecting children from toxic stress.  One thing that stood out in this article was a quote by the clinical director of a program that works to repair broken attachments in parents, for the sake of their children.  She says of the parents’ responses to their children, “We want delight! Delight is protective.”

Yes.  Exactly.  We want delight!  We want parents to enjoy their children! Let’s work, as a society, to help this be possible for every parent.  And let’s keep in mind that these feelings don’t happen on demand, in check-out lines.

©2014 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

The United States of Children

Even though I am not a child psychologist, my work as a psychologist has intensified my devotion to children. One experience that (I sincerely hope) is common among therapists is that through our work, we develop a deep awareness of the rippling effects of childhood experiences. In my office, for instance, I hear endless tales that link psychological symptoms to earlier childhood experiences. These stories (shared with me by my brave and strong patients) have shown me, time and again, that we have to do a better job with our children. Because how we treat them has a direct effect on how they will feel about themselves, what they will expect from relationships, and how they will treat others (including their own children) as they age.

But, how? How can we do a better job?

American culture needs to develop an open discourse about child development. Most parents enter parenthood with very little, if any, knowledge of the stages that children go through as they grow. And this is a shame. A crying shame. Because there are vast stores of information about childhood freely available to us. It goes without saying that psychologists and neuroscientists and pediatricians and anthropologists and sociologists (among others) have been studying and categorizing children’s development for decades. We know about brain development, cognitive development, social development, emotional development, motor development, and moral development. We even know about the development of cognitive feats such as deception. That’s right: lying is a cognitive developmental milestone! There are clearly delineated stages for all of these trajectories. And we must understand them and help our children to navigate them well.

So, why is the vast information on child development not commonly dispersed? Why is it not talked about freely, as a matter of course in our society? I find this incomprehensible, because children have a right to be understood. And we can’t understand them without this basic, simple, readily-available knowledge.

Our ignorance about child development does our children a tremendous disservice. In my practice, the single most effective intervention I make with parents is to give them basic education about the developmental stage of their child. When a parent understands their child’s behavior within a developmental context, their patience with their child grows, and their compassion and empathy for their child is restored. It is quick. It is simple. It is an effing no-brainer.

I hope that in my lifetime, our society will begin to take a hard look at the ways that we can do better by our children. One start, one very simple start, would be to introduce the basics of child development into our cultural language.

If you agree with me, then I recommend that you read this recently-published book:

“The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights” by Eileen Johnson.

I’m sure I will get back to this book in future blogs, but quickly… Johnson lends clear and simple insights into understanding and communicating effectively with children. Her formulas are straightforward and no-nonsense, encouraging respect for children while offering advice for how to raise them into psychologically healthy adults.

Do our future a favor: read it. And then tell your friends and neighbors what it says.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.



I am a psychologist. I work part-time in my own private practice where I treat a number of parents. I love to work with parents, especially new parents who are raising young children. This group needs a lot of support, and I have always felt that our society does very little for them. Of course, I’m a parent myself, so I relate to their struggles. Many of the parents I treat in my practice had very difficult childhoods, where they were typically neglected, demeaned, hit, rejected, abused, and/or made into their parents caretakers. These patients often struggle to rewrite the family script–their goal is often to not do to their children what was done to them. I cannot tell you how much I admire them for their willingness to look realistically at their own stories in order to change the psychological family trajectory. (And, let me tell you, they are doing it, and their children are thriving.)

I recently read a book by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl called “Childism: Confronting Prejudice against Children.” Dr. Young-Breuhl was a psychoanalyst and political scientist with an expertise in prejudice. This combination of careers allowed her to look at her patients through a unique lens–one that simultaneously saw individual psychology and cultural influences (i.e., prejudice). Let me tell you, this is a heartbreaking book. It is heartbreaking (to me, anyhow) because it captures a deep truth.

Here is a crude summary of what Childism says:

~We live in a culture that historically has not valued children as individuals with the right to be respected and taught.

~We have viewed children as our property, to be treated as we like.

~Many of us have wanted children to meet our own needs, rather than recognizing that children’s needs must always come first.

~We, as a society, allow parents to hit their children, in the name of discipline. (If you hit an adult, you can be charged with assault. If you hit a child, we call it “spanking” and say it’s for their own good.)

~We have established social systems for “child protection” which further traumatize children who have often already suffered horrible traumas.

The bottom line is this: we don’t help parents to help their children. We don’t, as a society, openly acknowledge how hard, stressful, frustrating, relentless, and intense it is to raise a child. We don’t offer needed support to young families. We allow severe economic disparities to exist, putting tremendous stress and strain on large portions of our population. And when this population has children, we do not step in to help relieve the pressure of parenting under dire conditions. Then, when the children of these over-stressed parents (who often have untreated trauma histories of their own) start to act-out, we medicate or incarcerate them. We cut spending on education and early intervention, but some states will spend as much as $200,000 per year per child to jail children. Young-Breuhl argues convincingly that we have to stop this shit.

We have to start looking at the cost to our society of not valuing our children. We have historically been so self-absorbed that we haven’t see beyond our own generations. We have not looked ahead. We have only looked at now. And this short-sightedness has taken us in the wrong direction. And our kids pay for it. And if things don’t change, their kids will pay for it, too.

For the sake of contrast, take a look at a couple of policies in Sweden:

~Parents get a total of 13 months of paid maternity leave and the father is required to take at least 1 month of it. (There has been a discussion about changing this to 15 months and requiring the father and mother to each take 5 and then split the last 5 as they feel appropriate.)

~Parental leave can be used to take off time for parenting classes before your child is born.

~Parents can save up their maternity leave for more than 5 years (i.e., use it for doctor’s appointments, school visit days, etc.).

~Daycare cost is based on your family income with a government imposed maximum. (Currently about 1/10th as much as in the U.S.!)

~If you have a new child, your other children get a month of free daycare so you can concentrate on the new one.

~Sweden has outlawed spanking, and has implemented other forms of non-violent discipline (for the greater good of their society).

I know that these ideas may not apply to you. Certainly, we are all unique individuals with a wide range of values, principles, and histories. But I encourage you to read this book, to recognize and tolerate its truths, and to work hard to change our national attitude toward children.

And if this is all too depressing, check out The Irreducible Needs of Children by Greenspan and Brazelton instead. Maybe I’ll write about that book next.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.