Taking a Tech Time Out

My son is a biter. He's a toddler, and he has a bad habit of biting the other children in his class. We have him at a Montessori pre-school, so instead of day care he has teachers and a principal, even though he's not yet two years old. It's a great experience for him, but every day or so we have to sign a form at the end of the day when we pick him up acknowledging the fact that he has bitten some other toddler.

The school is kind enough to keep things anonymous. They don't tell us who he bit, and presumably they don't tell the other parents which child bit theirs. Sometimes I pick him up and the form I have to sign says that another child bit him instead, and it's gotten to the point where that's a relief. At first my snarky attitude was that it's better to be the biter than the one getting bitten; now I just hope it wasn't my son doing the biting.

This is completely normal for children his age. Until kids are about three years old, his Principal tells us, biting is normal. It's a way toddlers express themselves. Right now, it's my son doing most of the biting in class, but in a few months, it could be another toddler going through a biting phase. By that point, my son might be slapping or grabbing or any other antisocial thing, but at least it won't be biting.

At home, he bites us, but for different reasons. At school, it's always because he wants something he can't have. Another child gets tossed a ball and my son wants it, so he bites them. He tries to take away another kid's toy and they won't let him, so he bites. At home, it's happy biting. He'll be laughing and playing, and all of a sudden he comes in for a chomp. It's like he wants to give a hug and a kiss, but suddenly his teeth take over and I've got a toddler gnawing on my face. It's adorable, and not painful. But clearly this is all part of a pattern and we have to figure out how to stop it.

We met with the Principal and his teachers, and we all agreed that he's biting because he's having trouble expressing himself. He's at a fascinating state with his language ability. His babbling means something now. When he wants a banana, he says: "na na." When I ask if he's ready to go to school, he says "t-cool." When he wants a pack of raisins, he says: "na na." I know, we're still working on it.

Most interesting is that he understands far more than he can say himself. If I ask him to close the door, he'll do that, whether we're leaving the car, the house or the back yard gate. I can ask if he wants something, and he'll shake his head if he doesn't, even if he can't see the thing in front of him. This morning I asked if he wanted to go to school, and apparently he did not.

So, what's the remedy for the biting problem? Well, there's a lot that we can do, but the best thing for the long term would be to help him develop his language skills so he feels less frustrated expressing himself. If he can talk more, he'll bite less.

I know this is a tech column. I promise, I'm getting there now.

The New York Times ran a story about parents who are distracted by technology, mostly phones. It's a strange paradox. On the one hand, spending time reading email or playing on my tablet would certainly be time I'm not talking to my son. As the Times points out, "parents who supply a language-rich environment for their children help them develop a wide vocabulary". I have only a few hours a day to spend with my son while he's awake and I'm not working. If I'm distracted by my gadgets during that time, I'm not talking to him, and his vocabulary is not growing as fast.

The Times directly links vocabulary to socioeconomic status. Rich people talk to their kids more. Parents on welfare talk to their kids less. In the study the Times quotes, there's a discrepancy of 1,600 words per hour between the high income and low income groups. How many words does my son lose out on when I'm distracted?

On the other hand, as the Times notes, smartphone users tend to have higher incomes. Theoretically, I could say that I'm modeling smartphone use behavior for my son, and he'll learn to use more advanced technology as a result. But that's bunk, and we all know it. By the time my son is of the same age I was when I bought a smartphone, he'll be using technology so advanced I couldn't have dreamt it up in all of my spare time. More importantly, he doesn't need me to model this behavior. I can hand him my phone right now and he's perfectly capable of making a call. Trust me, I know.

The current generation is consumed with technology to the point that it's an integral part of their social and personal lives. I think my son's generation might see some rebellion against that idea. When I became a parent, I started thinking about all the ways I could eliminate technology from my life. From the day my son was born, it was more than a year before I had time to turn on my Xbox again and sit down for a proper fragging session. Over the past year or so, I've also become more conscious about not texting or checking my phone while I'm driving. I don't take calls in restaurants, because I'm either entertaining my son or I'm alone with my wife, and we don't get enough alone time for me to divert my attention.

The cell phone started creeping back into my family time because my son is now old enough that we don't have to stand over him every minute. He can entertain himself, and while he does, I check email. I read Twitter or my RSS feeds. But now that will stop.

I'm not a moralist who says all technology is bad and we need to give it all up and go live in the woods. That might be nice for a week or so, but in general I think our lives are much better with technology. But I think that if we are losing anything, it's the ability and desire to sit face to face with another person and interact. Facebook lets us feel like we're in touch with our friends even when we haven't actually been in touch. Our mobile devices let us feel like we can stay in touch with the world, giving us a false sense that we can divide our attention among the people in front of us, and the people beyond the screen.

There is a middle ground to walk with technology, and I have to keep checking myself to make sure I'm walking it properly. If not, my technology might come back to bite me. And if it doesn't, my son sure will.

[Image credit cplbasilisk]