Is Being Half There O.K.?

You’ve seen the zombie parents on the streets and at the mall. Off in some cell-phone cloud, they pay no attention to what’s in the stroller. It could be a sack of potatoes. It could be a cocker spaniel. More often than not, it’s a baby staring blankly ahead or crying to no avail.

What should we make of this scene? Much has been written about family life turning into a kind of Village of the Damned: The children are physically present in the room but seem controlled by an alien world of texting. Or they’re surfing heaven-knows-where on the Internet. Even at the dinner table, the children are clicking away — if they can get away with it, and there is a dinner table. Meanwhile, Dad struggles to get a “What did you do today, Johnny?” discussion going.

But what happens when the parents are doing the same thing, and the kids are the ones who feel walled off? That happens a lot these days, which brings the debate over techo-multitasking onto sensitive territory. Are these adults being lousy parents by preferring the company of their Facebook friends to the baby-talk of their offspring? And what about small children, who need verbal exposure to develop language skills?

Child psychologists have linked the number of words kids hear at home to economic status. In an important study last decade, Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that children in upper-income homes heard about 2,153 words an hour. Those in welfare families heard only 616 words an hour.

Which brings us to the interesting question of children being raised by nannies. Professional child-caregivers are often even less interested in their cargo than the distracted parents. They may be wrapped in conversation with someone on the phone or fellow nannies from their home country. A schoolteacher in a rich Dallas suburb reports that some kindergarten kids arrive with a surprisingly small vocabulary, much of it in Spanish.

But there’s another side to the story. Perhaps this technology makes dealing with small kids more enjoyable, and therefore, more together-time happens. Taking care of babies no longer need mean being so isolated from the adult world. Even if parents’ minds are somewhere else, at least they are there in body. And these gadgets can be a great help for working parents, freeing them from having to spend more hours at the office.

I see the benefits of techno-companionship while staying with an elderly father who’s lost much of his cognitive capacity. Old age is said to be a mirror of early childhood, when people’s language skills are not conducive to give-and-take. Nowadays, my father absorbs very little new information. He repeats himself in a kind of audio loop. At times, he thinks he’s still in the Navy and talks about “the boys” in his unit. While that may sound interesting, it’s not after the 50th go-round.

But I love the old salt. I like being with him, and he likes having me there. And so we have an arrangement where we spend long hours interacting in a half-there state. He seems happy to talk and hear me respond with an “uh huh” or “really,” as I check e-mail and the news on my laptop. The TV, always on, drones at low volume in the background.

The bottom line is this: Conversation validates people through the gift of one’s attention. Of course, full attention is better than half attention — but half attention is better than none. So the answer to the question, “Is it OK for me to be half-there?” might be, “Yes, but only half the time.”

Copyright 2010 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by