Why Isn’t Teleparenting a Thing?

“We’re in the future, we just don’t act like it.” I said. He’s in tech, he knows this better than anyone. It’s true, though. Our phones, which we can control with our voices, are now our clocks, cameras, journals, grocery lists, baby monitors, news/sports/entertainment sources, GPSs, music players, primary mode of communication, calendars, banks, travel agents, debit/credit cards, translators (and the list goes on, and on, and on). Hospitals and doctors are doing telehealth appointments, you can telecommute to work, teleconference at work, you can get a tele-education from a real university (which is just an awkward way of saying online distance ed). WHY ON EARTH are we not using video chat daily, to communicate with the ones who are most important to us?

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America’s 40hr workweek isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. My husband’s 50+hr workweek isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. More and more parents are working longer and longer hours. Paid parental leave is ever-so s.l.o.w.l.y creeping in, but not fast enough, and with a fair amount of pushback. Parents are missing out on time with their children, and the kids can feel it.

I’ve rallied against the unsustainable workweek, I’ve fought for longer parental leave, I’ve tried convincing my husband that we should move to an off-grid commune (preferably nudist, so I have less laundry). Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t me giving up on those things; we can’t just roll over and accept that the American workweek is so long it’s becoming less productive, while slowly killing its workers. Solutions to these problems are certainly things we need to continue to push for, but what do we do in the meantime?

This morning, I had an idea. I sent my hubby a message:

“Why isn’t teleparenting a thing? Video chat is always advertised for long distance, like work trips, or family that lives out of state, but never for day-to-day. They give people smoke breaks, why not give them teleparenting breaks? It’s free! If you have wifi at work, it can be cheaper than a phone call.”

He seemed intrigued.

“We’re in the future, we just don’t act like it.” I said. He’s in tech, he knows this better than anyone. It’s true, though. Our phones, which we can control with our voices, are now our clocks, cameras, journals, grocery lists, baby monitors, news/sports/entertainment sources, GPSs, music players, primary mode of communication, calendars, banks, travel agents, debit/credit cards, translators (and the list goes on, and on, and on). Hospitals and doctors are doing telehealth appointments, you can telecommute to work, teleconference at work, you can get a tele-education from a real university (which is just an awkward way of saying online distance ed). WHY ON EARTH are we not using video chat daily, to communicate with the ones who are most important to us?

“Do you think Z is at a point where “[Google] hangouts with dada” would do any good?” He asked.

“Definitely.” I said. Over the last few years, researchers have been studying how babies interact with handheld technology (i.e. what’s good for them, what’s not, what they understand, what nuances are lost on them, what age is best, etc). We’ve learned that Baby Einstein et al were such a flop because children have a hard time learning new words and concepts from recordings. As much as a pre-recorded show or movie can pretend to interact, it just can’t. We’ve also discovered that kids learn better from live, interactive video than from recorded video. This starts younger than people think, with babies as young as 6-months-old being able to tell the difference between a recording and a live chat. So, while the focus doesn’t have to be “learning”, as much as just “bonding”, they’d still recognize your presence, and they’d definitely appreciate it.

“Just two or three minutes,” I said. “Check in, see faces, comfort mommy, back to work.”

At first blush, this seems more practical with one stay-at-home parent, than for the working parents with kids in daycare. He disagreed. “It could even be doable in daycare. Have some tablets or kiosks at the daycare, talk to your own kid.” This is true. It could be scheduled, or at either the child’s or the parent’s request. They might have to implement a limit, but it could prevent some daycare meltdowns. The more I thought about it, the more practical it seemed for everyone. They could have a tablet in every school nurse’s office, so that parents can talk to their sick kids without leaving work (if they don’t have to). Sometimes, just a minute talking to mom will save an afternoon.

Scenario 1): You’re on the job site, when you get a call from the daycare. Your 2-year-old has been completely melting down for over an hour, and they have no idea why, so they request you come pick him up. You’re the only certified front-end loader operator on site, traffic is backed up for miles, rain has already pushed this job out a week, and there’s nobody to watch your toddler at home. It’s a meltdown, he’s not sick, he just wants… something. Instead of driving all the way there to figure out what that something is, the daycare attendant could say, “Do you want to talk to him?” You climb down, call your site manager over, and he gives you the work tablet. You open the app, make the call, and see his snot-covered, puffy-eyed, rosey-cheeked face. Your heart melts a little. “Hi sweetie, Daddy’s here, what’s up?” He says, “Dadaaaaaaa! I want goggy bop bop!” His daycare attendant pops her head into view, “We’ve been trying to figure out what he wants, we have no idea what ‘Googly bap bap’ is.” You shake your head. “It’s not ‘googly bap bap’, that’s nonsense. He said, ‘goggy bop bop’, which is ‘crocodile chomp chomp’, which means he wants his stuffed crocodile from his bag.” Obviously. You turn your attention back to him, “You want your crocodile, right?” He squeals with joy. “What does a crocodile say?” He gives you an enthusiastic, “BOP BOP BOP”, arms stretched out, chomping wildly. “Yay! Chomp chomp! I love you, buddy. Daddy’s gotta drive the big truck, but I’ll see you soon, ok? Have lots of fun, listen to your teachers, and play nice. Can you do that for me?” He can, and he says he will. The teacher mouths a thank you from behind him, and off they go. You hand the tablet back, and you’re back at it.

Scenario 2): You’re at the office, it’s 11:30am and a notification pops up on your screen. Time for your daily chat with your 9-year-old daughter, who has ASD. She starts off on a tangent about how one of her classmates didn’t get detention for talking out in class, and she got one for the same reason last month, which is entirely unfair. She’s fidgeting, and staring off into the distance. “I hear you. That does seem unfair. I need your eyes on me, please.” She looks into the camera. You talk softly. “You like Mrs. Jones. She is a good teacher, and she likes you. Can you repeat that for me?” She does. Ok. “Mrs. Jones is often very fair, right?” She nods. “What did that other student say when they spoke out?” Mrs. Jones was talking about trees, and Little Jonny jumped in to talk about how big the tress in his neighborhood were. Thanks for your contribution, Jonny. “Well, Little Jonny should not have spoken out, he should have raised his hand. Did his comment hurt anyone’s feelings?” No. “Did it make Mrs. Jones angry?” No. “Did you get in trouble for anything today?” No. “That’s great! Since Little Jonny’s words didn’t hurt anyone, or upset Mrs. Jones, we can let this one slide. I know, I know, it’s a slippery slope. It’s time for you to go back and join the class now. I love you. When I pick you up, we’ll go for a walk on the greenway, and you can tell me everything you’ve learned about trees today.” All is well, time for your Q2 meeting.

Scenario 3): You’re at work, and you get called to the front of the store. The preschool is on line 1, your son, who has severe food allergies, just threw up. The school is freaking out, ready to call the ambulance (as per your directives in his file). You ask your shift manager for a minute, run to the breakroom, and grab your cell. You open the app, and when you finally see his happy little face, you’re relieved, and confused. “What happened, buddy?” He smiles. He says he was spinning in big circles, and then he got dizzy, and then he fell down, but then he got up again, but then he fell down again, and then he threw up. Sounds like fun. “Did you eat anything bad?” Nope. He’s 4, he knows what he can and can’t eat, and this mythical, vigilant school is very strict about adhering to food allergy protocols. You can breathe again.

It seems pretty simple, and cost could be managed. The school nurse’s/counselor’s office would require, at most, half-a-dozen tablets. They (hopefully) already have a secure network for their laptops, and possibly already have tablets. A daycare could have 3 emergency/comfort call tablets, at $50 to $100 apiece. Or, they could have 12 tablet kiosks for one or two scheduled, 3-minute chats with mom or dad per day.

I’m an activist, but I’m a practical activist. As much as I want to push the work-life balance movement forward, I’m also looking for solutions to keep myself and my family happy and sane. I have to, if I want to actually have the strength and mental acuity required to keep being an activist, and a mother.

So, for the next few weeks, we’re going to use Google Hangouts (I’ve always found it faster, and it’s a smaller, easier-to-run app than Skype, and I have no ithings, so I have no idea how well Facetime works) for some scheduled Daddy time during the week. Join me! Try it! Tell me what you think! Obviously, the daycare/school solution isn’t an option yet, but that’s not to say it can’t be. Just 3 minutes (or more, if you want to and can swing it). Sing, ask about their day, tell them about your day, make silly faces, whatever. And if your employer isn’t having it (as I just learned that “FLSA does not require employers to give their employees any breaks from work for any reason”) tell them you have violent diarrhea, or a super-heavy period, and that you’ll stay in your chair if they really want you to, but you just need a few minutes. And then enjoy some smiley time with your kid.