Q: I've noticed that my mom friends all give their preschool-age kids tablets (to play games, watch videos, etc.). Should I get one for my 4-year-old daughter? I admit that it would be a great tool to use while waiting in lines, sitting in restaurants or doing something where it would be helpful if she were occupied. Also, maybe the games that kids play on these tablets are educational? But, I also see parents in battles over screen time and kids with near-addictions to these devices. I don't necessarily need one right now (we manage just fine 90 percent of the time), so should I hold off?
A: I love the directness of this question: “Should I get [a tablet] for my 4-year-old daughter?” Here is my direct answer: No.
See how easy that was? I will elaborate on this, but if you stop reading, you have your answer.
Why shouldn’t your child have a tablet at age 4? The clearest answer I can give you is that preschoolers do not need tablets of any type to grow into high-functioning and mature adults. Do children love tablets? Yes. Do tablets provide endless hours of distraction so that parents and caretakers can turn their attention elsewhere? You bet. Are there some games that are genuinely fun? Yes. Still, your child doesn’t need a tablet to grow up or become “smarter” or better or really, anything at all. Four-year-old children need a physically and emotionally safe caretaker and home, plenty of self-directed play, wholesome food and lots of water, more sleep than you think, and (this is important) the opportunity to cry about what they cannot change.
One of the intrinsic problems with tablets and games is that children do not experience much frustration while playing them. Whether they are “educational” or for fun, many games geared toward preschoolers are constantly recalibrating themselves to match the level of the child. This means your sweet 4-year-old will be rewarded whether she is winning or losing. This doesn’t sound problematic — in fact, the brain absolutely loves it — but it can become a huge developmental roadblock. The way we emotionally mature and grow is not through everything coming easily. We grow when we struggle through something hard; the brain learns and adapts, and we move forward. Tablet games do not aid with this growth.
That doesn’t mean I eschew all technology when it comes to children. Although pediatricians and neurologists study and warn us against the effects of technology abuse in all children, I also know the reality: Gaming, tablets and smartphones aren’t going anywhere. And for every outright “rule” to never allow a 4-year-old to have a tablet, there is an exception. The ability to FaceTime a parent who is traveling (think military), or the ability to talk to a parent in a divorce or separation can be a powerful reason to allow a 4-year-old to have a tablet. There is also software geared toward children who are differently abled in all kinds of ways, and I would never want a child to miss a tool that helps keep him connected to caretakers or connected to his world.
But you, parent, know the abilities and needs of your child better than anyone else, and your question is about trusting your intuition. As your child gets older, you will be faced with more and more decisions like the tablet one. You will look to society and find both answers and total confusion. Your value system will be tested. It is important to pursue information as you need it (Mari Swingle’s book “I-Minds” is excellent), but do not pursue so much information that you are lost.
You know what’s best here; you don’t need me. Good luck.
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