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The Conversational Duet

One of my favourite episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation is when a crew member comes back from some R&R on a distant planet, and brings with them a game. 

It’s a computer game that you play via a special pair of glasses, the aim being to use your concentration to deposit virtual spinning discs into randomly appearing cones. It soon becomes apparent that something else is going on, as more sets of the glasses are replicated and the entire crew becomes so obsessed they cease to function, becoming addicted to the endorphin release that the game triggers. Even Captain Picard succumbs - I know! Interestingly it is left to youth, in the shape of Wesley Crusher, to save the day.

A delicious piece of escapism perhaps, but I am reminded of it over again when I see adults persistently scrolling or talking on their phones, even as they are feeding babies or picking their children up from school. 72% of parents in the US say their teenagers get distracted during conversations, according to Pew Research Centre; 51% of teens say the same of their parents. The constant checking of ‘something online’ has emotional, cognitive and physical impact on the child-parent relationship.

Most worrying is the effect that lack of attention has on very young children and their ability not only to bond, but to learn language. The US journal 'Developmental Psychology' published a study in 2017, where two groups of mothers taught their children two new words. In one group, the mothers were interrupted by a phone call, and in the other there was no interruption. The first group of children did not learn the new words, but the children who weren’t interrupted did.

The learning stage between 18 months and 3 years has been described as ‘the conversational duet’ as children learn - with babbling or sounds, along with facial expressions, vocal and bodily exchanges - the patterns that make up conversation with other humans. It requires full attention, and as the child learns from the adult, so the adult is gaining the ability to interpret the child’s cues. With only partial, or disturbed, focus, an awful lot of the value of these exchanges is squandered.

This is not about judgement, there is a massive industry that exists purely to grab and hold onto our attention. It’s insidious. Let’s try not to allow it to steal away too much precious time with our growing children.

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