Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers - Release Date - Today!

Parents must boldly go where no parents before them have gone. We live in an era of firsts for toddlers and touchscreens, kids on-line in the classroom, teens connecting on social media. That's why I wrote PARENTING IN THE AGE OF ATTENTION SNATCHERS . . . to share with parents what I've learned from studying attention and child development, and from my practice as a psychologist helping kids who struggle at school and families who want more balance at home.

Parents face a new and important challenge. Kids need to be proficient with technology -- it powers their world. It's wrong to forbid screens all together. At the same time, kids need to be discerning about their online activities and be willing and able to turn off entertainment media when it's time to read, study, listen, play outside, and have to face-to-face contact and meaningful conversation. Kids need to be able to pay attention without screens, too.

For more about PARENTING IN THE AGE OF ATTENTION SNATCHERS: A Step-by-Step Guide to Balance Your Child's Use of Technology, amazon has a look-inside feature.


We live in an exciting age. With the power of technology in their pockets, and the ability to use that power in their hands, imagine what our children will accomplish!

Come to one of our book events . . . 
Tues, May 4 at 7 PM, Books, Inc, Palo Alto, CA, Author Talk, Q&A, Book Signing
Wed, May 5 at 7 PM, Folio Books, San Francisco, CA, Reading & Wine, Book Signing

Your Baby's Doctor Has Good Reasons

Recently, I was invited to write an op/ed piece for the NY Times. I was asked for my opinion about avoiding screens for infants younger than 2 years old. I chose the strongest argument I know: brain development.

Infant with Ipad screen

I included a reference to the evidence-based recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that screens be avoided for children under age 2.  These recommendations have been criticized for being impractical in today's world.

The AAP recognizes that some exposure to screens is unavoidable. (They aren't recommending "no screens under any circumstances," the way that a child with a peanut allergy must avoid even trace amounts.) But the AAP has stood firm in its recommendation for good reason: it's well-founded in scientific knowledge about the rate and sequencing of brain growth during infancy, as well as specific findings of studies in this area.

The AAP published a review article of this research in their professional journal, Pediatrics. A helpful summary is described in this Washington Post article.

Why avoid screens for infants younger than two? Because it builds better brains.


American Academy of Pediatrics. Media and Children. (Current Policy Statement)

American Academy of Pediatrics. Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years. Pediatrics, 128 (5), November 2011, pages 1040-1045.

Kucirkova, N. Is Your Child Under Age 2? Keep Them Away From Smartphones, Tablets, and Computers. Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2014.

Palladino, L.J.,  Avoid Screens for Children Under 2 Years of Age. New York Times, April 13, 2015.

Can Self-Control Be Enjoyable?

A few days ago, a visitor to this site sent me an article by Alfie Kohn, whose message is that traditional schooling isn’t working. Why get kids to pay attention to didactic lessons and complete long-term assignments despite boredom and frustration? “Focus less on ‘fixing the kids’ and more on improving what and how they’re taught.” He's vocal in his opposition to teaching children self-control.

Kohn is right to point out that we need to look deeply at why our children struggle to pay attention in school. We should strive to improve our educational system. But ignoring the merits of self-control will not help.

Pay No Attention to That MarshmalloW

Kohn points to psychologist Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test, which showed that children who could wait longer to eat a desirable treat fared better later in life. Because the children who waited longer distracted themselves with enjoyable activities, he concludes that self-control wasn’t needed at all.

In Mischel's Marshmallow Test, children who could wait longer for their treats, fared better in life

Kohn doesn't count the fact that these children exercised self-control over their own attention. They deliberately withdrew their attention from the tempting treat in front of them and onto imaginative activities, such as closing their eyes and telling stories, singing, or sitting under the table. With no toys to capture their attention, they exercised intentional, effortful voluntary attention. Mischel named this type of self-control, “strategic allocation of attention.”

Kohn doesn’t explain why his definition of self-control relies on an absence of enjoyment, which seems unnecessarily Puritanical. The reason we practice self-control is for greater, not less, pleasure, and self-control works best when we keep that in mind. Self-control is about having more choices in life.

We want our children to feel a strong connection between sustained effort and reward. When they listen attentively or complete a long assignment, feelings of accomplishment follow. They won’t feel the same excitement as a video game win, or the same burst of dopamine (the brain chemical associated with reward). They will feel a deep and abiding sense of satisfaction, self-respect and pride, a sustainable pumping of dopamine in their brains that will motivate future effort. And most importantly, they'll be strengthening the "top-down" brain pathways that need to control their own attention.

Help Kids Build Self-Control

As parents, we can

  • Be aware and improve our own attitudes when we feel discouraged and frustrated. Attitudes are contagious.
  • Work with our children’s teachers to keep long assignments sufficiently doable
  • Guide our children to develop strategies, for example, teaching kids to break their long assignments into small goals with periodic deadlines
  • Help kids learn that getting started is the hardest part, like jumping into a pool
  • Help kids understand that when work gets hard, “I can’t do this” is a thought that expresses frustration, not a certainty and a reason to quit.
Attentive Students building Brains For success

Childhood is a critical time for the formation of neural pathways that support executive functions such as voluntary attention -- another name for “strategic allocation of attention.” Due to processes known as brain plasticity and synaptic pruning, childhood experience plays a key role in engraving brain circuits that will endure. Give your child experience with self-control so he can build a brain that equips him for success.


Kohn, A. (2014). The Myth of the Spoiled Child. (New York: Da Capo Lifelong Books).  Kohn’s article, “S’More Misrepresentation of Research” is adapted from his book.

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test. (New York: Little, Brown & Company). The landmark study showing that self-control -- strategic allocation of attention -- predicts future life success better than any other factor. (See page 18: “Nothing else was on the table, and no toys or interesting objects were available in the room to distract the children while they waited.”)

Palladino, L.J. (2015). Parenting in the Age of Attention Snatchers. (Boston: Shambhala). Includes several chapters describing voluntary and involuntary attention, self-control, and the brain.

Special thanks to the reader who took the time to notice my reference to Mischel's work and send me Kohn's article. I invite you to share your ideas as well.

Will Your Child Be Technologically Competent?

Do iPads belong in a preschool classroom?

At a workshop for educators last year, several preschool teachers told me they didn’t want iPads in their classrooms. The iPads were introduced however, because a number of the parents felt strongly that children need to start early to be technologically competent at school.  What is the best route to technological competence for your child?


Next time you’re befuddled by Windows, consider this: Last Fall, Ayan Qureshi of Coventry, England, passed the industry-wide Microsoft Certified Professional exam. Ayan is five years old. In his words, the test was “difficult but enjoyable.”

Ayan’s path began at age three. He liked to sit down next to his father, an IT consultant, and watch. Over time, his dad explained the basics to him and gave him old computers to take apart. Ayan played with hard drives and motherboards.

While other kids were captivated by iPad apps and TV, Ayan installed and configured operating systems, tinkered with routers and switches, and read Microsoft books. “I knew that if I introduced him to the games, he would not go for this,” his dad astutely observed. Today, Ayan spends two hours a day in his homemade computer lab. He appears to have retained his childlike wonder. He likes compasses, telescopes, and told a reporter, “The rainbow colored light reflected through a prism is amazing.”


Ayan is exceptional. But here’s what I especially like about his story.

1.     Ayan’s dad welcomed his son’s presence by his side. No doubt he had deadlines to meet, demands from clients, and a heavy workload like everyone else. Yet he made time and sent his son an inviting happy-you’re-here-with-me vibe.

2.     Ayan’s dad paid attention to his son. He recognized Ayan’s knack for computers, patiently instructed him, and chose hands-on learning materials.

3.     Ayan was encouraged, not pushed, with a spirit of exploration and discovery, not stress and competition.

4.     Ayan was an active learner. It takes greater effort to figure out computer parts and sustain focus on a Microsoft book than it does to learn from videos and games. Ayan practiced and strengthened his voluntary attention.

5.     Ayan’s parents had the courage of their convictions. They acted on their knowledge that Ayan was too young to choose voluntary over involuntary attention. It's tough enough for an adult to reach for a Microsoft text instead of a video game.


To guide your child’s development of technological competence, be mindful of the difference between attention that’s captured by a screen (involuntary) and more effortful, self-directed attention (voluntary), like Ayan’s. As your children mature, help them grasp this important difference for themselves. Protect young children by encouraging voluntary attention, as Ayan’s parents did.

You don't need to be an IT specialist like Ayan's dad to guide your child. The two of you can go online and learn together. Ask your child to teach you his favorite games. Play them together, so you have common ground for an ongoing conversation about their effects, both good and bad.  From time to time, deconstruct digital media together. Look at posts, ads, and what makes a game addictive. Take apart a TV show the way Ayan disassembled an old computer.

will your child be technologically competent?

Limit your child’s screentime, with the goal of teaching your child the value of limiting screentime on his own. Keep in mind: Quite possibly, the most important technological competency your child can learn is to use the off button.


BBC on Ayan Qureshi
Wired on Ayan Qureshi
Raising children to have technological competence