Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Taking Devices to the Restaurant...and Everywhere Else

We went on a day trip to the town where we will likely be moving, and we took all of our devices with us.

The iphone. The ipad. The mini DVD player.

I think we fit right in with the rest of the public. These days, most people are posting about how we all need to put the devices down and enjoy life. And I completely agree. But... in our case, with Lilli, sometimes we need to use the devices in order to enjoy life together as a family.

With all of the articles out there about how devices are ruining family time and changing relationships, that doesn't even seem to makes sense. But I've explained before that Lilli has a lot of anxiety in public, and we have been through many breakdown, sobbing scenes with strangers staring. I just hate that scene. I want to blend in. I want to have a few moments where no one notices us, and we can just be out in public doing our thing with no stares or awkwardness.

Using a device can help temporarily ease Lilli's anxiety in public, and helps us to blend in. It can help our family have an opportunity to spend time have a conversation with each other. It calms Lilli and I can actually pay attention to my other children, and talk to them without being completely focused on just my one, anxious child.

I've put off posting this. I actually kind of don't even want to put this out there, because of that "mommy guilt" that is so ingrained in all of us moms for various reasons. We try to talk ourselves through things and we appreciate encouraging comments from others...but we still feel guilt over things we feel like we should be doing differently, don't we? It is hard to be a consistent parent and do what is "best" all of the time.

I am so conflicted over this issue. I know there are other moms like me who depend on devices to get through public outings without a scene with their child. We all see it - parents handing over the phone to their children - in waiting rooms, restaurants...check out lines. Is it lazy? Is it a cop out? Is this something that I should be working on - to teach my special needs daughter how to cope and act in public situations without the crutch of a device?

We do work on it. All the time. And most of the time, working on it is just torture to me.

Many other posts of mine have been about this subject - our experiences in public where we are trying to teach Lilli how to cope or behave in different situations. This post is more about how we give up and use devices with Lilli to have a peaceful family time out, for the sake of the rest of us. I'm not trying to justify it, because I don't think it's good, and I still wish things were different. I'm just explaining it. And maybe even working through the guilt and judgement little bit. Let me tell you, if I could go back in time and hand my years-ago mommy-self an iphone to give to a seven year old Lilli during a crying, stressful trip to get groceries, I would do it. And I would tell myself:  just give her the phone, it's ok. Get your toilet paper and your pretzels in peace, it will not hurt your daughter to watch Elmo while you do this, and who cares what strangers think.

On this particular day trip that we took as a family, we traveled to another town over an hour away - a place that soon may become our new home. We spent the whole afternoon there. My husband had to meet with two different people regarding his future employment, so I kept the kids busy. We do not know this town at all, but we are learning our way around each time we visit.

During his first forty-five minute appointment, we all waited in the van for him while it thunder stormed. The kids watched a movie on the dvd player, played on the ipad, played with toys, and ate snacks. Of course I could have tried to take the kids somewhere, but each place I thought of meant a chance of Lilli collapsing and sobbing: the library we have never been to... any of the stores we passed...I saw a KMart and got excited about clearance for a few seconds. But there I was, pregnant with my three children in an unfamiliar town, in a thunderstorm. It is hard enough to take Lilli out somewhere we already know, when it's not pouring buckets. I just mention that I'm pregnant because that makes it harder to run after her, (she almost always runs away from me in the parking lot or store aisles) or bend down and pick her up off the floor when she collapses in the middle of a public place. She's ten and still does the "wet noodle" and falls on the floor, completely overwhelmed when we shop.There is no guarantee that any store will have a cart she will fit in, like those huge carts with toddler seats that I still squeeze her into at Target. (Once again I am reminded that I should be calling every store where we shop, stating my case that they purchase a Caroline's Cart for families like ours. Sigh.)

It might have been fine. Sometimes Lilli surprises me. She might have been happy, and she might have held my hand and stayed with me the whole time. It is happening more and more these days, but it just depends. I was not up for taking that chance.

So we just stayed in the car.

For my husband's second meeting, the storm had mostly passed by, so I took the kids to the park in the drizzling rain while we waited for him. I was so happy for that rain! The rain was wonderful, because everyone else in the community stayed dry at home, and we had the whole playground to ourselves.

I was glad when we pulled into the empty parking lot and I unloaded the kids in puddles. My dread of a packed playground is not about what other people think about Lilli's special needs. It is about me not being able to watch Chloe and Josh through a crowd of people while I focus on Lilli. An empty playground meant I could easily keep an eye on the other two running around while I pushed Lilli in a swing. I rigged an umbrella over the handicapped swing for her, and pushed her for forty five minutes while Josh and Chloe played in the big castle maze. I felt safe because whenever I could not see them, I could just call out to them and hear them answer. Yay for empty playgrounds, boo for me being anti-social. Oh well. (But did we take any devices to the playground? No.)

Another bonus to having the playground to
ourselves in the rain: you can do silly things
like prop an umbrella over your kid on
the swing.

It happened to be my husband's birthday, so we all went out for pizza after his meetings.

And this is where the iphone comes in.

In this small town pizza place, everyone seemed to know each other, and people had conversations with each other from different tables across the room. We loved the warmth and feel of this familiarity. At the table, we relaxed while waiting for the food to come. My husband played tic tac toe and hangman with Chloe, while I colored with Josh and did a sticker activity book with him. We talked. We laughed.

And Lilli had the iphone.

Yes, at the table. In a restaurant. For the whole meal.

She also had just one Lego - her other favorite thing in the world. She listened to Elmo Saves Christmas playing on the phone, a movie she has watched many hundreds of times since she was three.  It was so worth the $6.99 I paid for that movie that has been watched over and over. And when I say "over and over," I mean that literally. Like when it ends, Lilli doesn't want something new. She wants the same exact movie to play again. She hands us the phone so we can start it again for her.

We use Elmo Saves Christmas all the time when we are out in public. I truly think that listening to a familiar movie is calming to Lilli. Maybe it helps her sort through her anxieties in public, unfamiliar situations by focusing on something that comforts her. She has heard the same lines over and over for seven years. Even I can recite every line and sing every song in that movie.

It's not like she is playing through all the levels of Angry Birds. Does that make a difference? I don't know. Maybe not. I just don't know. I have double standards. I wouldn't let my other children use a device at the restaurant table. I wanted to interact with them and enjoy them. The rest of us talked. We looked at each other. But Lilli held the phone to her ear and listened to Santa sing "Everyday Can't Be Christmas" for probably the seven hundredth time. Maybe for her, it's like when I listen to a favorite, calming song. Music can sometimes help us get our emotions under control. We all have different ways we calm ourselves when we are anxious. Some children have a stuffed animal or special blanket. I eat chocolate, vacuum, and listen to a favorite CD. My husband goes for a run.

Well, Lilli watches Elmo and holds a Lego. Some kids with special needs spin in circles or hum. Maybe some anxious kids play Angry Birds. I don't know. This is just how I view Lilli with her device issue right now. Her comfort items are Legos and movies.

My earliest childhood mealtime memories were of eating dinner together as a family; no tv, no radio on. No reading books or newspapers during dinner. Set the table with the blue placemats, sit in your same spot each night, and just talk. I love family time together at the dinner table.

Giving our child a device at the table goes against what we believe in and desire for our family. We really hate it.

But this is what we do, to get through.

I started writing about Lilli's mealtime anxiety. But after a long explanation, I decided it was another whole topic. I will just say that she has always had a lot of anxiety about eating, stemming from choking on food and liquids since birth.

So add to the public place anxiety, the anxiety about eating issues. And we solve all of this temporarily at a restaurant, by handing Lilli the iphone.

At the pizza place, Lilli held the phone to her ear, listened to the movie on low volume, and held one Duplo lego the whole time with the other hand.  She was happy. It felt so nice. So "normal."  So rare. We had a great family dinner together. No one noticed us that much, at our table for five near the wall. It was a noisy, happy place, and Lilli did great. She only tried to crawl under the table a few times, but for the most part, she stayed put, content. Smiling.

I don't care what strangers think about us permitting a device at the table. If she didn't have that device, she very likely would have been crying, shrieking, crawling on the floor, or getting up trying to run out of the restaurant the whole time. We all sat and enjoyed ourselves with no drama. Things are already different, with us pulling out Lilli's foil-wrapped sandwich and her own cup and hand-feeding her every bite while the rest of us chow down on pizza.

Lilli holding the iphone to her ear, listening to
her movie.  We are hanging out by the
 arcade games.
When we were finished eating, I dug for quarters so Josh and Chloe could play the old arcade games in the corner. Lilli still had the phone to her ear, and the rest of us laughed together as Jasen helped the other two play an old Ms. Pac Man game and drive a race car. Lilli could not play the games. But she stayed with us and placed her lego on different parts of the arcade games.

I love it when life feels kinda normal like that for a few moments. It was short lived, because of an embarrassing potty accident that happened a few minutes later as we left. But while it lasted, it was great. We appreciated those moments together as a family.

For others, maybe they think it is rude or just bad parenting to let their child have a device at the table in a restaurant. But Lilli cannot make conversation. She cannot color or play with stickers. She cannot play tic tac toe. She has trouble staying in her chair, and always tries to walk up to other tables and grab strangers' heads and faces. (This only happened once at the pizza place, and I just apologized and quickly led her away). We are constantly putting her back in her seat, telling her to stay put. It's hard for her to figure out what to do with herself. Add to that the overstimulation of noise and activity when we are out in public, and a meltdown is like a weather prediction of a ninety percent chance of  thunderstorm.

But a device will keep her happy. She can entertain herself with that, while the rest of us do all the things that families do when they are out at a restaurant.

If you see us out running errands, Lilli will probably be holding the iphone to her ear. When you see us out as a family in a restaurant, or if I come to your house for a visit, Lilli will likely have a device - if I want to actually have a conversation with you, that is. And you might think that is all she does. If you don't understand, you might even think to yourself how it is such a shame and it is not good for a child to have so many movies and devices. And I would agree with you. You might even go as far as to think to yourself that surely there are alternatives, and that we should teach her to play with something... or just find a toy that she really likes.

If you think that, please, I beg you to come to my house and figure it out for me. We have tried many things over the years, and yet here we are.

I am not justifying giving a child a device.

I know it's not good. I know about all the articles that say how bad it is for children to have devices or movies for a certain number of hours per week. And we are working on teaching her to try other things. But there are no articles that tell me how to have moments of quality time as a family, social time with friends, or normalcy in public with an anxious child who has frequent inappropriate public behavior, cannot speak, and cannot entertain herself with typical child activities.

We had a great visit to that town, and a great day. While I was pushing Lilli on the swing at the park, I asked her what she thought of this town.

"Do you like it here, Lilli? Do you think you'd like living here?" I asked her in the rain. She put her hand on her neck - her gesture of wanting to say something, but can't - and she smiled. I'll take that as a yes.

Maybe this move to a small town will be the best thing that ever happened to our family. I really hope so. I would love to go back to that pizza place and have that experience again. I'm so thankful for a great day. And I'm so thankful for these dang devices that I love/hate, because they help us go out together and enjoy dinner out as a family.

If you ever see a child at a restaurant with a device, please don't judge the parents. You don't know the reason behind why that child has a device. It might seem rude to you. It might seem like bad parenting. Or lazy parenting. And maybe in some cases, it truly is.

But that child might be my child. And bad parenting or not, this is our way of coping in public.

This is what I know: everyone in the restaurant was able to enjoy their meal that night, including us, because we gave Lilli a device. And I truly hope that one day far off in the future, I might write and tell you that we went to a restaurant and made it happily through a meal with no device at all. Until that day, if it ever comes, we will charge every device we have, and pack them all.

Thanks for understanding.

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