Family life

Multi-tasking: Does it do more harm than good?

Susan has realized that her son can only do one thing at a time, but is that really a bad thing?

By Susan Goldberg
Multi-tasking: Does it do more harm than good?

The only multi-tasking Susan's son can manage is eating and reading (or watching TV).

I realized something profound the other day: Children don't multi-task.
This profound realization came to me as I was trying to get Isaac to put on his snow pants so that we could get out the door and to school. I was all focused on snow pants, we're going to be late, just one leg and then the other and then we can do the jacket and… but my five-year-old, bless him, was focused on telling me some story about the magical rainbow dragon he had found underneath the car.
It was one of those classic parenting moments, when you know that, really, you should be focusing on the present moment and giving your child your full attention, marvelling at and sharing in his wonder and imagination. And that would be really nice, except for the fact that you're all going to be late and he's standing there, holding the snow pants in one hand and saying, "And, Mom? Did you know that a rainbow dragon can only live in the water? And that's why it's so rare?" And as much as you'd like to marvel and share, this is difficult because you're thinking, OK, but can't you talk to me while you put on your freaking snow pants?
At least, that's what I was thinking.
And then it hit me: he can't. He actually can't do more than one thing at a time.
Children — at least my children, but I'm willing to bet yours, too — don't multi-task. They don't think, Oh, I'll just tidy up my bedroom while listening to the radio, or I could tell you this really interesting story while I climb into my car seat and sit all the way down on my bum and fasten my seatbelt or I'll just get into my soccer uniform while examining this incredibly interesting rock or I'm going to read this story out loud while simultaneously checking my e-mail and Facebook and Twitter feeds (oh, wait…). Children — with the possible exception of eating while reading or watching television — do one thing at a time.
And maybe that's not such a bad thing. After its brief heyday sometime in the 1990s as the key to getting things done, multi-tasking has fallen out of favour with productivity gurus. People who multi-task may feel like they're accomplishing more, but, for the vast majority of us, it can actually do more harm than good: studies show that trying to focus on more than one thing can cause a 40 percent drop in productivity and even lower your IQ. (Google it — no, not now.) The exact opposite of what most of us have in mind as priorities for our kids, right?
As an admitted Type-A parent, this realization has been a bit of a game changer: if my kid can't do more than one thing at a time — and if trying to do more than one thing at a time is going to slow him down even more — maybe it's time to stop badgering him to get dressed and just wait until he's taken the 20 seconds he needs to tell me his story. One breath, one moment, at a time.

This article was originally published on Apr 11, 2013

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