The worst thing to say to busy parents

Author Mem Fox at a reading.

Author Mem Fox at a reading.

For someone who makes a living writing children's books, Mem Fox is surprisingly adept at ruffling the feathers of her potential customers.

Having previously put the boot into parents who who leave babies in child care, she's been ladling out the guilt once more with criticism aimed at adults who allow young children to use smartphones and tablets.

The author of best sellers such as Possum Magic and Where is the Green Sheep? claimed that too many mums and dads have replaced family time with the iBabysitter.

Children's books author Mem Fox.

Children's books author Mem Fox.

"Really, why do we have children if we can't spend some time with them? It is just not right for the child. If we can't spend time with our kids, we shouldn't be having them."


She went on to say she was left heartbroken by the sight of children left alone with electronic devices to amuse themselves.

"One of the things that bothers me most is that people seem to think that kids can be left alone with technology, [but] they would be less likely to leave the child alone with a pile of books at the age of two or three," she said. "It is the aloneness that is heartbreaking."

It's worth noting that Fox's observations come as she prepares for a national tour to promote her new book, Baby Bedtime, and she wouldn't be the first author to court controversy when there is a new release to flog.

But surely telling parents they shouldn't have kids if they can't spend time with them is a particularly cruel way to boost sales.

Perhaps in Fox's world, parents and their children are joined at the hip to the point where the kids never have to go to child care and mum and dad can while away many joyous hours reading her books to their offspring.

In the real world, not so much.

The world most families occupy involves paid work, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, washing, medical appointments and numerous other activities that young children find less than enthralling.

So who can blame a parent who hands over the smartphone to keep their kid occupied while standing in line at the supermarket? Not all parents carry a library of books around with them to keep their kids entertained while they are waiting to see a bank teller. And it's safe to assume parents would rather listen to the gentle click of a tablet in the back seat of the car than a full blown screaming match between siblings on a long drive.

Sure there might be some mums and dads whose parenting default position is to pass the electronic device at the first sign of trouble but I suspect they are in the minority and it should not be interpreted to mean they don't want to spend time with their kids and therefore shouldn't have them.

Fox's latest observations strike me as even more judgmental than her previous remarks about the detrimental effects of child care. While she was widely quoted as comparing child care to child abuse, she later clarified that she was repeating comments made by the owner of a Queensland centre. Still, she declined to back down, saying she was speaking up for the babies in full-time care who couldn't defend themselves.

But, as is the the case with the tech-dependent kids, families with babies in full-time care are in a tiny minority of all childcare users and they don't deserve condemnation.

It seems to me that Fox has bought into a conservative agenda which shames good parents for making "bad" choices such as letting their kids spend time on the smartphone or placing them in childcare.

Perhaps the issue is not so much whether smartphones, tablets, childcare and other things that occasionally liberate parents from parenting are tearing the fabric of society apart. Perhaps the real issue is a culture which seems hyper-critical of any parent who doesn't live up to the unrealistic expectations of people like Fox.

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