Blast from The Past: The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking

Today we’re revisiting a post from a few years ago “The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking”:

I recently overheard a conversation between my three-year-old son, Kavi, and my husband. Kavi was about to go to bed and had only a couple minutes left to play. Dada asked him to choose how he wanted to spend his remaining time. Kavi said, “I have a great idea, dada! I can play iPad AND play Legos at the same time!!!”

Hoo boy, I thought. My son is becoming a multitasker at age three. Already dissatisfied with the pleasure of any single activity, he is trying to divide his attention between two things (one of which is a mobile device) thinking it will be more fun and he won’t have to miss out. Is this an expression of the dreaded FOMO, fear of missing out, rearing its head so early?

And thus followed a mental checklist of my potential parenting failures. Two stand out:

  1. I multitask too much in front of him. I am definitely a multitasker, but one who makes strong efforts to put away my devices when I am with my family. I don’t always succeed, so have I become a bad role model?
  2. I don’t encourage him to enjoy the process of doing and learning. As I’ve blogged about before, one way of thinking about styles of learning is making the following distinction: we can focus on and enjoy the process of learning, or we can learn with the goal of obtaining rewards (praise, grades, etc,…). If Kavi is so interested in multitasking, perhaps this is because he doesn’t fully enjoy the process of doing a single activity.

Then I thought on a more hopeful note, maybe I’ve done something very right, teaching him 21st century skills and facilitating his mental acuity:

  1. Multitasking in moderation is useful! Certainly, at this moment in time, people could be at a disadvantage if they are not able to take advantage of multitasking opportunities to gather information, learn, or accomplish goals – in moderation. So, the fact that it occurred to him to multitask two things he likes to do could simply indicate that his cognitive development is moving along nicely.
  2.  Maybe he is learning to augment his creativity via technology. Perhaps his thought was – well, I’m hitting a wall with new things to build with Legos so maybe I can use the iPad to come up with more ideas. But who knows what he was thinking. So I asked him.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey sweetie, do you remember when you told daddy that you wanted to play iPad and Legos and the same time?

Kavi: mumbles something.

Me: What’s that?

Kavi: Yes, I think so.

Me: Why did you want to do iPad and Legos at the same time?

Kavi:  Because it’s the same kind of fun.

Me: The same kind of fun?

Kavi:  Yes. First you do iPad, then you do Legos. iPad, Legos, iPad, Legos….

Me:  But you also play Legos alone, just Legos.

Kavi: But that would be boring!

Me: Really? I see you do that all the time.

Kavi: Yes…..

At this point, I decided to drop it. So, what does this little bit of anecdotal evidence mean? I have no idea. But I think the bottom line is that I know my son and I’m not too worried. He is already quite good at focusing for long periods of time (he can build with Legos for hours if you let him). Perhaps, though, there is something I can do better. I could focus more on promoting his JOMO  – the joy of missing out. It’s the feeling that what you’re doing right now, at this moment, is exactly the perfect thing to do.


12 thoughts on “Blast from The Past: The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking

  1. Watch when Kavi gets a remote. I think there is something to the cliche that males can’t resist remotes and have to watch multiple programs because just one would be boring? Has this ever been researched?

    But to add to your anecdotal evidence at Starbucks I once watched a little girl playing with three devices at once. She was sitting just across from me and her parents were with friends at another table. She was young enough she had probably only recently learned to text, which she was busily doing on a smartphone, but she also had an older kid-looking voice phone (she was talking and texting at same time). And she had an iPad with some app she could talk to and it was talking right back to her (she was really enjoying that).

    But don’t all kids, even pre-technology, have a fairly short span of interest on a single activity and it is part of their normal development to want to explore as much as they can?

    1. Ha! I know. The male multiple-program tendency is begging to be studied.

      You raise great points, as usual, and I agree that it’s probably the case that some degree of multi-tasking is developmentally normal. But I also think there is something about mobile technology that changes the game a bit. There’s a concept in psychology called affordances – the idea that environments can shape our behavior by virtue of what they faciliate or what they block. In the case of an iPad I feel that it affords the opportunity to multi-task more than other kinds of activities. It’s mobile, attention-grabbing, rewarding, highly social if you want it to be, etc,….Multi-tasking legos with the TV just doesn’t feel quite the same. not as intensive and not as attention-dividing.

      And as I wrote in this post, perhaps his desire to multitask legos and the iPad (not sure he CAN actually do that) is a good sign of improving cognitive development.

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