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Please Look Up!

One of the most interesting parts of being a librarian is that I get to spend a lot of time observing the public. Every day is spent interacting with lots of different families and throughout the summer, I've noticed a trend that makes me very upset. It's been happening for awhile, but I've noticed it with more and more frequency. 

Parents (and grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, babysitters-whoever!) do not look up from their phones and engage with their kids. 

The library is a wonderful place to come and engage and play with your children, but so many adults use the library as a break or a babysitter. They come in, let the kids loose in the department and instead of creating a family trip, they spend their time engaged in their phone or computer. Over and over and I see these kids looking for someone to read a book to them, to play with them, to watch their puppet show. They wander around the children's department seeking out other kids to play with-sometimes with success, sometimes not. Kids come up to the desk and ask if we can be an audience for their puppet show and of course I try to say yes. Not just because I want to encourage these kids, but as a librarian, my job is to model early literacy skills and talking with kids about their puppet show is a great early literacy skill. But I can't always say yes-I have lots of patrons to help, programs to set up, questions to answer-contrary what people may think librarians do, we don't get to watch puppet shows and read books with kids all day. 

The absolute worst and the thing that bothers me the most is when I see this happen in storytime or at our large Summer Reading Program Performers. (We bring in performers like singers, magicians, comedians, jugglers, etc once a week during the Summer.) Instead of engaging with kids during storytime (especially during preschoool storytime-that's when it's the worst!) adults let the kids sit up front while they sit in the back and use storytime as a thirty minute break to socialize, check Facebook, text. I see the kids excitedly signing or dancing to a new song or correctly guessing the animal in the book we're reading and look back to see their adult's proud faces, only to have the adults not looking at them. 

During our big weekly Summer performers, I try not to put a lot of chairs out to encourage the adults to sit with their kids. But that doesn't stop grownups from finding a chair, unstacking a stack from the back and sitting in the back and using the performer as a babysitter. We recently hosted a Big Hero 6 Robot Build-Along and I was so excited to see that about half of the room took the opportunity to sit with their kids and create a robot out of boxes together. The other half sat off to the side and had social time with their phones and with friends instead of using it as a family program. I even overheard one parent say to her friend as she was walking in to the program "well, we'll see how it goes and if we can leave" to which I politely reminded her of the library's unattended children policy. 

Engage with your kids and they will model your reading behavior!

We're wasting prime opportunities with our kids when we become distracted and engaged by something else. These programs and time spent at the library is hopefully growing a lifelong love of reading and the library and helping your child engage in early literacy skills which will help them become better readers and writers. My staff and I focus on early literacy skills in all of our storytimes, we work hard to create engaging programs for families, and the reason we have toys in our department is to encourage families and share ideas about how to incorporate the Roads to Reading (our early literacy program) at home. We want to share with families how they can Talk and Read, Sing and Rhyme, Play With Letters, Tell Stories, and Love Books anywhere and everywhere! But librarians can only do so much. Our hope is that we will help create readers, but that won't happen unless kids have that behavior modeled for them. And when adults are only engaged in screens instead of taking the time to engage with their kids, this opportunity is lost. 

I try to mention this at the beginning of programs-how engaging with your kids means they will get so much more out of the program-but that only goes so far. I can only say so much and try so hard to get the message across. 

I know it's tough. I know it's exhausting. I know you want a break. But the library is such a wonderful chance to connect and engage with kids. They are becoming involved in the community and learning about things that interest them. They are realizing the library has lots of wonderful things to offer. They walk into the library and are given their choice of all the materials there and they realize the world is open to them. This is a powerful thing.

So please, look up! Engage with your kids. Talk to them. Explore with them. Play with them. Create with them. Experience the library together. I promise your visit will be much more rewarding!

Raising a reader

I'd love to know ways you encourage parents to engage with their kids at your library. Any good tips and suggestions?


  1. I absolutely agree with you that a trip to the library is such a wonderful opportunity to model early literacy skills and just overall have a great time with your children. That being said, we don't always know what's going on with the parent or caregiver. Sometimes that trip to the library is what they've been looking forward to all day because it will be there chance to take a break from engagement and entertainment for a short while. I know your post isn't a criticism, rather an encouragement but I also want to offer another perspective.

    1. Meghan-

      No we don't know the background of anyone. But we can encourage parents to take some time to talk, play, and read with their kids. This is especially important during programs, like storytime, where kids will learn so much more if they have an engaged adult talking about the art project they are creating.

  2. Fantastic post! I've been out of my librarian position for a few years, but utilize the library as a parent several times a week. I see this constantly and it drives me crazy!

  3. As a young mom, I used the children's section of the library all the time with my first. I was young, in college, and all alone. I used storytime and the awesome facilities to get some homework done while my child was able to learn and explore in a safe space (Columbus, OH has just an amazing children's area in their library--it is fantastic!).

    Obviously, I kept an eye on her, but I wasn't engaged. I did my best, I honestly did. But if I was ever going to get off public assistance and provide her for the kind of life she deserved, I needed to finish school. The library helped me do that. There were tables next to the play area where I could set up my laptop. There was a couch I could read on. I watched her, made sure she was safe and not disturbing anyone, but obviously was not engaging her at those times.

    I read to my kids. I provide them with all the educational opportunities I can. I feel awful now, because I'm sure someone looked over and thought I was a typical young mom ignoring her kids. I was an English student, I didn't have a bunch of obvious textbooks everywhere that would have marked me as working.

    I tell other people who are trying to juggle kids and their own education about how valuable a resource our main public library was for me. Now I feel like I'm giving them terrible advice. You're not the only librarian who has expressed distaste for this, so I can't even begin to imagine the judgement I've inadvertently caused.

    Basically, I feel like I can't win. I do my best to engage my kids. I read to them. I provide them with educational opportunities. I engage them whenever possible. For awhile, though, it was just me and my daughter, and realizing the judgement I must have received makes me feel sick. The library was my safe place then, but I probably would have been better off at home.

    Please forgive my rant; I feel strongly about this.

    1. Courtney-

      You sound like you have overcome a lot and you've been through an amazing journey. Parenting is hard, and even harder if you are in school.

      The issue that I (and many others in the library have) is that we see parents not making any attempt to engage their children. Instead the library becomes a babysitter and staff become entertainers. I see parents with take their kids into storytime and then sit in the back without their kids looking at their phone the entire time. Or parents don't take any time to check out books or talk to their kids. I even see this happen with parents of multiple children-they bring all the kids to the library, but the poor baby instead of getting to enjoy storytime, sits in the stroller in the back of the room. Kids of all ages can be read to and listen to songs and enjoy storytime. So it is frustrating when I see these opportunities for early literacy go to waste.

      The library is a fantastic resource and we welcome everyone and we love being a place for parents to come. I'm sorry if you felt judged by this post or any other librarians comments.

      What I am trying to say with my comments and this post is that everyone should hopefully take a few minutes to look up, engage, watch their child's puppet show, read a book, help them look at the new books, whatever they want to do at the library. Because when we don't take the time to engage with our kids, we miss out. And even if we are engaging at home or other places, we will still hopefully engage with them at the library to model that not only is it a great place for mom to do homework, or for kids to find wonderful toys and books, but for mom and child to spend time together.

    2. I appreciate that, but without knowing more information I feel that these are just blanket judgements. Did you know you can download an article you need to read for school onto a smartphone now? What if I had read that in the back of a room during preschool story time?

      We are not perfect parents 100% of the time, all the time. You have no idea how children are being engaged outside of the library, or if a parent is just having a rough time.

      When you make blanket statements like this, the pressure to be better, to be a perfect parent really, is staggering. I was set up to fail the second I walked into the library with my daughter. Because yes, we did library activities together, but unless you saw me each and every time, you'd never know that. Besides, I typically worked at a different library than the one closest to our house (it was quieter), so my interactions with my daughter there would be somewhat different.

      I appreciate the thought, I do, but it's so hard to parent as it is without being reminded constantly in exactly what ways people are perceiving your failure.

      I don't mean to criticize. I understand your point, and I don't want to come off as rude. But it is impossible to know what mom is doing on her phone. She might just be goofing off, or send might be sending an email to work. She might be texting another child. She might be reading an article for her anthropology class. It's hard to tell, sometimes.

    3. Courtney, I am a children's librarian and I deeply appreciate your honesty in this conversation. It is critical for children's librarians to take nuanced and sensitive views of all parents. I also think that Sarah's post is thoughtful and deeply focussed on what she wants to see as far as active engagement from all the parents in her library, not just some of them - some of whom are probably engaged in very necessary other activities and others who are goofing off playing Candy Crush (which is fine too). I get her point of view because I believe that libraries can be beneficial to people's lives, babies to seniors and it's our job to encourage the best use of the resources that libraries have! However, what I have also noticed, and I would surmise what Courtney is responding to here, is that parent-bashing / judging / critiquing is very easy to do over social media and so it happens A LOT. Everywhere, not just in children's librarian circles, but all over social media, everywhere you look. I didn't have a screen to look at when my kids were small so no one judged me for checking facebook when I should have been playing with them at the playground. But you know what? I hated the bloody playground - I would sit there dying of boredom and yes, I'd keep them from injuring themselves but did I enjoy it? What I engaged with them? No - I am not what you would call and outdoorsy-mom and I despised every second I spent at the playground. I only took them to the playground because I knew it was good for them. That's it, but at least I took them. But if someone was judging me for sitting on my butt while other parents were wildly running around with their own kids, I guess that's just too bad. They wouldn't know that I spent my indoor time with my kids doing art projects, cool crafts and baking and reading would they? Courtney is right - we do not actually know enough from a cursory look at someone on their phone while their kid is playing with a puppet to say that they should or could be doing a better job. We just don't know. What we can do is build our own practices and strategies (like reminders at the beginning of storytime that I do too!) that encourage parents to help their kids get the most out of what the library has to offer. But it is ultimately their choice and we really, really, really need to be okay with that. If parents feel judged, they don't come back. Also, if they really are so disengaged that they are incapable of being demonstrative with the children at all ever (highly unlikely) then I think the library is actually the best place for their children to spend their time.

    4. I agree, Tess. I'm a Teen Services librarian, so I deal with this to a lesser degree because my kids are somewhat expected (and encouraged) to do their own thing on their own while at the library. However, I think I'm the only person on staff here who is just fine with unattended children being in the library, be they unattended in the traditional sense or unattended in the sense that their parents are here but aren't truly present. I, personally, spent my entire childhood as an unattended child at the library in my small town because it was either that or doing meth on someone's farm when it wasn't youth group night at church or school. The reality is that a lot of our kids could do a lot worse than being engaged by trained staff at a program, even if their parents aren't necessarily 100% full-tilt into the program as well. Do I, like Sarah and every other youth services librarian in the world wish that parents were more engaged? Yeah, I do. I also wish that parents in the US, particularly mothers, had the necessary support systems to take care of their business so that they could afford to donate more of their time to their children. Maybe we can turn this conversation away from criticizing parents, which I don't think Sarah was necessarily trying to do, and steer ourselves toward thinking about how libraries can expand our role as champions of both children and parents.

  4. You are smart and finally someone sees what is happening in the twenty first century to the family. This is apparent at the library, parks and everywhere. It is sickening to see this daily. I commend you for this topic and for speaking out. Parents ignore, cannot be bothered and have no interest in bothering to relate to their kids anywhere, anytime and at all so they give them gadgets instead and while the parent is using their Iphone or Computer or Ipad they are ignoring and not paying an ounce of attention to the children. I brought my children to library programs all year and during the summer which they enjoyed and we interacted all the time and I sat there with them. Now I do the same for my grandchildren. There is no excuse for these so called parents since they are abdicating responsibility and could't care less about it. I see it all the time. Why bother having kids and then ignore them? It is too hard to be attentive to the kids. I took them to programs and then we perused the bookshelves. I am a patron of our library and don't understand this idiocy with young parents anymore.

  5. As a parent, I wish I could say these things to the staff working at our library. I bring my girls in several times a week, and no one ever greets us or acknowledges us when we're checking out. It's a very cold experience that has us running in and out to pick up our selections on hold. :/

    1. Thanks Melissa, for sharing the other side of the coin! It is really unfortunate that your experience is so cold and what a missed opportunity for the staff at your library to get to know you and your family! Is there any avenue for you to give critical feedback that might effect some change? A comments box, an email. It shouldn't be on you to do so, but I worry that negative experiences will make others stop coming. I applaud you for continuing to use your library even with the less than friendly service you and your children deserve!

    2. As Tess mentioned, comments are wonderful from library patrons. We really do appreciate them-good and bad. We want to make sure everyone has a wonderful experience and this is information that the staff should know. Making personal connections with our patrons is one of the things I love the most about my job and I hope other librarians feel the same way. Looking up is something we work on a lot as a staff as well-it's not just for parents!

  6. I couldn't get all of my though in out in a comment, so I wrote a whole blog post inspired by this one. You can check it out over at if you're interested.

  7. While I am certain there are parents who don't engage their children and turn to their phones 24/7, without knowing the backgrounds of the parents you're witnessing, your blanket statements feel like judgment. I am a military spouse. My husband deploys often. I'm also working on my MLIS. I have three very young boys. We often hit the library so they can get out of the house, and I get a chance to do my school work. In fact, the reason I found your blog was through an assignment in my Children's Materials class! Having open conversations about engaging and playing with your children is important, but please understand that if a parent is brining their children to the library, chances are there is plenty of engagement and reading going on at home as well. If I don't do my work at the library, my children often have to try to entertain themselves at home. They would much prefer spending time at the library while I work on my classwork, and when I get home with them, I'm more readily available. There are always two sides of the coin.

    1. Sally, as I have mentioned in previous comments, this post is not to judge, but a commentary on how in storytime and in programming, which are created for engagement, I see adults checking out. I agree there are two sides and that there may be engagement at home. But in programming and storytime, I believe it is important to engage with your kids.

      I absolutely believe in the power of the public library and know how wonderful a support it can be for families. In this post I have not asked parents to stop doing homework at the library. I am encouraging them to engage with their children in library programs. Yet, to assume that there is engagement happening at home is also a blanket statement. I live in an area where 800 of the students entering into the school district are homeless, childhood poverty is a huge problem for the community, and early childhood education is a vital need in our community. We work very hard in the library to promote early literacy skills, and while yes, sometimes we are preaching to the choir, there are other times this is the first time parents have even heard or thought about singing to their child.

      I'm sorry if you felt judged by this post and I hope you understand that was not my intent.


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