Parenting is hard work. And raising children in our modern digital world presents new challenges to a job that already seemed sufficiently difficult enough. That’s why last Thursday our Assets Parent ‘Ohana (APO) held their first education forum of the year on this very topic, “Parenting Your Children in the Digital Age,” featuring retired Honolulu police officer Mr. Chris Duque and our very own Mr. Jon Pennington.
While parents have had to wrestle for decades with values and questions regarding technology, current parents face a unique challenge. Screens of all shapes and sizes are ubiquitous today. We can access the wonder and danger of the Internet at the touch of a button from practically anywhere. What is a parent to do in this brave new world that often seems to be too void of decency for our comfort? I’d like to offer some considerations that hopefully help you manage this new frontier with safety, reasonable expectations, and your sanity intact.
Approach technology similar to the other environments in your child’s life. Yes it’s true that the Internet can be a scary place. So can the shopping mall though. For as many unsettling stories that we hear about cyberbullying and sexting, the truth is that children can be vulnerable anywhere if they are not properly equipped with the skills and values necessary to function in that environment.
We don’t banish our children for life from stepping foot in the mall though. Instead, we teach them rules about strangers. We teach them about staying close to their family in crowded areas. We talk with them about what stealing is, we ask them to practice their manners with employees, and quiz them about what they would do if they got lost. As they get older, we often start taking their friends with us to the mall. Shortly, being seen in public with parents will be social kryptonite and they will want to hang out with friends alone. At this point, we often let the kids go off on their own while we too stay at the mall. We may even accidentally walk a path that intersects the kids at some point, just to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. Eventually, we get to a place where we are comfortable enough (as comfortable as any parent can ever be) letting our adolescents go to the mall by themselves. We still have curfews and check-ins. We might even, gasp, give them a cell phone in case of an emergency. If they make a behavior misstep while at the mall, we scale back these mall privileges temporarily.
Most of us are ok with the mall example above. It feels very natural to us. We don’t always apply this process to our children’s virtual environments though. When it comes to other, “real” environments, most of us take a gradual release of responsibility approach with our children. We slowly grant our kids more autonomy as they learn more and demonstrate their ability to navigate that environment in a proper way. We gradually release the responsibility of our children’s safety from us onto them. Why? Because whether we like it or not, our children will leave us soon and we want them prepared to be functional young adults who can thrive and need to become the conductors of their own lives.
I’d encourage us to think of technology in a similar fashion. Whether it’s going to the movies, staying at a friend’s house, or using an iPad, children need clear structure, support and feedback from adults. We need to help children develop skills and values that promote their safety, while giving them opportunities to apply them in an authentic way. We accomplish this over time by protecting our children as much as possible against the life-altering, destructive forces of the Internet while also giving them scaffolded support that allows them to develop their digital citizenship.
Use the online resources available to you. There are numerous organizations and websites that are devoted to parents helping their children enjoy the Internet in a safe way. Most of these sites have a parent page that is full of tips.
- Common Sense Media
- Family Online Safety Institute
- The Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital
- HealthyChildren.org. A site from the American Academy of Pediatrics
- Cyberwise. A site whose tagline is “No Grown Up Left Behind!”
- Google even has it’s own Safety Center for Families.
#HaveTheTalk. We usually think of The Talk as the birds and the bees but last week Common Sense Media encouraged parents and educators to sit and have a different kind of talk. As part of Digital Citizenship Week, parents were asked to speak with their children about how to be ethical, responsible users of technology. People could share digital citizenship questions and resources on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #HaveTheTalk. Even though this week has passed, I would still encourage you to discuss your online expectations with your children. When looking for ways to start the conversation, consider the question starters provided by Common Sense Media and the Center on Media and Child Health, which separate the questions by developmental age.
Develop a Family Media Agreement. When you do #HaveTheTalk with your child, you don’t have to dictate all of the rules. By co-constructing a family agreement, you are giving your child a voice in decision-making and an opportunity to take ownership of the expectations. You can still have non-negotiable rules that you feel are essential, but this allows flexibility to also hear what your child believes is important. For example, they may really want for you to not be on Facebook during soccer practice. You can find some examples of what these plans might look like here and here.
You need to know your child’s digital passwords. If you allow your child to have a cell phone, email account, personal computer or social media account, you need to know what their passwords are. I suggest this be one of the non-negotiable items in your family media agreement. Together, you can discuss what a reasonable check-in policy for you should be.
Be a good digital media role model. Use digital media together as a family. Jon Pennington suggested that in the same way some families have “movie night,” you can also have “technology night.” This doesn’t mean everyone has their head buried in their own devices and are parallel playing. Instead, you could ask your child to show you YouTube clips that he thinks are funny and then watch them together. Likewise, you can share games, videos, or Facebook posts that you think are interesting. This time allows you to bond, learn, and model what good online etiquette (“netiquette”) looks like. And if you do make a family media contract, be sure you abide by your agreements.
Designate screen-free zones and times. It is appropriate for meals to be technology-free times. Meals are for face-to-face interaction and active listening. The same goes for eating out at a restaurant and visiting with family. It can also be helpful to remove devices from a child’s bedroom before lights out. This removes access to the temptation for checking texts or playing games and promotes a healthier night’s sleep. You might even consider designating a room or nook in your house as a Walden Zone, a term that William Powers coined in his book, Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age. A Walden Zone is a place that serves as a sanctuary from digital media. It’s a place completely unplugged. A place we go to be quiet, to recharge and to think deeply.
Keep screens in public areas of the house. This is one of those policies that you will modify as children grow older and demonstrate their responsible use. By keeping iPads, video games and computers in public areas, you can more easily monitor content and time usage.
Stand for reality. Many children, particularly adolescents, will balk at your expectation that they share their digital passwords or devices with you. They are going to accuse you of not trusting them. And when your child tells you that he is the only person in the 5th grade who doesn’t have a cell phone, or the only middle schooler who has to hand over his Instagram password, or the only kid in the whole entire world who can’t keep his iPad in his room at night…..I urge you to stand for reality (a fabulous phrase that I’ve borrowed from Ann Klotz). Stand for the reality that these deeply impassioned, absolute proclamations are simply untrue. Many students do not have the unfettered digital access other children claim they do. And even if their declaration proves more factual than not, that still doesn’t automatically qualify it as appropriate for your child. You can tell your child that you do trust them, and you love them, and that love requires you to make sure they’re safe and applying the skills and values that you’ve taught them.
Find the courage to withstand your child’s anger. This is the second part of standing for reality. It’s what allows us to stand firm. It also happens to be the most difficult part because all of us want to be liked, especially by those we love the most. The psychologist Richard Weissbourd provides us a strong rationale for fighting through our discomfort and summoning the strength to stand firm. He warns us that, “when parents are unwilling to withstand their children’s anger in the service of promoting a value moral quality in their child, they fail to communicate many critical messages: that there are higher values than being well-liked; that their children are capable of withstanding their disapproval; and that they themselves, the people their child is supposed to idealize and internalize, are capable of withstanding anger and disdain.”
Please use Assets School as a convenient excuse if it helps you stand firm. We are happy to serve as the reason behind safe media guidelines in your home. In fact, feel free to use my name in absentia if it helps!
Accept imperfection as a natural part of child development. Kids make mistakes. This is an undefeated truth for all people. Try to be empathetic. Our job as moral mentors is to help students grow from their mistakes. Sometimes I think we have an easier time accepting this with face-to-face behavior than we do with online behavior. We bring our emotions and values to all our environments though, and the virtual universe doesn’t inherently make our emotions less difficult to manage.
When a child does make a mistake online, be sure to focus on the behavior, not the child’s self or character. Try, “I’m disappointed that you used inappropriate language on Facebook,” as opposed to “I’m disappointed in you” or telling him that he is a bully. By concentrating on the behavior, we communicate that behavior can be changed and better managed, and we don’t cast shame about who one is.
When it comes to issuing consequences, I encourage you to use logical consequences. If a child’s misbehavior was technology-related, try to think of a consequence that is directly related to the behavior, helps remedy the damage done, and is reasonable for the child to accomplish. By doing this, we help children see the connection between their behavior and its effect on others.
Be gentle with yourself. Parents are often not kind enough with themselves. Why? I think it’s because, as psychologist Michael Thompson writes, “every parent is trapped by hope, love – and anxiety.” This cocktail of emotions ensures that parenting will inherently be a high-stakes, vulnerable occupation. But please remind yourself that every expression of distress, anger, or imperfection in your child is not a reflection of poor parenting. In the same way that I asked you to “stand for reality” with your children, you must also stand strong for reality with yourself and your partner. Take comfort in knowing that while you play a major role, there is not an absolute relationship between your parenting skills and your child’s mistakes. Your child will make mistakes, and we here at Assets are standing along with you in the effort to raise good digital citizens. Parent for the digital media world, as well as you can, and when you feel like you need more support, reach out for it. We’ll respond even if you reach out to us digitally!