The other day my 4 year old asked me for a smartphone. A smartphone! At 4 years old. Request denied. Until he's at least 12.
When I thought of his request, I instantly flashed to this article from The Washington Post that I read a few months back. The author perfectly sums up the feeling of many of my parenting peers. The writer's premise is that we are parenting in uncharted territory — raising children in a world filled with technology while our childhood frame of reference remains decidedly and gratefully low-tech.
"My generation, it seems, had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents," writes Allison Slater Tate.
It brings up the question — how do we bridge this divide? Parents and children embrace and utilize all platforms of technology in our work, school and social lives yet we yearn to teach our children the values, interpersonal social skills and human interactions that we learned in our youth. Is that possible?
I think this is one of the great balancing acts that parents must perform on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Add to it the need to remain current on the advances in technology and new social media programs that our children are using everyday.
There are four things, in my estimation, that each parent must consider when dealing with kids and technology.
1. Set Clear and Appropriate Limits on Their Use of Technology and Screen Time
Too much of anything, whether it's Facebook or facials, is usually not a good thing. As our children get older and ask for more and more access to technology, we must explain to them that such gadgets are a privilege, not a right. As long as your children are under your roof — and using your WiFi — you set the rules. Give them the opportunity to be connected, have fun with their friends and play games but make sure there are guidelines in place. For instance, is screen time a reward for completing homework? Getting good grades? Finishing chores? You must decide whether they can keep their phone or tablet in their room or have access to it 24/7. Making these rules clear and not deviating from them will force your children to have a life outside of social media.
2. Ask for Help If You're Swimming Helplessly Against a Rising Tide of Connectedness
This might be difficult for you and your spouse to navigate. I cannot tell you how many parents tell me that they are "not good at the internet." In this era, that is a frightening statement and tantamount to surrendering a huge part of control to your impressionable children, who seem born with an innate knowledge of how to use technology. If you need advice on how to set up parental controls or don't know Instagram from instant coffee, ask a friend, family member or co-worker for help. There are also plenty of answers and research online to give you advice and, frankly, scare the parents of teenagers and tweens into instant action. Also, if you're not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, get going. You will be able to see what your children are doing and the results might surprise, frighten or even please you.
3. Make Them Unplug
Establish areas of your home or times of the day that are off limits to technology. Is mealtime sacrosanct? How about nighttime? Possibly even car rides, if you want to focus on family conversation. It's important that we do our best to maintain these tech-free zones because it reinforces to our children that every second of every day does not have to be spent in front of a screen. In our house, with small children, we try to create daydreaming time as well. It's also helpful to spend large chunks of time outside playing or doing family activities that don't require an internet connection like playing board games, cards or doing puzzles. This will also provide your children a glimpse into life without WiFi and allow them to not only have positive family memories but give them an outlet for when they feel overconnected. By laughing together, talking together, sharing common experiences together we can broaden their minds and allow them to see that life is more than an ethereal picture posted on Snapchat. The precious family moments are the ones that truly last.
4. Stop Using Technology as a Crutch
Just as earlier generations derided using television as a babysitter, a smartphone or tablet is not a babysitter. I'm guilty of letting my kids occasionally use technology while I make dinner/fix stuff/do chores/take a much-needed 10-minute nap on the couch. But that is no excuse for good parenting. I feel that some parents use screen time for their children as a way for the parent to escape. What that does is reinforce to children that technology trumps parenting. "Daddy's here but he's staring at his phone, so why can't I?" would be the natural reaction from a child. That sets a dangerous precedent. It's a challenge because many of us have to be connected for work so our children will watch us using technology and responding every time a new email pops into our inbox. We have to show them that it's possible and even preferable to put our devices down for a time and focus on something else. If we teach them from an early age that technology is PART of our lives and not ALL of lives, we can allow them to have a richer, more well-rounded childhood.
Another element that we must fight against is the urge to believe that our childhood — free from many of the technological advances of the past 20 years — was somehow "better" than the one our children are experiencing. We must accept that our children's experience will be shaped much differently from ours and that tablets and smartphones and high-tech software programs will be at their fingertips in their schools, places of employment and homes for every day of their lives. If we try to recreate the dark ages of our childhood — as much as we remember them with rose-colored glasses — we will drive a wedge between us and push our children further from us. The best we can do is give them communal family experiences — having mealtimes, attending live theater, taking long walks in beautiful spaces — that will attempt to give them an appreciation for things that don't come with a power cord.