So what does it really take to raise a good kid in the digital world?
After working in this space for over 10 years (and being a parent for 19), I realised a long time ago that there is no one thing. There is no magic bullet. There is no software we install, no rule that we enforce, no warning that we lecture and no app or site that we block.
To be honest. Sometimes I feel parents want this. I know I would at times. We want to be told that one thing to do. Or one thing not to do. Or one thing to buy. But what it really comes back to is good old fashioned parenting and instilling in your kids the beliefs and values you hold dear, whilst doing what we can to understand the challenges they will face today.
I know. Sounds a bit wishy washy from someone who works with kids daily in the online world.
But really. That’s what we have.
And yes people like myself are here to tell you about the latest apps kids are using. To enlighten you to the latest ways they interact and what the technology is capable of. I can continue to give you strategies to help you deal with techno tantrums, and I can give you the red flags to indicate your child may not be coping. I can give you ideas on how to make rules that allow for better functioning of your tech lives. I can alert you to ways of being more mindful about your families use of technology. Of strategies to avoid the pervasiveness of digital distraction. I can recommend software, systems and settings to help you protect your child from the pornographic and inappropriate content that constantly threatens to seep into their screens.
But I don’t tell you this so you can further alienate your child by informing them that you know everything that goes on and you are all over the bad stuff they will encounter. I don’t want you to go home and simply block, ban and shut it all down so your child can stay safe and protected from the potential pitfalls. (Yes of course there are some things you need to be blocking and banning).
The reason I tell you about the crappy apps, the dangerous pedophile, the mean girl comments, the abusive gamer and the adolescent brain that struggles to engage the appropriate critical thinking and decision making, is so you can have the right conversations and put in place the right boundaries from a place of understanding and perspective. So you can work with your child about the challenges they may face or have faced, and let them know that you have their back. That you will help them out of any trouble no matter how insurmountable it seems. That you understand the importance that the online world may play in their lives. That doesn’t mean you let them have free reign. You still get to decide what is and isn’t appropriate for their age, development and social and emotional maturity. You are just doing so from a place of knowledge and understanding and connection, rather than an impulse response to fearful click bait headlines.
And those rules and those boundaries and those conversations may well be ever changing and fluid. They may well differ with each child.
But at the end of the day parenting is what it is. We know it isn’t always easy.
But no expert can make your child have the hours of sleep that they need. Or make them come to the table for dinner when they are engrossed in their Call of Duty battle. No one can make them engage at a family function without their phones because they may miss out on a group chat thread. This is parenting. And we need to keep trucking along through all of this. Because when I get the comment from a parent in the audience “My child wouldn’t listen to me if I told them to remove their phone from the dinner table”. I can’t turn that around during the Q and A session of the Parent information evening.
That is about building mutual respect for boundaries. And about building that connection with your child.
When a parent asks me “What do I do when my child says they are the boss of how they spend their time and if they want to play games all night they can?” What I want to say is “What did you do when they wanted to eat the ice cream before the main meal? What did you do when they wanted to watch the R rated movie when they were 8? What did you do when they wanted to eat all the chocolate? You parented them. You made a decision on something that you believed was important for their safety, their wellbeing or for the smooth functioning of your household. Granted this is way harder with a 15 year old than an 8 year old. But we still have to do the hard yards to prevent us getting to those situations in the first place. (If a child is abusing you, being aggressive or violent as a result of your boundaries around screentime or gaming, then yes, you do have a problem, and you do need to seek out the appropriate professional help).
So why do we struggle with this so much? Maybe it’s because it isn’t a world many parents grew up in. It isn’t something they naturally ‘get’. They feel overwhelmed by the headlines, and shut off from the world that permeates every facet of their child’s lives. And indeed shut off from their children. Maybe its just easier to let it slide when we are tired and cant be bothered with an argument.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Learn about their world to have the right conversations. You don’t have to know everything. Just enough to remain somewhat relevant.
Talk about the challenges.
Nurture and explore the positive experiences, people and pursuits to follow online
Listen to them
Make boundaries for your family and insist on those boundaries
Help them make boundaries for themselves
Help them develop a healthy self esteem that transcends all the comparison and exclusion and petty comments that pervade their social feeds.
Continue to instil those values of kindness & empathy
Do other stuff together and create that culture of balance
I often say in my parent talks that it is important we don’t make technology the bad guy. When we do that we set up an ‘us versus them’ scenario. We don’t have to love technology either. But we have to accept it is here to stay. More often than not we put it into their hands and expect them to have the skills, the critical thinking, the habits and the behaviours to manage it all. Usually they don’t. So we need to be there to help them. To parent, guide and support them. To help them through mistakes and to help them problem solve their way through the challenges.
If we give all of that a pretty good shot, my anecdotal evidence, and increasingly the scientific evidence, continues to tell me, that they will more than likely end up a good kid in a digital world.