Perhaps the most often asked question by parents when I do a Parenteen seminar is “What about technology?” Behind this question is the universal fear parents feel with the encroaching and pervasive nature of technological opportunities. Regardless if the presenting issue concerns too much time on the phone, recent articles on sexting, or the lack of willingness (or even ability) to communicate in complete sentences, issues almost always come down to the feeling of powerlessness when it comes technology and our kids. Especially at Christmastime, when millions of children and teenagers will be “given” a powerful tool that can, and likely will, change them forever, parents have to be fully aware of what it is they are doing and granting in the gift of a new Xbox, smartphone or computer.
So, in a nutshell, here is the single most important thing to keep in mind, and parents must make all decisions and strategies from here:
Technological devices are tools, and do not confer a private and/or personal right or rite of passage.
So what does this mean?
First, tools are things we own (or lease), learn how to safely and best utilize, and we – not the tool – are accountable for misuse or abuse. Technological devices, like any tool, can be used for good or ill. They can make life easier and more manageable, and can also make life more complicated and can even be destructive. The more powerful the tool, often the greater impact the tool has, in either direction.
Second, in a family, a tool should be treated with the respect it deserves. A 12-year-old on a farm in rural Colorado may have greater respect for the family tractor than a 17-year-old with her parent’s Mazda. The issue is about training, and mindset. Parents should consider their role with technology alongside their role with a lawn mower, an athletic or musical prowess, or a car – we must teach them how to use the resource in a way that will help them to learn how to use it instead of sliding into a lifestyle where technology controls them.
Third, in a family, tools do not “belong” to an individual child, rather they belong to the parent(s) and are therefore elements of the family resource kit. Parents own family tools, and kids are granted stewardship as they are trained how to best use them. Thus, issues such as privacy and ownership fall under this principle. The notion of stewardship, however, is an important aspect of learning how to utilize tools and resources in ways that are most productive and least hazardous. With stewardship, there must be given some amount of control. Parents, then, must exercise great care with their oversight of the tool, realizing that their child’s ability to learn how to use the tool is far more important than treating the tool as, say, a discipline bargaining chip (like taking away a phone or web access for talking back).
Fourth, although parents own the family technological resource kit, parents’ modeling both how they use our own tools as well as family openness to their phones, etc., will go a long way to training our children to be appropriate stewards of these powerful tools. So, for example, a family gathering every now and then to look at each others text message history (for parents, this obviously should not include those messages that should remain private from children and teens) can open up great conversations over their relationships, the backstory of texts, and the consequences they experience along the way as a result of the exchange. Sometimes, depending on age, these conversations may need to be child by child to allow for the greatest openness and honesty in the dialogue. But how parents use their tools, and how open they are to allowing their kids into their tools, will go a long way to training their children. (Phones off at dinnertime, perhaps?)
Overall, our best plan is to remember that the point of parenting is to train and prepare our kids for adulthood. Regardless of the issue of the day, the more we keep our emotions in check, maintain the long view of the task, model healthy living, and as a family develop solid real-life relationships with others outside of our family, our kids will have the best chance to grow up seeing technology tools for what they are – simple tools that can enhance our lives, but do not own us.
For a good article on this idea, see:
“For Children, Dumbed-Down Phones May Be the Smartest Option,” by Ron Lieber (http://tinyurl.com/j7slsak)