Parenting in the technological age

(This was originally published in Columbia Living – “The Premier Lifestyle Magazine of Columbia South Carolina”, July/August 2011)

With every generation, raising children takes on new challenges never before seen by parents. Think about how parenting has changed through the ages. Before the invention of the light bulb, kids were “in” by dark. Now, they can stay out late and see all night. Before the automobile was invented, children had to walk or take the family horse. Now, they are able to travel hundreds of miles in just a few hours. Before the invention of television, kids were outside all the time. Now, there are enough channels in the basic cable package to entertain them 24 hours a day, literally. Before the invention of the internet, kids had to go to the library for hours to do research. Today, with a few clicks from home and they can find what they want in minutes. It used to be that parents had to set a geographical boundary and curfew for their children to obey. In this day and age, those boundaries are primarily online. “Don’t go past that landmark” has now been replaced with “Don’t go to that website”.

Like it or not, we are in the Zenith of the technological age and it seems that parenting has to morph just as rapidly as the technologies that are created. Just in the last 15 years, parents have had to address the following technological bombardments: MP3’s, iPods, YouTube, MySpace, Twitter, Facebook, Nook, Kindle, instant messaging, web cams, cell phones, texting, Xbox, DVR, TiVo, etc. To an older ear, some of those terms can bring confusion. To an “old-timer”, YouTube can sound like your toothpaste. Isn’t Kindle something you do to a fire? Should the trend continue parents will have to address and adapt to even more technology in order to stay current and communicate with their children. So, how do you do it? How does a parent stay informed, connected and even communicate with their children in such an age?

  • Get educated. Listen to your children and you will learn a lot. They will talk about the latest technology, how they use it or how they want to use it. Ask questions. Get online and “google” to find answers. Go to the store and talk to the employees. Knowledge is power and too often parents are powerless simply because they don’t even know what they don’t know.
  • Get online. If your kids are on Facebook, you need a Facebook account. If your kids use Twitter, you need to have a Twitter account and “subscribe” to it. If your child plays Xbox, you need to at least be familiar with the game and how it’s played. If your child likes to text message, you need to learn how to do it. Nothing can distance a parent quicker than not understanding their child’s world. There is already a great chasm between a child and his “old man”. You being online and trying to interact with your child can help bridge that gap a bit. It does not mean you have to “like” everything your child “posts”. It does not mean you have to “tag” every photo your child is in. It just means you have to be “nearby” online. Isn’t that the heart of parenting anyway – being “near” your children? (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with the phrases “Twitter”, “subscribe”, “like”, “tag” and “posts” you are officially out of touch and need this article more than you realize.)
  • Do not over react. Remember, technology is not the problem. It’s the use or abuse of it that can be the problem. Just because you heard a story about some kid in some mid-western state that abused MySpace does not mean that your child will do the same. Just because other teenagers are “sexting” (sending naked pictures of themselves via text) does not mean yours is or will. When you hear stories of how technology is being abused, talk it through with your kids. Make sure they understand the pitfalls and realize the consequences are real when technology is abused. Just as you would warn them of the dangers of driving, you too need to make sure they understand the dangers online or with various technologies.
  • Do not be too trusting. While overreacting can be a problem, so can too much trust. Just because you have a “good” child, does not mean he/she cannot get in trouble with certain technology. Children, particularly teenagers, are still developing portions of their brain. The common sense and rational portions are still a work in progress. These factors combined with the influence of friends and the ease of access to technology can cause them to go down a road you never dreamed they would. Education will help you know what’s out there and what the dangers are. Knowing your child and maintaining an open, close relationship with them will help you keep access as to how they are handling emerging technology. If you are concerned that your child is doing some things online that are inappropriate or destructive, there are accountability websites and keystroke logging software available to help.
  • Know their friends. How well do you know their friends? Are they in your home often? Are you creating opportunities where you can interact with them? Are you placing yourself in proximity (even online) to see, hear or read what is going on in their world? Who do they email or text regularly? If you do not know their closest friends, you do not know who is influencing them, positively and negatively.
  • Communicate with other parents. You would be surprised what you can learn in this regard. All parents like to talk about their kids. Ask them questions. Share your struggles. You will not only realize you have similar parenting issues but some of them may have some good suggestions as to how they handle it.
  • Get passwords. This is a controversial suggestion but one that I firmly believe can make a huge difference in the protection of your child. Having a child’s password gives you access to their online world. If they argue about giving it to you, that’s probably a good indication they are probably doing or saying something they shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean you have to read their mail, but if you wanted to – you could. Some would be quick to say, “Isn’t that an invasion of their privacy?” If you are financing any aspect of their life, you have the right to see what they are involved in. Obtaining an online password is just like doing a random drug test. Privacy is an earned freedom after a proven track record of wise behavior. The more responsible your child is and proves to be, the more freedoms he/she should be given.
  • Be yourself. You will never be as “cool” as your kids. The only way you will be “hip” again is when you get yours replaced. Don’t try to be their “BFF”, just be their parent who cares enough to try and engage them on their turf. Don’t comment on every picture they post or “like” every status update. Don’t respond to every Tweet or try to get in on every chat. Be yourself. After all, you are the only parent they have. Do not trade down your elite position by trying to be their friend. They have enough of those.
  • Get outside. Remember when we were kids we had things like trees, parks, museums, sporting events, zoos, books and sunshine? Oh wait, we still have those things. Though technology is playing an ever increasing role in our world, it is important that we still find ways to get our children offline, outside and being active. They might not be interested or good at sports but it is important that you encourage activities that don’t require a broadband internet connection. Wii sports is great but it’s not the same as being outdoors.

My teenage son (like most) enjoys playing Xbox. So, I created an account and now play with him when I can. The truth is, I stink. I lose every race and get killed first in every game we play. Unfortunately for me, this will never change. Fortunately, what my son will remember is that I tried and that we are spending time together. Would I rather throw a Frisbee with him? Yes. But the point is we are “together” and as a dear friend has reminded me over the years, “Together is better”. Last week, I received a text message from my 12 year old daughter asking me for a drink. She sent it from the living room, twenty feet from the fridge. I sent her a picture of Orange Juice. My daughter learned that there is still a benefit to face to face interaction with her Dad.