The Digital Revolution of Parenting

We live in what many call the most connected civilization in history. Devices and connectivity allow us to do so much more than we could have imagined even a generation ago. These effects are most impressively evident with how our kids learn and socialize in ways completely foreign to most adults. Our kids can research projects for school, reach out to their friends, and express the fullness of emotions allowed by data plan or Twitter’s 140 character limit.

I’m experiencing this culture shock with my oldest just now becoming a teenager. She’s graduated to having her own bedroom in the basement. Her mother and I saw this as an opportunity for her to gain some independence and privacy from her siblings.

We noticed a difference immediately. We barely saw her anymore. It was easy to embrace this change as an opportunity to have a little more time of my own. She had her own laptop, iPod and now her own taste in music (but that’s a discussion better left for another time). She practically didn’t need to leave her room. Everything was at her fingertips.

But I caught myself when I realized after a few months that all I really could say I knew about her life over that time was that:

School is fine.
Friends are fine.
Taekwondo is fine.

How many of you have that same experience with your children where conversations turn into a quick laundry list of tasks and accomplishments?

Be assured that I’m not against technology. These are tools that afford us fantastic access to so much. My daughter can shoot me a quick text that she aced her Spanish quiz. When I tell my son I don’t know the capital, currency or official language of Tajikistan, he can pull all that and so much more as we sit side-by-side right from a laptop. For me, it has become a reminder that these devices and the access they afford us are just tools.
But connectivity does not equal connectedness.

There is distance already ingrained in our culture between teen and parent. These tools can either give us an opportunity to draw closer together or create a greater disconnect between us and our children. This is not new to our generation. Our parents and grandparents saw this similarly with radio, television and the telephone. It’s all about how we use them.

A child’s brain is made up of billions of neurons. Each has thousands of synapses connecting to other neurons. Development of these neural pathways in childhood years make all the difference in the adults our children become. This includes what they learn about how relationships work and how they express themselves emotionally throughout their lives. For every expert who touts the educational benefits another points to the addictive nature of it.

What does that tell us? It tells us that all about how we use these tools.

When addressing our children’s emotional development, it’s easy to fall into the trap that our significance as parents is in the quality of time we spend with them. From scoring a goal or getting a band solo to test anxiety or getting dumped, my kid like yours can’t schedule the ups and downs she’ll face. Can you imagine your child having this conversation with the school bully? “My dad’s going to have time over spring break to readjust me. Can you wait until then to pick on me?”

The trust we build with our children and the influence we have in their lives are diminished when we aren’t accessible. We can welcome our children’s independence, sending them off with this newfound connectivity to the world. However, the access they find includes influences outside of our control. Kids learn to express feelings through emoticons and text language. Through Facebook or a blog, they express themselves for the entire world. It’s when they don’t have the ability to express themselves to their parents that we need to worry.

The culture we build in our family in relationship to the technological advancements and new devices will be a key in years to come. I want to make sure there is a healthy balance between my kids’ connectivity with the world and access to my wife and me right here at home.

We’ve started by establishing limits to the amount of time our kids can use their devices. Many people advocate designated tech-free days or a full vacation without Internet. There is certainly room for that in many families including my own.

Even with limits, I’m certain we’ll continue to encounter problems from time to time connecting with each of my three children at various points in their childhood and adolescence. But as early as possible, I’d like to focus on developing good habits with these gadgets, habits that actually help keep us connected at home. We have Wii dance nights. We sometimes have Skype dinners with Mom when she’s out of town. As we go digital with books, I encourage my kids to mark their favorite passages as they read. It’s a great opening for conversation at the dinner table. My daughter doesn’t have a phone, yet, but when that enters our lives, I want her to shoot me a note when she aces that Spanish quiz.

So how is this story going to end? Is my daughter a lost cause? Definitely not. With new limits, she’s been very responsible. You may think I’m speaking too soon. After all, her teen years have really only just begun. This is only the first part of the story. You’ll have to text me in a couple years to see how it turns out.

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