Back To Basics: Raising Children In The Digital Age

Back to Basics: Raising Children in the Digital Age

“This is impossible,” Emily, the mother of three boys, exclaimed. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to give my kids more technology or less.” Emily felt paralyzed because she was caught between digital-age parenting advice and what her heart told her was right.

Online articles claimed that children need freedom with gadgets, but she knew a number of teens who spent their lives on their phones, spurned their families, and suffered from emotional problems. Emily was also dubious of promises that devices are the key to kids’ success, as she knew more than a few game-obsessed 20-somethings who still lived with their parents and showed no signs of being productive.

The Surprising Science of Raising Happy, Healthy Kids

In meeting with parents like Emily, I acknowledge the confusion about what is good parenting in the digital age. For guidance, I suggest looking to the science of raising healthy children. What it’s revealing is extraordinary: that even amid the trappings of our tech-obsessed culture, children’s connections to family and school are still the most important factors in their lives. In other words, it’s time we get back to the basics.

There are other elements of raising healthy children, including engaging kids in creative and outdoor play, and showing them what it means to be a good friend. We also need to teach kids self-control and how to use technology productively. Yet, children are better able to acquire these abilities if they have strong connections with family and school. Children learn the value of nature when parents expose them to the outdoors. And kids acquire self-control, or grit, by persevering through challenging school assignments.

The Two Pillars of Childhood

Family is the most important element of children’s lives — even in this world of bits and bytes — because we are human first. We can’t ignore the science of attachment that shows our kids need lots of quality time with us. Such experiences shape children’s brains, and they foster our kids’ happiness and self-esteem, while diminishing the chances that they will develop behavior or drug problems.

Second in importance only to family is children’s involvement with school. Nevertheless, some question the value of traditional schooling, claiming that in the digital age kids learn best through exposure to the latest gadgets. But, according to the Pew Research Center, the value of a college education is actually increasing in recent decades, providing youth higher earning potential and significantly lowering their risks of unemployment or poverty. And how do colleges gauge admission? Not through high scores on video games or the number of social media friends, but instead by measuring kids’ understanding of the learning fundamentals taught in school, including the ability to read, write, and do math well.

Bait and Switch

“He has little interest in joining us on family outings… and it’s like pulling teeth to get him to do homework,” Andrea, the mother of 12-year-old Kevin, told me. Turning to Kevin, who was sitting next to his mother, I asked him what he liked to do instead. “Play my game,” he responded matter-of-factly. From my work with families, I knew there was a good chance that Kevin would tell me video games mattered most. For girls, they often disclose that it’s their phones which distract them from family and school.

Too many parents are now the victims of a bait and switch. They are sold on getting tablets, smartphones, and other gadgets for their children with the promise that these will allow kids to contact family and get ahead in school. But soon after kids get the devices, they use them mainly for self-amusement. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids spend only 16 minutes a day using the computer at home for school; in contrast, younger children spend 5 ½ hours and teens 8 hours each day with entertainment screen and phone technologies. That extraordinary amount of time spent playing with devices is often at the expense of kids engaging with family, reading, and completing schoolwork.

Connecting Kids with Family and School

How can you build your child’s life around family and school in this age of distraction? Apply authoritative parenting, the most effective parenting style, to your kids’ tech use. Authoritative parents are loving and highly engaged in children’s lives, and they provide high expectations and limits to support those expectations.

To be loving and engaged with our children, it’s best if parents and kids have lots of time away from devices to be fully present with one another. And to provide kids high expectations and limits, parents should not try to be their children’s friend, but rather understand that they have the responsibility to set tech limits (even when kids push back) to foster distraction-free family moments, reading, and study time.

Your home environment also shapes your children’s connection with family and school. Consider employing the rule used by many leading tech execs that children and teens not use screens and phones in their bedrooms. This encourages kids to spend time in shared family spaces and also increases the odds that they will use computers and other devices productively.

The Essence of Parenting

Besieged by changes wrought by the digital age, parents are searching for how to best raise their kids. What’s clear is that the essence of a healthy childhood isn’t found with phones and other devices. Instead, it’s children whose lives center around family and school who have the best chance of being happy and successful—two qualities that never go out of style.


About the Author: Richard Freed

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHRichard Freed, Ph.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist, leading authority on raising children in the digital age, and the author of the book Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age. A contributor to the Huffington Post, and featured in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and other media outlets, he speaks regularly to groups of parents, teachers, and health providers. He lives in Walnut Creek, California with his wife and two daughters. To learn more, visit RichardFreed.com

3 Comments

Linsly

Karen and Richard – Thank you for surfacing this parenting challenge! We wrestle with it – so we built http://www.theSmartFeed.com to try and help parents build an arsenal of “good media” options for kids. We got tired of being in constant “no” mode about screens and realized no matter we did in our homes, the kids our kids’ play with – will all have some screen time influence. We’re sharing http://www.theSmartFeed.com as a free platform for parents – in hopes we can help more parents to find “good” kids media when screentime makes sense.

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Peggy

The article does not help parents understand what may be reasonable limits or how to respectfully ‘take control of and reduce the child’s time or potentially their obsession with the electronics.

Without those it is more of a commentary of facts than helpful to find next steps. What are some possible next steps without causing district ice disruption for adolescents that may be resentful?

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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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