6 Suggestions for Parents in the Digital Age

Technology – Taming the Tiger

suggestions for parents in the digital ageTechnology is here to stay. Like a tiger, it is fiercely powerful, agile and needs to be handled with care.  Technology has become a staple in our lives, helping us with every thing from keeping track of appointments and paying bills to helping our kids with their homework through quick access to information and providing endless hours of entertainment.  While these have clearly aided us in our daily lives, there is also a downside. Because technological devices are enticing, it is easy to turn to them for distraction and entertainment.  Unfortunately, children are at risk of learning that “bored” is an intolerable state and can be managed by whining, fussing, and complaining until their parent gives in and allows access to these devices.  Similarly, as parents, we have found that giving our child the tablet, TV, cell phone or computer, he will leave us alone so we can get a moment of quiet to get work done, prepare dinner or have a peaceful car trip.  Unfortunately patterns can emerge where the child learns that he can “blackmail” his parents by fussing to get screen time or the parent learns she can “bribe” her child with access to a device so she can attend to other matters.  While these dynamics occur in the short run, minute-by-minute, day-by-day, an insidious message gets communicated: convenience and comfort in the moment are most important and complaining and boredom may be soothed with entertainment.

The arts of conversation, tolerating boredom, managing novelty, engaging in playful interaction, developing capacity for shared problem-solving, building sustained attention and learning how to bear short-term frustration to gain in the long term can all become sidelined by technology.  As a result, it is important to reconsider the messages we give our kids about the role of technology in day-to-day life.  Here are 6 points for parents to consider implementing in the digital age:

Do as I say, not as I do

Technology has become indispensible to running our lives and we as parents often rely on our devices. How often do we ask our child to wait while we finish an e-mail or text? We can take care of so many tasks from the palm of our hands, but should we?  Our actions model for our children that what is contained in the palms of our hands takes priority and yet we feel disrespected and dismayed when Johnny doesn’t put down his device to answer our questions. We need to plan and organize our days to prioritize time with our children without the devices pulling our attention away.

Efficiency is not efficient in the long run. 

Because our devices make us OR enable us to be more powerful and resourceful, it is appealing to multi-task.  By being so “efficient” we inadvertently bypass some of the steps and struggles that are embedded in tackling challenges.  Getting back to basics and doing things the old-fashioned way is important to teaching our children time management, problem solving and planning, all essential skills our kids need to learn. Consider reviewing the family calendar weekly.  Talk through what needs to be done on a daily basis, who is going where and how to plan for the trip to the computer stores Johnny wants to make. Include your children in meal preparation, making the grocery list or what to pack for the next outing.  It may not be perfect, but it is a beginning.  When unanticipated situations arise, narrate how they can be addressed.  This models flexibility and priority setting.  Consider the process of planning with your child to be a better time investment than getting the item checked off the list. Eventually we want our children to know how to get things done for themselves.  To do this, they need to watch you do it first and then be brought into the process to build their own skills.  It may take longer in the short run, but ultimately this builds competence and self-esteem in your child in the long run.

“Are we there yet?”

Now that we have the capacity to bring a video or gaming device in the car, should we?  While it may not be fun, car rides, long or short, allow for time to think, observe and share.  Remember “I Spy With my Little Eye”,  “License Plate Game”, “20 Questions” and doing “MadLibs”?  These games support expressive language development through sharing and observation skills.  Periods of silence can be invaluable too.  They teach our children that they don’t have to be distracted from the present moment and build their capacity to ultimately sit through a boring lecture, be OK when nothing is going on so they can in those moments learn to listen to their own thoughts and feelings.  As parents, it is important to not deprive our children of growing these capacities because of our own discomfort with their whining.  Giving into the child’s complaining sends many wrong messages: that one must be entertained to be OK, boredom is bad and fussing wins.

The benefits of boredom

Remember the days when a large cardboard box could be a fort, castle or tunnel?  This creativity came from engaging with the environment to use what is available, our bodies to climb or build and our minds to create and imagine.  Innovation comes from quiet moments that support imagination, wondering, engaging, exploring and considering what can be different. Many children in the digital age have learned that for things to be different all they need is a device.  This can be profoundly handicapping as they can become addicted to what is in the two dimensional world, no further than arms distance away.  Facing the quiet and having to listen and attend to one’s own thoughts and feelings allows space for development of curiosity, creativity, experimentation and exploration.

Tech free zones:

Establish places were technology is not allowed.  Dining and driving are times and places where access to technology can be off limits. We as parents need to set the expectations and be willing to follow-through. Dining is a time for interacting and catching up. Whether at home or in a restaurant, devices should be put away.  Yes, Johnny’s fussing at the table in the restaurant is disturbing to fellow diners, but putting a screen in front of him does not teach him to change his behavior the next time. It may be inconvenient or unpleasant, but if Johnny fusses, a parent may have to walk him to the bathroom, outside for fresh air or end the meal and go home. Dining with our children is more than about getting nutrition into our bodies.  It is also a time when every one can sit together to talk, share and connect without running back and forth to the kitchen. For a peaceful dinner, parents can also consider a date night without the children.

If you are going to implement the car as a tech free zone for individual technology, have a plan to manage the fussing.  Being prepared means knowing it won’t go smoothly initially and you may not get to where you are going as quickly as usual.  Have a back up plan if you need to abort the errand completely so you don’t have to feel angry and resentful, because you planned for it.

Game night:

Consider adding games to your family schedule.  Play is essential to social-emotional and cognitive development.  Embedded in games are skills such as managing turns, tolerating disappointment, building strategic thinking, enjoying being with others, practicing listening to and communicating with others, learning about rules, cheating, negotiating and flexibility. Games also provide a joyful context to employ academic skills, including reading, counting, managing impulsivity and sustaining attention and focus. When we play with our children they feel valued as we demonstrate that they are worthy of our time and attention. While much of what we do is about caring for our children, it is the time we spend with them that powerfully communicates that message to them.

Like a young, wild, vital and energetic tiger, technology needs to be tamed. Reconsidering and redefining the role and function of devices in our lives may be challenging.  The amount of resistance encountered correlates with how pervasive technology is in our lives and the lives of our children. Begin thinking about how much of your life, and therefore your attention, is on your device and the message that gives your children.  When thinking about making changes, invite your children into the discussion to plan how to tame the technology tiger.  If you need an electronic baby sitter, consider playing family videos.  The content is predictable; characters are real and supports more engagement with one’s own life, experience and relationships. If you need a quiet dinner, plan a date night. Developmentally, the younger the child is when these expectations are put in place, the more easily they will be able to implement and maintain. Follow-through in a calm and firm manner is critical to unplugging the child from the device and the device from parts of your family life.  The power and convenience of technology cannot be underestimated.  Turning our back on this tiger may unleash many unforeseen challenges.  As parents we must recognize it’s role and cage it when necessary so our children have lives where they can engage constructively with the tiger and know when it is time lock it up for another day.

About the Author

Debra Kessler, Psy.D. Debra Kessler, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in the care of children and their families. Dr. Kessler was awarded her Bachelor of Science in Nursing, graduating Magna Cum Laude from Vanderbilt University. While working as an RN in Pediatric Intensive Care, she pursued a Masters Degree in Pediatrics from UCLA to further her skills in caring for children. After a career in nursing that included bedside nursing, Kessler chose to focus her attention on addressing the emotional needs of children and their families by obtaining a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at California School of Professional Psychology. Her post-doctorate work was done with Child Development Institute treating autistic and developmentally challenged preschool and young children and at Reiss-Davis Child Study center addressing the needs of school children, adolescents and their families. She has contributed to Infant/Child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-Based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice (Lillas &Turnbull 2009). Dr. Kessler has an active practice in Montrose, California. In a family centered manner, she treats a range of developmental and emotional issues including adoption/attachment difficulties, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, autism/Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, learning challenges, regulatory difficulties and other issues that interfere with children reaching their potential.

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