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Digital Parenting

Some days I rue the fact that I’m raising children in the digital age, with a seemingly endless range of cyber-dangers looming on the horizon. It overwhelms me, sometimes, and I’d like to herd them into a remote cave where they can only encounter well-mannered unicorns and butterflies who do not have Internet access. It’s a nice dream.

At the same time, though, there are plenty of days when I feel thankful that I can Facebook with my kids’ teachers, check the school lunch menu online, and send a cell phone with a kid on a sleepover. It’s a trade-off, I suppose. The digital age may be introducing new parenting challenges, but it’s also introducing new tools.

Several months ago, I read a book that has really stuck with me: Born Digital  by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser. It’s a fascinating book about how our kids’ generation is growing up with the Internet integrated into their lives, referring to this generation as “digital natives.” Like it or not, the book urges, parents are wise to acknowledge that it’s the way of the world, and we should use common sense to make our decisions accordingly. I should be parenting my kids within the framework of the way things are, not (as I’m often tempted) the way I’d like for them to be.

In other words, no unicorns.

As the parent of two pre-teen digital natives, one in middle school, I’m finding the decisions are coming at me at a breathtaking speed. I want to give them the freedom their responsible behavior has earned them, but not more than they can handle. I want to parent in a way that they can trust I have their best interests at heart. I want to stay one step ahead of the digital curve, understanding the technologies that can both help and hurt our family. I want them to be safe. I don’t want them to grow up too fast. I want them to be informed and vigilant.

You know, all in a day’s work.

Standing on this side of the teen years and grappling with the decisions that will (or already have) come, I certainly don’t have it figured out. But I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and wring my hands; I’ll forge ahead the best I can with what I do know.

I know, for example, that the rules matter. If I plan to hold my kids to high standards in their online interactions (and I do), I need to respect (and insist that my kids respect) the rules that are in place. For example, Facebook says you can’t have an account until you’re 13. Whether I agree with that or not is entirely irrelevant: it’s their site. If I circumvent that and allow my 12 year old to lie about his age to get an account, I’m telling him he only has to stick to the rules he likes. I’d like to start this journey on firmer moral ground.

I know that I’ll need to stay informed. This means I’ll have to step outside my comfort zone and stay abreast of some technologies that may stretch me (seeing as how I’m still sometimes confused by the DVR). My children are growing up in a very different world than the one I grew up in, and I’d be foolish not to learn the lay of the land.

I know that I’ll need to trust my kids -- when they’re trustworthy. We’re trying to raise our kids to do what is right, but that doesn’t mean I’ll blindly trust in their good sense. I want to them to understand that trust is something that is both hard to earn and easy to lose. I want to give them plenty of opportunities to earn our trust in the real world and the digital one, keeping a sharp and discerning radar alert for when that trust can be extended, and when it can be pulled back. This mean knowing -- really knowing -- my kids, and staying in tune with their struggles and their victories.

So we move ahead. I expect I’ll make plenty of mistakes helping my kids navigate this digital world, and surely they’ll make plenty too. Doing my best is all I can do, with my eyes open and my radar up.

Any moms of older kids out there? I’d love to hear the specific and general principles your family has in place on this issue.

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