A holistic child psychologist’s approach to being a good parent in the unchartered territory of the digital age.
While every generation of parents complains they have it harder than the ones before, there is no doubt that parenting in the digital age brings about more and different challenges than those faced by our parents, grandparents, or anyone before.
GenX or Millennials, we are the first generation of moms and dads raising children who have had access to digital devices since birth. According to a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, in 1970, children began to watch TV at four years of age regularly. In contrast, today, children begin interacting with digital media at four months of age.
For our children, social media, smartphones, the Internet, computers in school, and devices everywhere, “IoT”, are the norm. While digital devices certainly have made some things easier, the reality is that they have created a whole new world of challenges and issues for us to navigate while raising our children. And all of this is happening at the same time we are figuring out how to be healthy adults in a digital age too!
It’s not just children who struggle with healthy boundaries when it comes to digital devices. We adults also struggle with how to incorporate technology into our lives in a healthy way. Many parents at my clinic have acknowledged just how absorbed they are in their devices and digital media to the exclusion of other things, and they wonder how on earth they can help their children learn healthy habits when they are struggling to figure it all out.
We are all in this together, trying to figure out how to benefit from the good things technology brings into our lives while minimizing the negative impacts. The good news is that there are several simple things we can do to make parenting in the digital era easier and more effective for our children and us.
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Here are just a few foreign concepts we are making up as we go:
Healthy, home-cooked meals.
Most of us were not watching our moms (or dads) plan a meal around food allergies, a healthy balance of vegetables, proteins and carbs, or any limiting of artificial ingredients and sugar (except for the kids of “health nuts,” who were forced to eat wheat germ. My condolences.) Can you imagine not worrying about sugar ever in your parenting journey? Parents of the freezer-meal generation weren’t talking to us about healthy food and the difference between oranges and orange-flavoured Squeeze-Its. Everything was food to them, as long as they could buy it in a grocery store (or gas station). So it’s no surprise that figuring out how to feed our families nourishing meals – and then taking the time to shop for and cook those meals (a whole other feat) – feels like we’re going against our genetics and decades of learned behaviour. Where are the hand-me-down cookbooks and recipe files with the kinds of meals that support our family’s health? Oh right, we’re the ones writing them.
Equalizing our marriages.
Most of our parents subscribed to the idea that child-rearing was women’s work. Both parents believed this to be true, and so most of the women did all of the work related to raising the kids: laundry, cooking, grocery shopping, PTA, crafting sweet homemade Halloween costumes, tending to sick kids, holiday shopping, renting a VCR for the sleepover, plus about ten-thousand other things. Dads may be dropped in here or there for the occasional baseball coaching or camping trip. Today, many of us moms don’t believe we should be the keepers of everything parenting-related, and luckily more dads are wanting to be involved too – something we didn’t grow up seeing. It’s bound to feel clumsy because we have to set the standard for what an equal partnership means, even when we don’t know what that looks like.
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Interacting with the Internet.
Can you imagine what it would be like not to know the answer to everything? Think of all the virtual rabbit holes about car seats and BPA our parents didn’t find themselves going down. Don’t get me wrong, and the Internet is a huge help in day-to-day living. Our parents probably would’ve loved to pull up directions to birthday parties, gymnastics schedules and Ambrosia salad recipes. But today, because of the Internet, we are expected to figure everything out ourselves. What’s that rash on your kid’s back? Look it up. Is this a good time to sell your house? Look it up. Best family-friendly hotel in Hawaii? Look it up. Long division with decimals?
Look it up. The Internet has made us all our doctors, realtors, travel agents, teachers – and that’s all well and good if we weren’t also simultaneously engaged in the daily minutia of raising children, and possibly even working too. We are wearing too many hats and are expected to know so much more than any generation before ours, and this needs to be acknowledged. Even though knowledge is the power that helps us make better and healthier choices for ourselves and our children, the mental tax of doing so is hefty, and for me shows up in the form of anxiety, brain fog and fatigue. So Mom, maybe this is why I seem stressed and anxious when you remember motherhood being so much more simple. It was. Now please stop trying to feed your grandkids Skittles behind my back.
Managing screen time.
Our parents don’t know how fortunate they were to miss this trend. Sure, there was the television: an affixed box that lived in one room that my parents never told me to stop watching. But our kids are face to face with screens everywhere. I can’t even pump gas without my kids watching the screen shouting at them out their car window. Or the one inside the car. Restaurants now have built-in tablets at the effing table, so I have two choices: eat my dinner in peace or say “no” for an hour. Us modern parents have to be the ones to guess what healthy screen guidelines are so that our kids will not grow up with hunchbacks, unable to make eye contact with other humans. There’s also the other minor issue that most of us don’t know how to manage our own screen time, so how the hell can we manage – and model it – for the kids? We are building the plane in the air here, people. A special shout out to the grandparents who love to shove phones and iPads into the grandkids’ hands. Do you know that screen-free morning you worked so hard for, fellow parents? Well, it was just undone in two seconds because Grandma has the kids watching a lady with long nails cut into squishies on YouTube. Perfect. (And yes, that’s a thing.)
Talking about tough topics.
My parents never talked to me about racism. Or consent. Or sexism. Or bullying. Or suicide. We didn’t spend Sunday nights having thoughtful conversations about complicated issues that involved human rights, much less at a protest for anything. We were too busy watching America’s Funniest Home Videos. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the closest my family got to talking about racism was making racist jokes, which always made me feel sick inside. And sadly, I know my experience is the norm for many privileged white kids. And somehow, us modern parents are expected to not only grasp these concepts ourselves but are supposed to be able to teach our kids how to live in a world that’s bungled on all these aforementioned accounts. Many of us are taking a stab at these hard conversations, knowing that we have to say the opposite of what our parents said to us – something. Something humane and supportive of all people that hopefully sparks progress and peace. Something that helps our kids to unbundle the world we inherited. No pressure, but we’re all counting on you to undo decades of unknown errors, the future generation.
Parenting with a philosophy.
Did your parents stop to think about how they were parenting you – how they spoke to you, making sure to validate your little kid feelings and doling out punishments that did well rather than harm? Let me answer that for you: no, they did not. They responded to our needs and feelings with sheer impulse instead of second-guessing everything they said and did. This was good for them, and also bad for us. They did not spend hours at the library pouring over microfiche that contained the latest studies on the secrets to successful parenting. They didn’t have friend groups based solely on who wore their babies in a Snugli or how peacefully they could discipline you. Back then, how someone parented was the least interesting detail about a person. Old school parents also didn’t research all the nearby schools and chose the one that best fits your learning style. Knowing your learning style was not their job, nor were they looking at you long enough to even notice. They also didn’t give a lot of thought to how their actions (or inactions) might affect your feeling of safety or your relationship with your siblings. For latchkey kids (raises hand), it was like Lord of the Flies – everyone fighting for survival and you better not dare call Mom or Dad at work to tattle because even though you’d just been handcuffed to a closet rod for an hour, their answer was still going to be, “You guys, figure it out. And don’t call again.” We are the first generation to question (overthink) how we are treating our kids as we parent them, and even though our kids are hopefully benefitting, it’s a lot harder to enjoy something when you’re trying so hard not to mess it up.
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Questioning our doctors.
Our parent’s bookshelves weren’t filled with tomes about sleep, first-foods, vaccines, breastfeeding and alternative remedies for childhood ailments. They just asked their doctor – the one the whole neighbourhood went to. There weren’t Facebook groups to ask, Yelp reviews to read or Google searches to do. Think of all the mental energy they saved. We also didn’t grow up seeing our mothers ask questions about routine procedures, much less saying no to them, or asking about alternatives, unless you happened to have a badass mama. We mostly saw a relationship where the doctor (usually male) had the power, his word was accepted as truth, and everyone followed it. Is it a surprise that as birthing women today, we are often dissatisfied with our childbirth experiences? We have updated information (which is ancient information) about what is most conducive to baby and mom’s well-being, yet we don’t have the skills to speak up about things in conflict to that or to ask for something different. This is not our fault – we are fighting to find voices we weren’t taught to have. And the same thing goes on in the pediatrician’s office. We have to teach ourselves how to be advocates for our children by trial and error.
The problem with a lot of children today is parents and their lack of parenting skills. I say that with the full knowledge that there are a lot of wonderful parents who are raising their children well and trying to do the right thing. They are doing it in an environment that is not necessarily “kid-friendly.” The proliferation of sex and violence on television, in video games, in movies, and on the Internet has made an already difficult job even more difficult. The reality is that the children of this generation and the previous generation see too much and know too much. There are six- and seven-year-old children today who know more than my contemporaries and I knew when we were in high school. That is the nature of the world we live in today. The television, video games, and the Internet have become our babysitters. Young impressionable minds are easily influenced, especially if there is not a responsible adult in the mix to monitor and screen the things that they see and hear.
Parenting has always been a difficult proposition. It was a hard job when my parents were trying to raise my siblings and me in the 50’s, 60’s, and early 70’s and it was a hard job for my wife and me when we were trying to raise our four children at the end of the last decade and the beginning of this new century. Make no mistake about it, raising children is a job. Some people may take exception to that notion, but for anyone who has sat up with a sick child late at night, or helped with homework; or made an effort to be at every school function, or deal with the onset of hormones and all the other myriad of things that come up when you are raising children, you know what I am talking about. It is hard work being a good parent. But at the end of the day, it is rewarding work, especially if your children end up being good and productive citizens.
Many of the parenting problems stem from the fact that there are too many daddies and not enough fathers and also with the fact that there are too many baby’s mamas and not enough baby’s mothers. Sadly, much of this is taking place in our urban and black communities, where teenage pregnancies and out of wedlock births are out of control. And yes, it is happening in the broader/white communities also, but not like it is happening in our inner-city communities where poverty and lack of education and lack of jobs have become all too common in this time of seemingly good economic times. There are just too many young men making babies and too many young women having babies who have no idea of what being a parent entails—the commitment, the sacrifice, the work. I see all these young men, mostly black, mostly unemployed or unemployable, walking around with their pants down to their ankles and thinking that the world owes them something. It is a warped mindset that ultimately adds to the deterioration of whole neighbourhoods and communities.
And there are many. Layers of selfishness you never knew you had disappeared. A love, unlike one you’ve ever known cracks even the most open of hearts wider still. New and deeper meanings of the words patience, resilience, sacrifice, and perspective confound your earlier understandings, and the meaning of life smacks you upside the head and brings you humbly, reverently—and eventually, gratefully—to your knees.
Many of the problems that are seen today with respect to dropout rates and crime stem from the fact that many of these young mothers and fathers have no parenting skills. They have no idea of how to raise their children because they were brought up by individuals who were clueless when it came to being a parent. If someone has not seen or been close to someone who took parenting seriously, then those individuals are not going to have a basis point for being a good parent themselves. For the most part, children emulate their parents. They want to be like their mothers and fathers, especially if their mothers and fathers have given them the discipline and values that they need to make it in this world.
Babies having babies is not a good thing, which has increased over the past several decades. Many of the young women who are having these children act as though it is a badge of honour to walk around with two or three children hanging off of them and no man around to support them in this difficult task. Well, I have news for them— it’s not a badge of honour. Children require many things, but they mostly require committed parents–a mother and a father who love them and will give them the love and discipline–and I emphasize discipline, that will help them become responsible individuals and good citizens. It is hard to be a good parent if you have not seen one or been exposed to one. It is also hard to be a good parent if you allow your child to think that he or she is your equal, which we see all the time today. They are not your equal, and you are not their friend. In my dealings with children, I have found that theocracy with compassion works better than democracy without limitations when it comes to parenting. Being a good parent is hard work and serious business.