Parenting in the digital age

I’m glimpsing 50, so before digital, I first have to talk analog. When 21-year-old Phil and 23-year-old Anna were little, I was certain TV would fry their brains.

Ask them, and they’ll gleefully tell you how I monitored their screen time with a little capitalist system I invented. I gave them quarters they could use to buy half-hours of TV. They could watch each other’s TV times, too, so they got eight hours a week, plus whatever the family watched together. If they didn’t watch, they got to keep the quarters, saving up for a little something at ShopKo.

I thought this system would encourage them to watch TV intentionally instead of using it as background noise. The system didn’t last as long as the mockery of it has, and one child recently admitted they cheated.

Even while I fretted over the frying of their brains, I never found a babysitter better than Walt Disney. Using screens as a babysitter has always been a no-no, and I sinned boldly. Little Anna and Philly watched those Disney movies and sing-along videos over and over, singing and (sorry to say it publicly, Phil) dancing along. They were adorable.

TV has since morphed into every manner of magical machine. My stepson, Sam, 11, was born into this magical world and knows no other. Because my husband, Mike, is digitally savvy, we have a few devices lying around. Sam will play Madden 15 on Mike’s tablet while listening to Bruno Mars on his iPod while following the Timberwolves’ game on TV while texting someone on his phone. He’ll watch someone else play video basketball games streamed to our Wi-Fi-enabled TV—a guy who calls himself Smoove.

But here’s the thing. Despite the deluge of digital distraction, all three kids’ brains remain unfried. Yes, they multitask in ways I can’t fathom, but they still read and write intelligently. They exercise and play piano and know how to cook pasta. I’m certain they’ll find gainful employment—probably with digital media as part of their jobs.

I wish I hadn’t been such an anxious parent with the older two, fretting that every hour of TV would make them stupid, every gram of sugar would give them diabetes, every domestic misdemeanor would lead to a life of crime. Turns out, the kids mostly grew up to be the people God made them.

That’s not to say anything goes. We have the same rules you probably do. No screens at the table. Homework before games. Parental monitoring of websites and TV shows. And every once in awhile, an enforced quiet time: no screens, no music, just people in a room together, either listening to their own thoughts or engaging in the civilities of conversation.

I haven’t hacked into the kids’ Facebook accounts or read their texts, but I can understand when parents do. The digital world is full of dangerous strangers—and awfully nasty “friends” too. Social media tools are sharp swords that bullies can unsheathe in anonymity and plunge deep into our children’s tender psyches. It’s scary, really.

Finally, I guess our parenting in the digital world is the same as in every other world, isn’t it? We pray for our kids every night, every minute, knowing our heavenly Father loves them even more than we do. We explain how rules—ours, God’s—are for their protection. We let them make their own choices and then watch quietly if they have to suffer the consequences. We talk, talk, talk about everything. We forgive them, and they forgive us. We laugh at their jokes and give their ideas serious consideration. We feed them, hug them, tuck them in.

And sometimes, late at night, when we can’t sleep, we grab our devices and push the buttons: “Love you, kiddo.” Sometimes they’re up too—in the next room or an apartment a few hours away—and they text their love right back.

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