An Online Guide to Being an Offline Parent

We recently watched the documentary Screenagers with our parent community. If you haven’t watched the movie you are in for a treat. That said, if you are a parent you may also be in for a bit of a shock….

Watching the film reinforced for me a whole set of worries and concerns that I have been wrestling with since the early days of my digital life as an international school administrator. I have seen Web 1.0 give birth to 2.0 and then 3.0. I have long been a passionate advocate of the power of content creation: of the democratization of the web, of learning and of the opportunities for student self-expression. Over the years, I have worked with some amazing colleagues to introduce blended learning, only to watch it then be undermined and dismantled by teachers and administrators clinging to a zeitgeist long-since passed. I continue to marvel at those schools where, through the power of intelligently leveraged tech, they have gone to the next levels in student empowerment, creativity, innovation and learning. And I worry for those students who do not have those same opportunities: who are locked into a teacher-driven, command/control, tech-less environment that is as relevant to their futures as analog in a digital age.

And in the middle of this I see the parents. I hear their worries and concerns and, as a parent myself, I share a great many of them. Technology seems overwhelming and so incredibly powerful in the hands of children. We hear how it taps into their essential biology – and into ours also. We hear how excessive screen time breeds a dopamine-fueled dependency akin to addiction. And we hear how family life is under attack as kids get sucked into immersive and isolating (in a physical world sense) online worlds, and how parents give in to their tired and worst selves by giving their children ‘freedom’ to be online for hours at an end.

So are we powerless to act in the face of this tech onslaught? Is family life doomed? Are parents unable to strike back at the mighty power of the Tech Empires as they take over our children’s minds? Will our children be eternally addicted to increasingly powerful online stimuli? And are those teachers right who demonise technology in favor of ‘traditional’ teaching? And are those administrators on the right path who choose to stay true to the Old Ways where tech is “seldom seen and oft wondered at”?

If you are a parent reading this I would like to share five pieces of advice that I hope are helpful, even if they make slightly uncomfortable reading for some of us.

1. Be intentional…

Tech isn’t something that happens to kids. They dont miraculously find it in their rooms. You put it there. You are the ones who buy the phones and you are the ones who make the rules. You may negotiate the rules with your kids as they grow (and I would definitely recommend this!) but, at the end of the day, you are the ones in charge. But, as with all great power, there comes great responsibility. What will you do with that power? What are your intentions? Do you parent randomly? Or do you have a plan? Do you just make it up as you go along, or are you intentional in how you are raising your children? The first step is to make sure you adopt an intentional approach to parenting. Parent with a plan, and take time to make sure that the plan is based on strong evidence and rigorous thinking.

2. You are not alone…

They say it takes a village to raise a child and this is never more true than when facing the tech parenting challenge. Your child games with his friends, and those friends have parents. Your child is online for X, Y or Z hours a day – his friends likewise. His friends have parents who are also trying to manage the same issue. Reach out and connect to those other parents. Be each other’s support and source of advice. Alone you are but one (or two): together you are many – and your kung fu is strong…

3. It’s your fault … and even when you’re right, you’re wrong.

There is no universe where you come out smelling of roses when you decide to get in the way of a teenager’s desires. Deal with it. If you think that you can teach self-restraint to a 14 year old and be their friend, then you might like to reconsider your approach. I am not saying “become the enemy”. What I am saying is that you need to be the grown up and model grown up choices and share grown up thinking. They will get it. Eventually. Until then you have to prepare to be hated. Occasionally.

4. Kids are for life, not just for Christmas…

There is a great little poem called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. It reminds us that what we learn as children stays with us. It defines how we make choices and how we behave to one another as adults. So when you are making tough choices with your children, or setting boundaries, or taking time to really listen them, you are teaching them how to be when they are adults. You are also teaching them how to be good parents when the time comes when they are in your shoes. Remember that.

5. Yoda was right: do or not do… There is no try.

Once you have watched Screenagers, or read articles about the adolescent brain. When you learn about the relationship between screentime and addiction, or the overwhelming body of research on boundaries and childhood happiness. When you have learnt all of that … you must do something with it! Act on what you’ve learnt and be the parent who puts in the hard yards of intentional, committed parenting. Don’t try. Do.

[NB If you are teacher wondering about your place in all this, please read this amazing piece by my fomer colleague and awesome Elementary educator Zach Groshell – I couldnt put it better.]


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