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Preserving the parent connection in the age of distraction

In the midst of the addictive thrall of modern technology, connecting—you know, like, in person—is a white-hot topic. And no connection is more closely or emotionally scrutinized than the bond between parent and child. Experts on parenting, psychology, and education are weighing in on the impact of technology on our children and families. Mainly, that we’re a nation of distracted, socially disengaged tech junkies and our human relationships are suffering as a result. With so much new and exciting technology at our fingertips, imposed by jobs and societal pressure,

Parenting with technology

During Parenting Without Pixels: The Tech-Enabled Future, at this year’s SXSW conference, four panelists tackled some of the issues surrounding parenting in the digital age—How will tech empower parents in their universal pursuit of raising a happy child? Do devices assist or threaten the notion of responsible parenting?—coming at it from a fairly pro-technology stance, with a few important caveats.

As they spoke, it became clear that new tech-enabled learning, data-gathering, and experiential opportunities are thrilling and infinite. And this shifting landscape may demand a host of new parenting techniques as we strive to preserve a connection with our children. For panelist Michael Shore, Vice President, Future Play Mattel Inc., the picture is rosy, with emerging technologies offering up new opportunities for adult-child connection: “In the future, there is a way for play to become more amplified. The toy does not become a substitute for parenting, it becomes a catalyst. It can be more social—imagine grandma and grandpa in another city playing with a child. That’s pretty magical.”

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David Rose, CEO Ditto Labs, agrees. He’s bullish about the ways technology can enhance relationships, with digital devices and digital-gathering interfaces serving to amplify physical and active play within families. Citing Rock Band, a video game that allows up to four players at a time to simulate a rock music performance, Rose enthused: “It’s a toy that is for the kid and for everyone. It makes the learning curve gentler. It’s emotional, it’s performative, it’s something that everyone can do together. There will be more of this.”

The price to parenting

As exciting as these (and hundreds more like them) innovations are, they come at a price. It’s a price those of us currently parenting the iPad generation know all too well. As Shore noted, “All this technology means we have to be more active parents.” And, “active” more often than not means round-the-clock policing—attempting to enforce “screen time rules” in endless battles which degrade domestic tranquility and destroy parental sanity.

“Active” (parenting) more often than not means round-the-clock policing—attempting to enforce “screen time rules” in endless battles which degrade domestic tranquility and destroy parental sanity.

In reality, the belief that families can actually benefit from embracing more tech time is a tough sell for many of us. Conventional wisdom has it the other way around. We worry about the long-term effects—physical, social, emotional, developmental—of our brave new world.

Our desire to place limits on the amount of technology our children consume has, ironically, given rise to a host of (you guessed it) new technologies. Apps like OurPact and ParentKit, or “i-rules” (a tech rules of engagement contract signed by all parties) help families negotiate the fraught experience of setting limits on screen time by allowing parents to set up specific times of day when kids have access to online content and apps on their mobile devices. And the internet is awash in articles discussing best practices for curbing our children’s screen addiction.

Kids see what we do

As adults, we spend a lot of time and energy monitoring our children’s screen time, but we’re universally terrible at moderating our own. (Drive by any bus stop in the U.S. and see how many adults are staring at a phone rather than reading a book.) And, our kids notice. In its 2014 State of the Kid Report, Highlights magazine revealed just how affected children are by their parents’ tech time. In a survey of over 1,500 children between the ages of 6 and 12, 62 percent answered “Yes” when asked if their parents are distracted when they try to talk to them. A majority (51%) of kids who responded cited some form of technology—phone, TV, or laptop—as the distraction. (Not surprisingly, the number one culprit was the cell phone.)

In a survey of over 1,500 children between the ages of 6 and 12, 62 percent answered “Yes” when asked if their parents are distracted when they try to talk to them.

The third way

Given the choice of all tech or no tech, many of us find we’re caught somewhere in-between. We understand the hypocrisy, (and futility), of limiting technology altogether, as we ourselves are captivated by its charms. Yet we rebel against the notion that a tech free-for-all will make our family happier and more connected. Author and consultant Janell Burley Hofmann offers parents a third way to look at technology and parenting, “One way we can eliminate the struggle around technology is to actually enjoy it! How fabulous would it feel if our devices kept us connected, deepened our relationships and were a tool for creativity and family fun?”

Hofmann suggests five ways to make technology work toward the goal of parent-child connectedness:

  1. Share: Online videos, music, comedy, sports, and headlines are a great place to start. Build a bridge with your teens and tweens by finding social network accounts, pages, and channels that may be of interest or that you may have in common. Share musicians you love and social causes you care about. Promote meaningful conversation, discussion, and encourage mutual curiosity and fun.

  2. Make art: Outside Voice, a creative art outlet based in Austin recommends using devices for family time. Have a digital photography scavenger hunt, alphabet and name game search (“faces and places”), or other unique, funny photo capture contests. Try it at home and out in the world. Digital technology can support time together, be fun for all ages, and help kids (and adults) explore the arts.

  3. Tutorials: Want to learn to do that fabulous braid, make those adorable cupcakes, or practice the steps to your daughter’s favorite dance? It’s all available to you and your family online. Get silly, get serious—watch and learn—together.

  4. Get your game on: Set up a video game tournament, try a game outside of your family’s typical genres, or let the kids teach you to play their favorite mobile app. Even if it’s not your thing, kids love to teach their parents new stuff. Do you have a competitive family? Make up your own games using the web and a little creativity.

  5. Get curious: Want to hear the sound a moose makes, know which NBA team has the most championship titles, or learn the words to your son’s favorite song? Access to information has never been greater. So question and search together. Teach your children how to constructively use the internet.

Hofmann’s decision to accept technology as a given, and make it work for families rather than the other way around, feels realistic and empowering. As Hofmann says, “While all of these tips are about tech, they’re really about time. Technology can be a vehicle for the pause we all need —sitting and talking, bonding and building a loving relationship. So don’t resist it, embrace it—together!”

Technology can be a vehicle for the pause we all need —sitting and talking, bonding and building a loving relationship. So don’t resist it, embrace it—together!” - Janell Burley Hofmann

It’s a refreshing and helpful way to view the issue. After all, technology – like parenting – isn’t going anywhere. Ultimately, the best hedge against losing our connection with our child may be to lean in and traverse the new landscape together.

Laura Shear is a Bay Area-based freelance writer and consultant. She's addicted to home improvement projects and rescue puppies and firmly believes rosé should be enjoyed year-round. Find her on Twitter: @lmshear.

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