My father set sail for Baja California to escape the “rat race” in Southern California. His inbox was made of black metal — messages appeared on “while you were out” pink notepads, and callers would rather hang up than speak to an automated answering machine.
Fast forward 40 years, and today’s crushing amount of information and communications would prompt my late father, who died in ’93 as an early and proud adopter of those first-gen gigantic cell phones, to exclaim: “Son, this is crazy making.”
Indeed, and nowhere more so than among his grandchildren, whom he never met. I’m a bit obsessed by the topic as our house is turned upside down by an 8-, 12- and 14-year-old who are masters of every device. In the last week alone, the youngest pleaded guilty to deleting the iPad photos of the middle child, an attention-getting move, she conceded. The 12-year-old was caught on Skype with his girlfriend at 1:15 AM; we’re working in tandem with the girl’s mom in taming this modern day Romeo and Juliet. Meanwhile, our oldest is in danger of surpassing the national teen texting average of 60 a day, and sought my wife’s consul in how to respond to a one-word text from a boy she never met but considered an online friend. When he called her a four-letter expletive in a text, she took matters into her own hands and phoned him with a torrent of assaults, which in Cold War parlance can only be described as massive retaliation.
I am not alone, of course, but in the good company of millions of fellow parents who watch similar scenarios play out every day. Last week, I returned from a middle school lecture given by a digital expert on how to better manage our kids’ online behavior. The sighs in the audience were audible, and so too was the sense of the parents’ desperation, as we heard tales of cyber-bullying and how kids judge their number of FB friends as a barometer of self worth (which sounds like some of the adults I know).
In short, it was an exasperating yet educational exchange for parents raised on the Boob Tube and not YouTube. I got at least one solid idea out of it, though: park my kids’ devices overnight in the garage (namely to put an end to late-night Skyping), which I’ve implemented. But we seem to be missing the mark with these unsustainable “solutions.” Short of signing up the entire family for a crash course in transcendental meditation (I’m considering it), what to do?
In my case, I walk a line somewhere between the permissive freedom-to-roam parental crowd and the highly strict, Tiger Mommy lock down parental action committee. Instead of trying to turn off the info-spigot my strategy is to channel this energy into what I call “High-Quality Online Activities.” Notice, I didn’t say educational. There’s plenty of that out there. I mean sites that light a spark in your kid. Ultimately my goal is to make their online experiences more personally meaningful.
My oldest is already saying “Dad, give it up.” But seeing it as my modern day parental duty – and I’m stubborn – I bumble ahead.
Case in point, my 12-year-old son. The calls from teachers saying he’s acting out in school are becoming frequent, and it’s not just about the hormones kicking in, lack of sleep, and language processing issues (he’s already in a highly selective special ed school and we can’t afford for it not to work).
It’s triage time, and my wife and I have developed the following digital RX/one-two punch: Computer is handed over at 8:00 PM. Xbox is only brought out on the weekend. No screen time till homework is done.
This ham-fisted approach is designed to modify my son’s behavior. But I don’t leave it just there. I’ve also tried to guide him toward his more intense interests. Our boy’s all consuming passion is sports and over a year ago we encouraged him to set up a Twitter handle where every Tweet is sports related. I later discovered that he’s on several online fantasy leagues with outstanding records, I’m proud to report. Both Twitter and fantasy leagues help his writing and thinking and boost his self-esteem.
I try to stoke his career dreams by sending him articles and blog posts about, say, a sports agent one day, a photographer or novelist or entrepreneur the next. From recording play-by-play announcing to creating Photoshop images, he sees that his online talents can one day be translated into a professional life. Instead of pushing him offline, I sometimes meet him online. Turning an otherwise solitary experience into a shared one is an opportunity for your kid to turn you on to what turns them on. “Dad, you got to see this video!”
I’ve also found that if you give your kid something fun to do offline — eg road trip, barbecue, jump in the lake, go for a hike — he’ll usually hit the off button.
Last night while he was sneaking in a videogame, I asked if he wanted to play catch instead.
“Sure, Dad,” he said, as he jumped to get his football.
Enjoy it while you can.
[Image Credit: eddale on Flickr]