Parenting has never been for the faint of heart. It takes tremendous mental and physical energy, and there are few, if any, breaks. It seems that in recent times, however, the ante has been upped. With the ever-expanding reach of the Internet, the kinds of trouble our kids can get into has mushroomed as we have seen in news story after news story. How does this change our approach to parenting in the age of the iPhone?
It doesn’t. The rules are the same as they always have been. Here are two principles that every parenting expert agrees on.
Kids need boundaries. This is as true as it has ever been. For instance, at what age should a child be allowed to have a cellphone? How much autonomy should the child have with it? This requires thought and discussion, but unquestionably, children should have boundaries in this area just as in any other. If your daughter’s bedtime is 10 p.m., she should not be texting on her phone until 2 a.m. Not only have the negative effects of such behavior been well documented, the very idea that cellphone use has limits is important.
Eventually, we will need to teach our children about the dangers of cyberspace — cyberbullying, identity theft, pornography. Start with simple iPhone boundaries. When they can use it (not at 2 a.m.), where they can use it (not in a synagogue sanctuary) and how they can use it (respectful communication) are vital early messages.
Kids will do what you do. Modeling behavior has always been the most effective parenting tool. No matter how great your family meetings are, if you talk a good talk but don’t walk the walk, you are doomed to failure. If you want your children not to be using their cellphones into the wee hours of the morning, then you should know when to call it quits too. If you want to make sure they don’t text while driving, then you should not, even “just this once because it’s important.”
The way you handle electronic devices will deeply influence how your kids handle them. Stephen Covey, of “7 Habits” fame, said that television is a good servant but a poor master. Are we the master of our devices or are they the masters of us? When the phone rings, do we drop everything to pick it up? Or do we ignore it and keep on playing with our preschoolers? When we take them to the park, do we sneak a peek at our emails while they’re on the monkey bars? Or do we pass on the opportunity in order to be fully present for our children?
Kids are extremely aware of what we do. If we are glued to our computers, tablets and smartphones, they will be too. If we can’t set boundaries for ourselves, they won’t be able to either.
No doubt emerging technologies will continue to challenge us. But the basics won’t change. Set limits for how your children engage with cyberspace, and show them how to do it right.
Raffi Bilek, a clinical social worker, is the director of the Baltimore Therapy Center.