Digital devices provide kids with the capacity to connect with each other like never before. No longer confined by geography, classroom walls or home, they have unprecedented access to a constant stream of friends, information, and entertainment. While our kids emerge as savvy inhabitants of this new digital world, parents are left to monitor, negotiate, and police their child’s online interactions and activities.
While it is clear the digital age presents new challenges to parents in terms of holding onto their kids, what is often missed is how this is colliding with the phenomena of peer orientation. Traditionally, children have oriented around their adults but in the last 50 years kids are increasingly taking their cues, values, and bearings from each other. There are many reasons contributing to the rise of peer orientation stemming from changes in family structure, economics, and increased geographic mobility. Children have become increasingly separated from the adults who are responsible for them, leaving them with relational voids often filled with one’s peers. As if in a perfect storm, our children’s enhanced capacity to connect with each other via digital devices comes at a time where their drive to be with one another is at an all time high. When our kids prefer to be with their peers they can feel miles away from the adults who care for them. They become difficult to take care of and readily make decisions without adult influence.
The answer to keeping our children close lies in cultivating, deep, strong, caring relationships with them. You cannot take care of a child if you do not have their heart. Parents need to take responsibility for their relationship with their kids but what are some of the ways this can be achieved?
1) Collect our Children -Collecting a child is an attachment ritual used to activate relational instincts to depend on, look up to, trust, and follow. In collecting a child we seek to get in their face in a friendly way and try and get a smile, a nod, and an overall sense of warmth and connection between us. In pursuing them in this manner we gather them to us and invite them into relationship. The warmth, delight and enjoyment we express conveys a desire to connect and provide for them. It is this collecting dance that builds the deep, caring relationships that parents need in order to hold onto their kids.
2) Nurture to Fulfill Attachment Hunger – Parents can best nurture their children when they seize the lead in the attachment dance. Reading their child’s needs before being told and providing generously for them conveys they are the one responsible for holding on. The provision of care from a parent needs to be greater than a child’s pursuit for connection, that is, if they need a hug, we give three in return. When a child feels there is a generous invitation to exist in their parents presence they hold onto them in return.
3) Preserve the Connection – There are many things that can come between a parent and child including behaviour, unmet expectations, and strong emotions. While adults need to convey rules and reminders of appropriate conduct when infractions have occurred, they must also communicate through words and deed that the relationship is still intact. If behaviour or conduct has come between us, we must find a way to hang onto a child and impress upon them that our desire to take care of them remains unwavered. To send them out into the world hungry for connection due to perceived breaks in our relationship pushes our children into connection with each other and out of orbit with us. Parents must assume their rightful position as being responsible for the parent-child relationship, especially when faced with conduct from their child that is less than ideal.
4) Protect Against Competing Activities and Attachments – Keeping children close in a digital world requires the conscious creation of structure and rules around the use of communication devices and peer interaction. Why would we allow children to use their devices at the dinner table where we were meant to collect their eyes and listen to their stories? Why would we allow them to retreat to their room with their devices seeking connection with others and eroding their appetite for interaction with us? We must consciously create rules and structure around the use of digital devices and peer engagement that will preserve and protect our relationship with them. As we set rules and rituals around technology use parents must also lead by example. We cannot let our love for our new tools blind us to the responsibility we have in creating a context for their safe use in and out of the home.
5) Matchmake to Build a Village – We cannot leave it in our children’s hands to build the village that will raise them. Parents need to take an active role in introducing and match making their children to the adults who are responsible for them. Coaches, teachers or extended family members are potential attachment figures that can provide for a child. If we fail to do this we leave them to their own devices, typically placing them in the hands of their peers. By matchmaking we set our children up to fall into attachment with other adults, drawing attention to similarities between them and the warmth that is there.
Social media and the enhanced capacity to keep one’s peers close was born from and is fuelled by our children’s relational hunger for each other. The best inoculation against losing them to their peers and an online world are deep nourishing relationships with the adults responsible for them. If we do our job and hold onto our kids they will hold onto us and see us as their best bet. When kids rest in the care of their adults, they can grow into the people that nature intended.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center, is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com or www.neufeldinstitute.com for more information.