Address to the United Nations, New York, for the Global Day of Parents
June 1, 2016
The digital age has reshaped the landscape in which we are raising our children. While our new tools and technologies allow us to do things we could only once dream of, it has also changed the conditions under which we care for our children. What is the impact of the digital age on parenting and child development? In order to answer this question we will need to ask what comes with these new tools and whether they are what our children need to realize their full human potential?
Many parents today are raising the first true digital natives despite being digital immigrants themselves. The challenge lies in being able to lead our children into this age instead of just following them. Many children now have unprecedented access to information, entertainment, and connectivity, especially to their peers, but is this what our children really need? If the goal is to raise them to be socially and emotionally mature global citizens who are resilient and adaptive, then the answer is no, this is not what they need. Furthermore, these things are proving to make parenting more challenging and have the capacity to adversely impact the conditions under which our children flourish.
I have spent many decades considering human development, as a faculty member at the Neufeld Institute, working alongside internationally respected, clinical and developmental psychologist, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, and author of Hold Onto Your Kids with Dr. Gabor Mate. I have helped parents in my counselling practice make sense of the digital world and the implications for raising their kids, as well as managing problems related to it. I have also addressed the importance of play in young children’s lives and the pressures of technology in my book Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers. I have also aided educators in considering technology and its impact on student/teacher relationships, as well as guided university students in forming educational plans and career goals to meet the demands of a digital age.
But this issue is important to me on a more personal level because I am also the mother of two children who are both entering their adolescent years. I remember when I gave my 7-year old an iPad to try out for the first time. It really was love at first sight as she enjoyed watching video clips and playing games. It was only two weeks later, in the middle of a warm embrace as I put her to bed one night she told me, “Oh Mommy, your hugs are still better than technology time.” I was stunned by her comment and wondered how had my 7-year old relationship with her become comparable to 2 weeks of minimal technology time?
The problem facing parents today is that we do not have cultural tradition to guide us. As Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki stated, it takes societies anywhere from 100 to 200 years to develop the cultural rules and rituals around the use of new tools. We don’t have this type of time when it comes to raising our kids so we will need to find another way. We will need to become conscious of the conditions conducive for healthy development by turning to developmental science, attachment science, neuroscience, as well as parenting intuition and insight.
The greatest need our children have, that must be met for healthy development to unfold, is that of human attachment. Attachment is how we fufill our children’s hunger for contact and closeness and is the single most important factor that influences the trajectory of their growth. Every child needs at least one strong, caring, emotionally available adult to feel they belong to. Attachment for a child is about who they feel they are the same as, who they are loyal to, who they want to be significant to, cared for, as well as share their secrets with. The answer to what our children need most of all is love.
But the key issue here is that it is actually not how much we love our children that matters most, but whether they have given their heart to us. Children do not follow parents or learn from teachers they are not attached to. You cannot protect, preserve or be a guardian for a child’s heart that has not been entrusted to you for safekeeping. Healthy brain development is based on whether a child can experience vulnerable emotions such as caring, sadness, disappointment, but the world is too wounding for their hearts to be left unattended. Parents were meant to be the natural caretakers of a child’s emotional system, to orient and guide them, to lead, to look out for, and to share one’s values. We need to hold onto the hearts of our children, it is what will make them fully human and humane. We cannot live this part of our lives out loud from behind screens and through devices. Our attachment with our children is the one thing that cannot be displaced or replaced by algorithms, apps, or reduced to 0’s and 1’s.
Many years ago I was looking for information on raising kids in a digital world and I stumbled across a computer scientist who told a story about growing up in Italy about 40 years old. He said his friends all had Sony Walkmans and he wanted one too but his father refused. Despite pleading his case that he was the only one among his that didn’t have a Walkman, his father remained firm. Six months later he went to his father again and told him that a friend had got a new Walkman for his birthday and had offered to give his old one to him. He again pleaded with his father, “Papa, you don’t even have to buy it, my friend will give it to me for free – please can I have a Walkman?” Again the father said no and when asked why by his son he said, “Because I don’t want you to have anything in your ears that would interfere with you hearing your Mama or your sister talk to you.” What this father knew intuitively is that relationships were more important than technology or tools.
If there were one thing we need to remember most when raising children in a digital age it would be to let nothing come between us. But there are clear signs that this is not the case. According to the Centre for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, family time has dropped dramatically by more than a third since the onset of the digital revolution despite staying relatively consistent for decades prior to this. The study involved more than 30 countries.
Parents and teachers also now compete with digital devices and a child’s peers in order to get their attention. Many of our children are increasingly more attached to their friends than to the adults who are responsible for them, which is only fuelled by devices that enhance peer connectivity.
It is also our caring for our children that unlocks their instincts to care about others. Tragically there are signs our children are losing their caring feelings at an alarming rate. Research on empathy in North American youth has found a 48% decline today in comparison to 30 years ago, as well as a 30% decline in their capacity to consider someone else’s perspective. Videogames and digital devices cannot teach empathy nor activate instincts for contact, closeness, and caring in the same way that human connection can.
What our children need most are relational homes to grow up in, where adults invite them into relationship and to rest in their caretaking. Research on resiliency in kids has consistently demonstrated the link between children’s emotional health and social success with strong caring relationships with adults. However, the message that adult relationships are the answer to human vulnerability has not been translated well into child rearing practice.
When our children can take for granted their relational needs will be met by the adults in their lives, they will be free to play, to discover, and become their own separate being. Play is the birthplace of personhood, not entertainment nor instruction. Our relationship with our children is also how we represent the limits and restrictions that are part of life and all the futilities they must face. Adults are still the ones who need to help a child accept that they can’t always get what they want and can survive this experience.
What is clear is that our relationships with our children cannot be displaced or replaced by all that comes with this new digital age but there are clear signs we are being challenged to hold onto our kids.
I watched as my 14-year old niece became peer attached and clung to her phone as the lifeline that preserved her connection to friends. We took her on a camping trip as an extended family in order to reclaim a foothold back in her life. In realizing the campground didn’t have any cell coverage she told her mother it was going to be so boring trip because she couldn’t talk to any of her friends. Despite being surrounded by her village of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, she longed to be elsewhere.
On the third day of the camping trip I came across her and her mother in conversation. My niece was sobbing and my sister said my niece felt lost and confused. As I comforted my niece I asked her if she knew the number one rule when she felt this way and she said no. I told her that she needed to hold on to someone who wasn’t lost and confused about who she was. I asked her, “are your friends lost and confused?” to which she replied yes. I asked, “is your boyfriend lost and confused?” to which she replied yes again. I then asked her, “When you look around here today, who is not lost or confused about you?” She looked at me and said, “you” and it was then that I felt I had reentered her life once more. I asked her who else and she looked at her mother and said, “my mom.” And with that I left them to have a conversation.
Later on my sister told me they talked at length and my niece cried for some time. After telling her mother about all the things that were not working in her life she looked at her surprised and said, “Mom, I never thought you would understand what I was going through or that you had gone through some of this too.” Separated from her phone and her peers, we, the adults in her life were once again able to reclaim a foothold in her heart.
What is clear to me is that we need to find a way to hold onto our kids in a digital age as there is no turning back and this is the world they will inherit. We need to lead our children into this new age and introduce them to their new tools and technologies when they are ready and mature enough to handle all that comes with it.
The role of adults in a digital world is buffer against the technological turn and to remember that despite all of our wonderful new tools for learning, creating, and communicating, our children still need adult guides who can ensure that what comes with a digital age does not derail their development.
The answer to parenting in a digital is quite simple, we need to believe we are what our children really need. It is a story as old as time, just retold in a digital age.
We need to invite our children to depend on us in ways that make us irreplaceable. We need to be the one to listen to their stories, to impart our values, and to teach them something only we can share.
We need to create rules and rituals that will preserve our parental relationship and our ability to hold onto our relationship with them.
We need to make it easy for them to attach to use to us by collecting their eyes and making sure they see delight, enjoyment and warmth in ours. As Gordon Neufeld states, if you do not feed your cat and your neighbor does, you will surely your cat to your neighbour.
We also need to take the lead and use technology appropriately so that our children will follow suit.
What is clear is we do not have the luxury of just following our children into the digital age. We need to lead and this is more than just tracking their use on devices or monitoring if they are getting into trouble. We cannot become police officers in our own homes and classrooms, ending up in battles with our children that will surely erode our relationships. We need to lead our children into the digital age and ensure that what comes with it does not come between us. Most importantly, we cannot let our love for our new tools blind us to what our children need most of all from us.
In conclusion, we cannot send our children into the digital world empty handed with only their technological tools in tow. Maturity is the prerequisite for true digital citizenship and to that end, parents are still the best ‘devices’.
Deborah MacNamara, PhD is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute and in private practice working with parents based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, PhD. She is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com for more information or www.neufeldinstitute.org.