This is the fourth and final installment of this series on how to deal with the demand of electronic media in our kids’ lives. Part 1 acted as an introductory post based on the question: how are we as parents supposed to guide our children in an aspect of their lives that didn’t exist when we were children ourselves? Part 2 described how my perspective on electronic media has changed from mostly negative to a mix of very positive and very negative aspects. In Part 3, I finally delved into the specifics concepts that guide us as we navigate the media flood, discussing “Limits, options, and responsibilities,” “Age-appropriate experiences versus relevant experiences,” “Listening to all the voices and following your gut,” and “Discussing everything with your children.”
Letting the Kids Weigh in
A very effective approach to setting media limits in our family is asking our children how long they think they should engage with screens at a given time. It empowers them by giving them a sense of authority in their own lives, something we want them to have in the long term and need to develop along the way. Sometimes we think they should have an hour of video games, but ask them first and they ask for 20 minutes! At that point we either respect and praise their wisdom, or generously offer extra time, making us the BEST PARENTS EVER!
It is so easy to just enforce rules with our children, and it is our right to do so as parents. Easy in theory. But conflict naturally comes from it as children strive to establish themselves as the master of their own destiny, and with rules come consequences that must be enforced or the rules are meaningless. We prefer to establish guidelines that are discussed, set, and understood as a familial community. It’s more work up front, but a whole lot less to manage in the long term; but more importantly we love to see our children empowered to be decision makers alongside us. To that end, we don’t punish our children. Instead we choose to take on the role of guides rather than rule enforcers. (This doesn’t mean that we are completely permissive. We recognize that life’s natural consequences and our children’s own conscience already dole out unnecessary punishments. Besides, punishments require the establishment of a dominant party in the relationship, which means control, which leads to resentment, rebellion, and sets up conflict between both parties – not acceptable if you’re trying to fight alongside your children, not with them). Our children can be so wise, and when we give them the chance, they often blow us away.
Adapting to Changing Circumstances
Perhaps the hardest part of managing electronic media consumption in our family is that our kids just won’t stop growing! And as they mature, they need to have access to media that matches their level of maturity. That means periodically looking up what media is deemed appropriate for different ages, finding new shows to share with each child, books that will be both engaging and challenging, etc. As our children grow, the way we engage with them needs to grow with them. Or we end up being the kinds of parents who talk to their teenagers in that little voice that they used with them when they were babies. You know what I’m talking about. If that’s how you want to interact with your older children, that’s your choice, but I will judge you (not that it’s any of my business) and there does seem to be a pattern wherein that way of interacting seems to naturally spread to other relationships too until you end up talking to everyone that way. You are welcome to be that person. As for me, I think we need to evolve in our parenting to meet our children where they are as they mature.
Adopting a Permissive Posture
There is one particular parental attitude that we have consciously fought against more than any other. It’s the idea that there is a battle going on, one between parents and their children. It’s a battle about responsibility, control, protectiveness, experience, reason, right-ness, and ultimately: fear and power. That’s on the parent side. For the kids in this fight, it’s about freedom, self-expression, their ability to choose, having their own voice, thoughts, and opinions, and the very value of their existence.
The fight wages on, because it is so commonplace it is believed to be a reality that cannot be avoided. Parents will hate their toddlers, their 3 yr olds, their middle schoolers, and then their teenagers, until that moment when “Poof!” their relationship with their kids will magically be amazing – when they’re mature adults. The decade or more leading up to that beautiful moment will suck. But there is another way.
As I alluded to above, instead of fighting against our children, Jessica and I have chosen to fight alongside them. We want their battles to be our battles. We want to be their champions in the conflicts they have outside of our family. We want to be on their team, on their side, in their camp. Genuinely. And so we work hard to defend our relationship with them from parental power trips and manipulative tactics to control them. It’s hard, because it goes against our societal conditioning, to the point where treating children with the same respect we would an adult feels unnatural and somehow wrong. But our children’s experience with sexual abuse has changed us, is still changing us. It has affected us all.
We don’t want them to understand that a healthy relationship with an adult is one based on fear, control, power, and punishment. We want them to know their full value as human beings, as people, from the earliest possible age, so that they can grow into healthy adults who have known and owned their intrinsic value for a long time, instead of struggling with it like I have.
Reeling it back in now: one of the ways that we fight against this Us versus Them attitude is in adopting a permissive posture. By default, I used to react to special requests by my kids with an immediate “no.” It was a knee-jerk reaction. They would start with “Daddy can I please…?” and before they were even done asking, my gut would say “no!” and then I had to change my mind for whatever they requested to be allowed. A permissive posture means that instead of a negative answer being the automatic reaction to our children’s requests, we adopt a positive response. We approach their ideas and requests with a default “yes” or at least an immediate positive response like: “That’s a great idea. Let me think about it.” Or “I can see why you would want to read that book.” or “Tell me more about that.”
As parents, avoiding conflict with our children can be as simple as showing interest in what they want to discuss instead of immediately shooting it down. Especially as they get into their teenage years, it is so encouraging for them to regularly hear a response like “Sure! You can do that. I do have some concerns. Would you like to hear them?”
I think we have circumnavigated this black hole of a blog post turned blog series long enough. Parenting is tough, especially if you’re looking to break from tradition and societal norms. Electronic media is everywhere and simply can’t be avoided. If I were to sum up the 4000 or so words that have led you to this point (and Bravo! if you have) I would say it like this:
Develop healthy lines of communication with your child, where their voice matters and their opinions are important. Stay informed so you can guide them while choosing your battles carefully (“later” is better than “no”). Don’t let something as fickle and ephemeral as electronic media create a war zone between you and your potential future best friend.
At the time of this post, Jeremy had 6 remarkable children, all girls, between the ages of 3 and 16, and has been happily married for 18 years.