Parenting was never a sport for the faint of heart. It takes tremendous mental and physical energy, there are few if any breaks, and it can even get a little bloody. It seems that in recent times, however, the ante has been upped even more: with the ever-expanding reach of the internet and its access points, the kinds of trouble our kids can get into has mushroomed, as we have unfortunately seen in news story after news story. How does this change our approach to parenting in the age of the iPhone?
I’ll tell you a secret: it doesn’t. The rules of the game are the same as they always have been, even if the playing field is more challenging. Here are two of the basic principles – perhaps the two basic principles – that every parenting expert agrees on.
1. Kids need boundaries.
This is as true as it has ever been. There is a lot of talk about the question of children using cell phones, but not a lot of guidance yet on how to answer it. At what age should they be allowed to have one? How much autonomy should they have with it? These are details that need thought and discussion; but it is still unquestionable that your children should have boundaries in this area as in any other. That means that if your daughter’s bedtime is 10 PM, she should not be texting on her phone until 2 AM. Not only have the negative effects of such behavior been well-documented, the very idea that cell phone use has limits is important in itself. We will eventually need to teach our children about proper behavior in cyberspace – about cyberbullying, about identity theft, about pornography. The place to start is with simple boundaries: limits on when they can use it (not at 2 AM), where they can use it (not in the synagogue sanctuary), and how they can use it (respectful communication at all times) are vital early messages.
2. Kids will do what you do.
Modeling behavior has always been the most effective parenting tool at our disposal. 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 cell phones until the wee hours of the morning, then you better know when to call it quits too (yes, somehow they always know). If you want to make sure they don’t text and drive, then you can’t do it, even “just this once because it’s important.” And so on.
The way you handle electronic devices in your home will deeply influence how your kids learn to handle them. Stephen Covey, of “7 Habits” fame, said of television that it 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 Candy Land with our preschoolers? When we take them to the park, do we sneak a peek at our e-mail 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 excruciatingly aware of what we do. If we are glued to our computers/tablets/smartphones, our kids will learn that these are things to long for. If we can’t set boundaries on our own usage, they won’t be able to either.
There’s a lot yet to figure out about best practices for kids and their devices. 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.
Rabbi Raffi Bilek, a clinical social worker, is the director of the Baltimore Therapy Center.