Healthy Living is brought to you by:
The main job of parents is to shepherd their children safely into a happy, productive adulthood. But are children today growing up in a smaller, scarier world than ever before? I don't think so. Technology just makes it seem that way. Is parenting harder? Are you kidding? Unlike pioneer parents, we have indoor plumbing and the medicine woman on speed dial. We don't have to hunt and gather anything more challenging than macaroni and cheese.
Kids and parents are essentially the same as always. For the first 10 years, we protect children from the world (cougars, blizzards, cyber-bullies). Over the next 10, we send them out in it. In pioneer days, we equipped them with a rifle and a mule; today it's a cell phone and car keys.
Parents have always had some control over dangers that prevent children from becoming successful adults. Pa Ingalls locked the cabin doors to protect his family and keep out the wolves. Nowadays, we have digital wolves. Many of the dangers kids face are created by their access to technology. Every day we read about kids trampled by overstimulation, anxiety, depression, behavioral, social and physical threats. Let's regroup, parents. How much technology do they really need? Protection means waiting until they're old enough to handle the techno-world.
The developmental challenges of the first 10 years haven't changed. By age 10 they need to read, write, follow instructions, participate productively in family life, maintain close relationships, and have a sense of security, trust, self, and their own capabilities. If you shortcut childhood by exposing children to information they're too young to process, they become confused, frightened, behave badly and stall out developmentally.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) determined that young kids who watch R-rated movies drink and smoke earlier than kids who watch age-appropriate movies. Kids exposed to violence in movies, games or real life view it as a good way of settling conflicts. They also see the world as a scarier place. Same goes for sexually explicit material. Kids exposed early become sexually active earlier.
The next 10 years are tricky because we have to give them tools and send them out into the wild. But we don't have to give them all the tools early or send them very far. Computers and cell phones are essential for high school and college students, but they need to know how to use them. That takes maturity.
Many adolescents have cell phones, unrestricted texting, Internet access, social networking sites and lots of unsupervised time. It's like leaving them alone in the cave surrounded by bobcats: They get bored and play with wild things. They become anxious, depressed and stupid. Parents need to be gatekeepers.
The news is full of kids caught exposing themselves and taking pictures with their cell phone camera. Teens aren't necessarily known for their common sense. Leave them alone with a sex drive, poor impulse control and a variety of different technologies and they'll make felonious mistakes. Pioneer kids probably messed around in the hayloft, but they didn't get convicted for sex-texting ("sexting").
The solution? Common sense and a gradual, supervised approach to handing out the tools and toys. Little kids don't need cell phones. They shouldn't be in situations where they need that safety net. Computers are important for developing technical skills, but only with age-appropriate games and websites. No televisions or computers in their bedrooms. Limit screen time and know what they're watching.
As for adolescents, give them cell phones only when they need them. Use parental-control features. Have them check their phone in and out with you. Middle school teachers beg parents to keep cell phones and tech toys home entirely. They're distracting and disruptive. Texting? Social Networking? Think wolves, bobcats, cyber-bullies and text-abuse. For more advice, check out the AAPs guidelines. What about the Internet and gaming? Only on the family computer on sites you also have access to.
When it comes to teens, so much depends on their maturity and lifestyles. If they drive or date, cell phones are a good idea. The Internet is important academically and socially, but using it should be viewed as a privilege and a responsibility. MySpace? Facebook? Only if you're their friend. Kids don't realize it, but once it's out there--it's public and permanent. Later in life, they don't want to learn the hard way that that embarrassing info they put out on the web can be used against them in a job interview.
Loosen your grip gradually. The goal of parenting is to let go of the reins and let the kids drive their own mule. If they haven't gotten in trouble during childhood, they'll find their way safely to their own cabin--even when there are wolves at the door.
About the Author
Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.