A fellow parent tagged me on a great Facebook thread the other day. Her query echoed a question parents frequently ask me: What do you do when other people’s rules for their kids are different, especially when your kids and their kids are playing on the same digital playground?
“I am getting tired of my sixth-grader (11-year-old) asking for a Snapchat account. She claims all her friends have had one for at least a year or more, and feels embarrassed to tell them she isn’t allowed to when they ask. According to her, and based on the number of her friends with multiple social media accounts, it is the norm in this community to allow middle-school age kids to have Snapchat and other social accounts despite that it is supposed to be restricted from those under the age of 13. Am I being overprotective? Is my daughter really the only one without Snapchat? How do other parents feel about this?”
When it comes to technology and kids, other parents can complicate things. Even if you feel like you’re in control of what happens in your home, the parents of your child’s peers will undoubtedly come into play.
What do you do when other parents have different technology rules for their children?
How many times have you heard, “But all my friends have iPhones!” Or, “Gabe’s mom lets him use Snapchat — why can’t I?” We may have perceived our own parents to be strict or lenient relative to others. What time was your curfew? Were you allowed to have friends over — or to visit their houses unsupervised?
The difference now is that there’s more of a range of opinions and values when it comes to the issues that technology adds to the traditional challenges of parenting. Much of kids’ digital world is about social connections, so the perception of being left out can be heightened in relation to participating in group texting, online games and social media.
What do we do when the parents of our kids’ friends have different rules? How do we manage this in a practical, unemotional way?
Remove judgment: I work with families, and I see how hard it is for parents to talk to other parents about their experiences. There is a lot of judgment and negativity — both internal and external. Doubt creeps in: “Am I doing the right thing?” We are also quick to condemn: “I would never allow that for my kids.” Everyone wants to do right by their kids, and everyone has different values. Start with a little empathy. Try to see it from another parent’s perspective — maybe you will change your view. Regardless, it will help you to understand their choices and to manage the effect it has on your kids.
Communicate openly: If everyone strives for open communication about parenting and technology, and takes a community-oriented approach when we are concerned about children’s behaviour, we’ll all benefit. Most parents are happy to share their experiences. Parenting is difficult, and it’s good to find someone who can relate. It can be reassuring to talk to other parents who have handled a similar situation in a similar way. Take it as your responsibility to start the conversation.
Ditch the guilt: Learn from what other parents are doing, but don’t let the comparison make you feel guilty. I’ve seen shame surface in parents because they think that everyone’s ahead of, or doing better than, them. We each have our own parenting styles. It helps to see what others are doing to establish a frame of reference. But make sure that you are not succumbing to the negative side of comparison. Yes, we all make parenting mistakes — but guilt rarely helps.
Make confident decisions: Your values are your values. Just as you try not to judge other parents, you should also feel free from incoming judgment. You are a savvy parent with lots of life experiences, and you do what’s right for your family. So feel confident about your choices, and don’t let them be driven by others. As much as you can, don’t let others take these important decisions out of your hands. You are strong and in control — even if it doesn’t seem that way sometimes!
Set “trust milestones”: If your child is claiming to be the last among her peers not to have a cell phone or another device, you can strategise with her about other ways to maintain contact with her friends. Make it clear when you expect her to get a phone and under what conditions. For instance, maybe there’s a “trust milestone” for her to achieve before you’ll grant permission, such as contributing financially to the monthly plan, or adhering to certain rules about its use.
Create a community: Part of being a tech-positive parent is reaching out to others who are thoughtfully engaging in these questions. Find the parents who see themselves as tech-mentors. Is there a mom or dad who knows a lot about Minecraft who can help you set up your personal server? Is there someone at work who feels confident about social media and can coach you on privacy settings so you feel more confident about what your children are sharing (or not sharing) with the world?
How to build your “village”
Dealing with the decisions of other parents can be difficult. We can try to find a more compatible social circle, but our kids choose their friends and we don’t have much control over it. With each new friend come new parents, and new rules that are sure to influence your family.
I look at everything through the lens of mentorship. We are better parents, teachers and community leaders when we mentor our kids. When we teach them to make good decisions, we are empowering them. We need to be good mentors to each other, as well. Take this on. Make the first move. Be the mentor in your community.
Start with one subject that you know really well. Raise a question around the issue. Listen to the comments. Respond thoughtfully. Opening a discussion is the first step.
Use email, a Google group, or a Facebook group, all of which are easy to set up and free. They also allow people to meet virtually and asynchronously, without the hassle of scheduling in-person meetings. Talking face-to-face is valuable, but it can feel like a luxury in our action-packed lives.
There are times when you will wish you could move your kids to another community (or that the parents whose rules you like the least would move far away). Establishing an intentional community can help you feel more empowered around what happens with you and your kids in their digital world, even when the “village” is not making things simple.
Devorah Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” a guide for mentoring digital kids. Her curriculum for grades four to eight is called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native.
By arrangement with The Washington Post