5 Low-tech Tips for Parenting High-tech Kids

by Fred Goodall- August 7, 2014 • 9:44 am

I’ve been a tech geek since the 3rd grade, when my class was allowed to use the main school office computer once a week. This was way back in 1978 when computers were a luxury and there was only one in the whole building. The entire staff stopped work for a couple hours each Friday, so we could experience this emerging, exciting technology.

We went 2 at a time for 15 minutes, connected the computer to a modem via rotary phone and joined to a network where we could play simple games and write programs to create pictures on the dot-matrix printer.

Those weekly visits got me hooked. I begged my mother for the latest devices: Commodore 64, Atari 2600, Quiz Whiz, Speak and Spell. Even though she didn’t really understand how they worked, my mother got them for me because she understood how important it was to me to learn about them.

Now I spend most days in front of a computer writing blog posts, creating online videos, recording podcasts and managing social media accounts. Since online work has become second nature, I figured everyone understood this world as well as I do. After talking to other parents of tweens and teens, I discovered I was wrong. Parent after parent shared with me their frustrations with technology and how much they struggle to keep up with their kids’ social media use.

I realized that watching their kids on Instagram, Snapchat, Kik, Tinder, Twitter, must make them feel as ill-equipped as my mom did when she saw me spend countless hours writing BASIC programs on my Commodore 64. My mom, however, refused to throw her hands up in defeat. She would peek into my room with genuine curiosity and ask me what I was doing. I showed her my simple code and explained what it meant. Though she didn’t understand computer language, she was engaged, not afraid. She bought me programming books, listened to my ramblings about new projects and watched when I showed her the fruits of my labor on the monitor.

My mother never became expert in what I pursued. But her involvement and interest kept the doors of communication between us open. Her investment of time in me and my technology was the vital ingredient in our having real, mutually trusting conversations. Most of the parents I talk with have a Facebook account and watch YouTube videos periodically. But beyond that, they don’t interact online on a regular basis. So their children’s online activity worries them. But I don’t think parents have to use technology to the same extent their children do—they just need to be interested and to listen.

So to help other parents I developed a six-week class called Social Media and Teens: What Parents Need to Know. I’ve been teaching the class since January and have encountered parents with varying degrees of technical knowledge. Some are overwhelmed by technology and can’t keep up, so they bury their heads in the sand and hope their kids don’t get into any trouble online. Others hole up in the other extreme, forbidding their kids from using technology at all. My goal is to educate parents about a happy medium where they and their kids can use and understand technology effectively and safely.

But while I cover social media and technology in depth, I spend the majority of the class time showing parents how better to communicate with their kids. Because parents who have solid, trusting relationships with their children are given access to their children’s inner lives, and that’s where problems happen and can be headed off—and where you can learn about your children’s real selves, technology aside. So here are my top lessons:

  1. Understand and accept that things are different. Many parents have a tendency to long for the good ol’ days before the internet. While it’s okay to reminisce, parents have to learn to live in the present and keep an eye on the future. Our world is changing more rapidly than ever and if we don’t keep moving forward, we’ll be left behind. Our children need us to be knowledgeable enough about technology so we can help them cope with issues like online bullying.
  2. Have authentic conversations with your child. Kids want to be heard and understood. That’s why they crave social media interaction. I make a point to spend dedicated time with each of my children so I can understand what’s going on in their lives. My sons enjoy video games, so I play with them. My daughter likes to text, so I send her funny messages throughout the day. These interactions allow me to dig deeper into and be part of their worlds. I’ve learned so much about my children by interacting with them on their own terms. Take the time to talk to your children and really listen to them when they respond. This simple act is more powerful than you realize.
  3. Learn from your children. My teenage daughter teaches me everything I need to know about social media. At least once a week, I ask her what apps, social networks and websites are popular with her friends. She tells me about them and we review them together. I sometimes need her help when I’m experiencing technical difficulties with my phone. If you’re clueless about technology, don’t be too proud to ask your children. They’ll be more than glad to share their knowledge.
  4. Talk about safety and security. Part of my class discusses the dark side of tech and social media. I share stories of situations that went wrong because kids were allowed to use technology without supervision. I don’t do this to make parents afraid. Instead, I try to convince parents to talk about the dangers with their children and know how to take action to avoid them.
  5. Give them a reason to go offline. Parents complain that their kids are online all the time, but they don’t give them an alternative. It’s easy to say “Go outside and play” or “Go read a book.” However, kids are more likely to do these things if you participate. If you want your kids to play outside, go with them. Or grab a book, sit on the couch and read together. If your kids see that you want to be involved in their lives, they will be more inclined to step away from their devices.

Parenting digital natives can be tough. It was tough for my mother and I didn’t have a fraction of the technology that my kids have today. But the most important thing we can invest in our children is the most low-tech of all: our time and attention. If we listen more and learn enough about the technology they use, everyone wins. Result? You’ll enjoy closer relationships, online and off, with your kids. Bonus: seeing them share selfies on Instagram won’t make your heart rate go through the roof.

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