Parenting in today’s digital age is tough, but if you use the same, smart thinking that you have used all along, you can keep your adolescent safe while allowing the room needed to foster independence. It wasn’t spying on your child that got them safely to the preteen and teen years, it was smart parenting.
Think back to the first time you helped your 3 year old navigate the slide at the playground, or the first time you let your 7 year old walk next to you in a parking lot instead of holding their hand. Think about the first day of school and waving your child off as the bus pulled away, or when you made the decision to get rid of the baby monitor.
In each situation, as a smart parent, you did a few things that kept your child safe, while allowing them some age appropriate freedom:
● You quickly, often intuitively, looked at the environment and assessed the potential risk for harm.
● You assessed your child’s ability to handle the situation based on their current development.
● You then decided which parenting strategy was appropriate.
Most likely, you helped your 3 year old up the slide but let them go down it alone, with you at the bottom to ward off any major injury. When your child had training wheels you decided when they were ready to ride without them, most likely asking yourself, “What is the worst thing that will happen if I let my child fall?” A bruised knee might have been worth it to let your child learn how to balance better, or to develop a sense of mastery if successful.
In each of the examples mentioned, the idea of spying on them seems ridiculous. Secretly watching them try and navigate whichever task was in front of them and hoping the results weren’t catastrophic was not a parenting strategy that you most likely used.
Spying involves secrecy, it assumes that some negative behavior already exists, and by spying, we will prove it. That is not parenting at all. Parenting is teaching and setting boundaries and limits that are appropriate to their developmental abilities at the time.
We parent our children on the playground, at home, we teach them appropriate ways to express themselves socially and at school. We meet their teachers, coaches and friends and yet in the one space our kids spend 9 hours a day, most of us simply don’t parent at all.
So, let’s look at the environment of cyberspace. I think we can all agree that you would never allow a stranger to walk into your home, go up to your child’s bedroom, close the door and hang out for 4 hours. Yet that is what we do every single day when we allow our kids to go into their rooms, close the door, and chat with friends and strangers, exchange pictures and personal information, get advice, google questions about life, sex, and drugs. When we don’t parent in this space, we are setting our kids up to make mistakes, not because they can’t be trusted, not because they are bad, not because they don’t know the difference between right and wrong, but because the part of the human brain responsible for impulse control, planning, and judgement is simply not fully developed. Not choosing to parent your preteen or teen in cyberspace would be like building an apartment above the garage, not having the key, getting them a fake ID and just hoping they will make good decisions. We can’t expect teens to use a part of their brain that just isn’t firing yet, the consequences online are simply too huge.
Now many parents do report checking their child’s online activity, but sporadic checking is not prevention.
If your goal is to protect your child, then Social Judo is the parenting tool that will let you get in front of the bus before it plows into your family. While the environment in the teen years has changed, your parenting approach should not.
Think of some of the risky things you did as a teenager, and ask yourself, would you do those things today? Probably not because with your adult brain you can calculate risk and reward with more logic than emotion, and you can see long term consequences which help guide your behavior, things your 16 year old brain could not do.
As parents we have got to get better at understanding our teenagers developmental limitations. Only then will we more effectively balance independent exploration with an appropriate level of parental oversight.
Social Judo is the tool to help you to do just that.
The list of worst things that could happen if your child makes a mistake in cyberspace? We have all heard the horror stories, and it is time for parents to get smarter, our kids need it and they deserve it.
Andrea DiFilippo, MSW, LICSW