Parenting in the Digital Age is Really Hard

Tired stressed mother taking a nap while her child plays on her phone.

Parenting in the Digital Age is Really Hard

Do any of these comments about parenting in the digital age sound familiar to you?

“Parents aren’t parenting their kids anymore.”

“Millennial parents just give their kids their phones to play on.”

“When I was a kid, I played outside.”

There is a growing degree of finger pointing on the very sensitive topic of parenting young children. The U.S. Department of Education finds that 60% of children are not kindergarten-ready when it comes time to walk into kindergarten on that first day and many believe that the blame falls squarely on the parents. Parents are getting a bum rap! Placing blame is only exacerbating a problem that we should be working together to fix.

Parenting is by far the hardest job in the world and I would argue that parenting young children in the digital age of today is more complicated than ever before. We have trusted organizations such as the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics putting significant restrictions on screen time when the reality is our children are literally surrounded with screens in every aspect of their lives. Research is telling us that limiting screen time is critical to ensure the desired amount of healthy interactions between parent and child, but integrating these stringent regulations into a typical American family is another story.

Parenting in the Digital Age is Really Hard

We generally parent in the same fashion that we were parented, but we lose this as a reliable reference point if we grew up in a time when the digital world did not exist and expectations were simply not as great.

Parenting in the digital age can’t be judged in the same way.

If you are a grandparent, aunt, or anyone who had the privilege of raising your children when there were no cellphones, tablets, laptops, or TVs in the backseat of every vehicle, please don’t judge the young parents in your life who are attempting to navigate this difficult new reality.

Expectations for parenting in the digital age are higher.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the only benchmark necessary for a child to start kindergarten was that their birthday fall before a certain date in early September. Kindergarten assessments did not exist, and when assessments started, the focus was simply on reading, writing and arithmetic.

Newsflash, the three R’s simply don’t cut it any more. Now we have the six C’s. According to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick, authors of Becoming Brilliant, What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children, in order for a child to be kindergarten ready and successful in school, they need to demonstrate proficiency in the six C’s. Collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation and confidence. That’s a tall order for a five-year-old, but so necessary to be competitive in the global work force of the 21st century.

Demands on children are higher.

So, the demands on children have become much more rigorous and parents are operating in a world with countless barriers to success.

How is a young mom supposed to model a screen-free day for her toddler when she tracks her baby’s feeding schedule on an app? How is a self-employed parent supposed to respond quickly to client’s e-mails and texts without taking time away from young children? These are the realities of parenting in the digital age.

Parenting in the digital age is different.

Parents are parenting, but they are doing it differently because they have to. Parents are literally tasked with preparing their children to grow up in an ever-changing world.

Being an engaged parent is challenging with all of the distractions, but there are ways of integrating digital technology into children’s lives in a productive way. There are also some critical times to avoid digital technology.

Here are a few suggestions that go with the times.

1. Recognize that mobile phones are a part of our day-to-day reality.

And we can still set a good example for our children. Establish rules early on that you and your partner follow and you will expect your children to follow, such as no phones at the dinner table, no phones in the bedroom, or phones stay in the car when you go into a restaurant. Perhaps if you are a business owner or your boss expects you to be reachable 100% of the time, you can explain to your child that being on your phone is your job while playing is their job.

2. Think ahead.

Bring coloring books, games, and storybooks to restaurants, church, and doctor visits to resist the temptation to hand your phone over to a bored toddler. At the grocery store, talk about what you see, make scavenger hunts, give older children coupons or picture lists to keep them engaged.

3. Try to set some boundaries.

For example, maybe you can put an outgoing voicemail message once in a while that says, “For the next two hours I will be enjoying my daughter’s dance recital. I will return your call when it is over.” Be sure to tell your daughter that you have left this outgoing message so she understands your respect for her hard work so that some day when you ask for her respect, she will respond in kind. You can declare “airplane mode” times so your phones are silenced during your children’s sporting events, bedtime routines, and while playing together at the park. Let your clients know up front that you do not respond to texts or e-mails in the evenings between seven and eight PM because you are putting your children to bed. Maybe they will respect you for that and implement the same practice with their family.

4. Use texts and e-mails as a reminder to talk to your child.

Even newborn babies are listening to our speech and beginning to learn vocabulary. Read your texts and e-mails aloud and tell your child about the sender. Tell your child how the message might affect him. “This text is reminding me that I have a dentist appointment tomorrow. You will stay with grandma while I get my teeth cleaned.” Every time you use your phone to check the weather, tell your child the forecast and how it will affect her. “It might rain tomorrow. We will have to put on your raincoat when we go out.”

5. Avoid screens when you can.

Screens in the backseat of cars are great for long trips. But for short trips around town, try to engage your child in games. Try I Spy, spotting letters on signs, telling stories and singing along with the radio. This will add so many important interactions!

Avoid screens at bedtime because the light from the screen disrupts sleep patterns. Read books instead.

6. Teach about technology through interactive play.

Try to remember that allowing your child to play on a screen is not teaching them about technology. Building structures with marshmallows and toothpicks, using tools such as shovels, inventing new ways of doing things is teaching them about technology. These all help teach the 6 Cs. Children under the age of two do not learn from screens; they just miss out on important interactions. If your child watches a 20 minute show from time to time, also provide double that amount of time of an interactive activity.

Allow play dates so children have opportunities to learn from other children, collaborate, and play cooperatively. Provide lots of structured and unstructured play with different toys and materials so children have the opportunity to be creative and innovative. Designate screen time as a special treat, not a given part of every day. Use a parent-control device, such as Disney Circle to put parameters on screen time in your home.

Kindergarten readiness is a complex process. Ready children plus ready parents, plus ready school plus a ready community equals kindergarten readiness. And each of these components is a critical piece of the puzzle. We need to stop blaming parents and accusing them of poor parenting in the digital age simply because their way of parenting is different. We need to shift our perception of what parenting looks like and be as supportive and non-judgemental as possible.

About the Author /

Dr. Aimee Ketchum is a pediatric occupational therapist and has been working in pediatrics for 20 years. Ketchum works in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at UPMC Pinnacle Hospital and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her husband and two daughters. Ketchum is also the owner/operator of Aimee’s Babies LLC, a child development company.

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