We've had helicopter moms. And tiger mothers. I'd like to propose a third parent type: the digital dragon. You know who you are. Your toddlers still color with crayons in restaurants. Your preschoolers have never logged $249 worth of accidental in-app purchases on your iPhone. Your bigger kids have signed a contract like this to ensure the responsible use of devices. And everyone in the house knows that what you're screening on movie night needs to be cleared through the Common Sense Media site.
A couple hundred dragon types gathered into a packed room last week to hear Chelsea Clinton moderate a panel hosted by Common Sense Media about how to raise caring kids in a digital world. On the stage: Jim Steyer (founder/CEO of CSM), Dr. Howard Gardner (professor of education at Harvard and the author of the book The App Generation) and Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defending the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. There were many interesting nuggets, including the fact that a recent report by CSM on kids' mobile use in America finds that the average amount of time they spend has tripled in the last two years. And that California has passed what's called the "eraser button bill" which requires web sites to allow kids under age 18 to remove their posts if they want to do so.
But for this dragon lady, the joy of the event was being reminded that I am not alone. Because it can sometimes feel as if I am the only parent who is being called a "jerk" by my kid because I refuse to let him explore the digital universe untethered. I felt so much more comfortable with my own fire-breathing behavior as the mom of two boys, 9 and 12, when Bazelon, mom of two boys ages 10 and 13, explained her caution with the internet by saying, "I would not open my front door in the city where we live and send my children out and say, 'good luck.'" Right! Or when Steyer, a father of four, said he is "referred to by my kids as the world's most embarrassing dad." Hey, I thought that was my husband!
Don't get me wrong: I said dragon parent, not luddite parent. I am wholly in favor of kids having access to digital tools—with limits and supervision. And we moms and dads can't delegate this to the school and expect them to deal with it. Just as it is your responsibility to have the sex talk, it's also your job to have the digital-safety talk. And the appropriateness-of-sharing talk. And the no-posting-photos-from-parties-not-everyone-was-invited-to talk. And many others. Key is to have these chats in a way that encourages your child to put himself in another's shoes. As the speakers pointed out, as less communication happens face to face, kids miss out on learning to read the facial expressions and vocal cues that can help them feel empathy. It may be harder, then, for them to know what is hurtful to another child. One of the hardest conversations I've had with my kids about the power of a text message started with the words "Imagine how you would feel if..."
One fine place to start the process is by taking this new quiz to assess how digitally healthy your family is right now. And then if you want to meet fellow dragons, consider lifting your eyes from your phone (yes, we dragons can be guilty of major "do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do" behavior) and talking to parents at your child's playgroup or school to compare notes. If the mood in the room last week is any indication you will find that even in this age of sharing, many other dragons are struggling and feeling like they too are alone.
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Can't find a movie you can all agree on? Try a board game!