- - Thursday, July 21, 2016

Many parents today are raising the first true digital natives despite being digital immigrants themselves. The challenge lies in being able to lead our children into this age instead of just following them.

Many children now have unprecedented access to information, entertainment and connectivity — especially to their peers — but is this what our children really need? If the goal is to raise them to be socially and emotionally mature global citizens who are resilient and adaptive, then the answer is no, this is not what they need. Furthermore, these things are proving to make parenting more challenging and have the capacity to adversely impact the conditions under which our children flourish.

I have spent many decades considering human development, as a faculty member at the Neufeld Institute, working alongside internationally respected, clinical and developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld and physician and addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Mate, co-authors of “Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers.” I have helped parents in my counseling practice make sense of the digital world and the implications for raising their kids, as well as managing problems related to it. I have addressed the importance of play in young children’s lives and the pressures of technology in my book, “Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One).” I have also aided educators in considering technology and its impact on student/teacher relationships, as well as guided university students in forming educational plans and career goals to meet the demands of a digital age.

But this issue is important to me on a more personal level because I am also the mother of two children who are both entering their adolescent years.

I remember when I gave my 7-year-old an iPad to try out for the first time. It really was love at first sight as she enjoyed watching video clips and playing games. It was only two weeks later, in the middle of a warm embrace as I put her to bed one night she told me, “Oh Mommy, your hugs are still better than technology time.” I was stunned by her comment and wondered how had my seven-year relationship with her become comparable to 14 days of minimal technology time.

The problem facing parents today is that we do not have cultural tradition to guide us.

As Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki stated, it takes societies anywhere from 100 to 200 years to develop the cultural rules and rituals around the use of new tools. We don’t have this type of time when it comes to raising our kids, so we will need to find another way. We will need to become conscious of the conditions conducive for healthy development by turning to developmental science, attachment science, neuroscience, as well as parenting intuition and insight.

The greatest need our children have, that must be met for healthy development to unfold, is that of human attachment. Attachment is how we fulfill our children’s hunger for contact and closeness and is the single most important factor that influences the trajectory of their growth. Every child needs at least one strong, caring, emotionally available adult to feel they belong to. Attachment for a child is about who they feel they are the same as, who they are loyal to, who they want to be significant to, cared for, as well as share their secrets with. The answer to what our children need most of all is love.

But the key issue here is that it is actually not how much we love our children that matters most, but whether they have given their heart to us. Children do not follow parents or learn from teachers they are not attached to. You cannot protect, preserve or be a guardian for a child’s heart that has not been entrusted to you for safekeeping….

What is clear is that our relationships with our children cannot be displaced or replaced by all that comes with this new digital age, but there are clear signs we are being challenged to hold onto our kids.

I watched as my 14-year-old niece became peer-attached and clung to her phone as the lifeline that preserved her connection to friends.

We took her on a camping trip as an extended family in order to reclaim a foothold back in her life.

In realizing the campground didn’t have any cell coverage, she told her mother it was going to be so boring trip because she couldn’t talk to any of her friends. Despite being surrounded by her village of aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, she longed to be elsewhere.

On the third day of the camping trip, I came across her and her mother in conversation. My niece was sobbing and my sister said my niece felt lost and confused.

As I comforted my niece, I asked her if she knew the No. 1 rule when she felt this way, and she said no. I told her that she needed to hold on to someone who wasn’t lost and confused about who she was. I asked her, “Are your friends lost and confused?” to which she replied yes. I asked, “Is your boyfriend lost and confused?” to which she replied yes again.

I then asked her, “When you look around here today, who is not lost or confused about you?” She looked at me and said, “You.” And it was then that I felt I had reentered her life once more. I asked her who else, and she looked at her mother and said, “My mom.” And with that, I left them to have a conversation.

Later on, my sister told me they talked at length and my niece cried for some time. After telling her mother about all the things that were not working in her life, she looked at her surprised and said, “Mom, I never thought you would understand what I was going through or that you had gone through some of this too.” Separated from her phone and her peers, we, the adults in her life, were once again able to reclaim a foothold in her heart.

What is clear to me is that we need to find a way to hold onto our kids in a digital age, as there is no turning back and this is the world they will inherit. We need to lead our children into this new age and introduce them to their new tools and technologies when they are ready and mature enough to handle all that comes with it….

We cannot send our children into the digital world empty-handed with only their technological tools in tow. Maturity is the prerequisite for true digital citizenship, and to that end, parents are still the best “devices.”

• Deborah MacNamara, Ph.D., is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute in Vancouver, Canada and in private practice working with parents based on the relational and developmental approach of Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. She is the author of “Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One).” Please see www.macnamara.ca for more information or www.neufeldinstitute.org.

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