Thursday, April 5, 2012

Parenting in the Digital Age

The pressure comes from everywhere. Television, movies, and music are constantly breaking new ground for promiscuity and moral decay. Experts talk incessantly about self-esteem and self-actualization. Neighbors and acquaintances frown on traditional values. All around, influence peddlers are hawking their wares, and their wares seem tailor-made to unravel America’s moral fabric. And now social media and text messaging pervade every minute of our lives.

We tend to assume these pressures are just aimed at children when in reality, parents struggle just as fiercely. The manipulative voices are cacophonous: a February, 2010, Pew Research Study found that 93 percent of teens go online, 75 percent have access to a cell phone, 72 percent have social media profiles, and 66 percent send text messages. In essence, it is not a matter of if a child becomes exposed to the billions of ideas floating around social media sites; it is a matter of when. How can parents possibly break through the noise and get a child’s attention?

The cause for concern is magnified when we take even a casual look at the trends and movements targeting children through social media. Since the dawn of the Internet, there has been ready access to pornography. That alone is terrifying. Add to that recent incidents of teens caught sending nude photos of themselves via text message, posting Am I Pretty videos on YouTube, uploading nude or semi-nude images for Hot or Not websites, scheduling hook-ups with strangers or online friends, and sexting and the case for caution is airtight.

And the threats are not just sexual in nature, though those do get the most notoriety. When teens access social media, they become the congregation absorbing the sermons of millions of preachers. Want to teach your child traditional Judeo-Christian values and ethics? You will have to be louder than all the voices out there telling them those ideals are antiquated, judgmental, and absurd. Hard work, respect for authority, the value of education – anything you attempt to teach your child will be resisted by strong forces and anonymous voices.

All this amounts to a seemingly unwinnable battle, but parents cannot just abdicate their role in their children’s lives. Children cannot be allowed to raise themselves, or worse— to be raised by the social media wolves. Short of taking phones away and cancelling the Internet access, what are some practical ways to be heard amidst the hundreds of texts, tweets, and status updates?

First, be courageous. It’s startling how many parents actually seem afraid of their children. The stakes are too high. The balance between allowing children to fight for their independence and requiring them to remain under parental authority needs to be preserved. The battle to hold “the line” between acceptable and unacceptable must be won by the parents.

USA Today tells a particularly pathetic story about a mother and daughter’s social media involvement, in which Jenifer Lippincott had her post deleted from her daughter’s Facebook wall because it broke the rules her sixteen-year-old daughter set up for her. Her daughter, Tess, only agreed to friend her mother if she promised not to write on her wall or “friend” her friends. And her mother agreed to these stipulations.

This level of submission of parent to child is unhealthy and rooted in fear. What if she gets mad at me? What if she says she hates me? What if she’s ashamed of me? Parents, banish these fearful thoughts. Your calling isn’t coolness; it’s leadership. Don’t lose the fight to fear and risk allowing your children to suffer unnecessarily.

Once your loins are girded, so to speak, start the conversation. Keep in mind, of course, that you’re not at war with your children; you’re at war for them. You’re battling to preserve their innocence and do your part to ensure their future success. But that does require erecting some fortifications. Permit me an analogy: the military puts its thickest, most impregnable walls around its most sensitive information and important people. To the best of their ability, they regulate who and what comes and goes in those high security areas. I’m not suggesting you wall your yard or subject your family to military discipline, but erect some walls of protection. Know and control – to the best of your ability – what influences are coming and going.

It’s not wrong, unfair, unconstitutional, unloving, or mean to snoop. Consider knowing their email password and check it periodically, check their social media profiles, and read their text messages.

I know it seems unfathomable – intrusive even. But if the need for oversight exists, meet that need. Of course, not all children are the same, so tailor your approach accordingly, but make sure you know what’s lurking in the dark corners of their lives.

Some other tips to help avoid the perils of social media are to keep all computers and televisions in public areas, declare certain times “social media/texting free” such as dinner and family game night, and be involved in their relationships. Know their friends. Be able to identify the voices coming out of your child’s mouth.

At the end of the day, however, there is a limit to the amount of control parents can exert. Even if parents could maintain total control for eighteen years, that is not the ultimate goal. It is far more important to influence children’s hearts than control their actions. The most important step parents can take in protecting their children from damaging influences is to model the beauty and joy of living for higher pursuits. How much freer and fuller is a life spent pursuing God and family than pursuing cheap thrills and rebellion? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear about a generation of teens looking forward to finding a career or trade, starting a family, and living right? Contrast that with depictions of the current crop of adolescents living to party and riot.

Children will not be convinced by words alone, but they will notice a sincere way of life. A parent cannot convince a child to observe a faith that is a burden or drudgery. Why would any child willingly pursue a faith that isn’t life giving and joyous? Why would anyone? Connection with God is the driving force from which all other values derive their meaning.

Parents, is your home and family fun? Yes, it has many other functions, but so many families just lack fun. Dad’s too tired; mom’s too frazzled. No one smiles or laughs. No games are played. No practical jokes or day trips. No parties or quiet family movie nights. The kids’ friends don’t feel welcomed, so they stay away, causing the kids to leave too.

Create a fun home. Maintain appropriate structure and discipline, but don’t be a slave to it. Don’t miss small opportunities to create lasting memories. One of my most significant childhood memories were the times we would get Little Caesar’s pizza and watch this awful, independent family movie called “Lost in the Barrens.” Could we have been doing chores or homework? Sure, but instead we were sitting with our parents making a memory. It was fun. I had a friend whose parents hosted a taco night every Friday night and all the friends were invited. What fun! Moments like that show caring and affection and go a long way towards creating a bond that will stand up against all the other influences vying for a child’s attention.

Discover what your children are passionate about. What are their gifts? What lights their fire? Embrace that. Encourage them to pursue it. Be their biggest cheerleader. They’re going to gravitate towards the people who celebrate them. What a shame to lose your child because you were too busy to go to a game or attend a musical. How tragic for your child to pursue approval by flaunting his misdeeds on Facebook because you’re unwilling to make small sacrifices to equip him for his passions.

There are no sure answers. Unfortunately, children aren’t entirely programmable. Parents can go to every length imaginable to protect their children, but ultimately, the child will decide how he or she wants to live. That is why the heart is so important. It is from the heart that decisions will emanate. As parents, pray that God will capture your child’s heart. Make influencing their heart your main pursuit in the effort to protect them against a world that wants to destroy them—a world ever more prevalent since the birth of social media.

To all the parents working hard to shelter their children from these dangers, I applaud you. Be encouraged, and remain focused. First, be courageous. Love your children fiercely and genuinely. Second, demonstrate the beauty of pursuing things higher than sex, alcohol, parties, and mischief. Third, build an appropriate fortress. Protect your children – against their will if necessary – from the dangers they can’t discern yet.

They will thank you for it one day.

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