Over the last year a number of books have been written about how disciplined parenting leads to children being successful in school and work. Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother describes a fairly rigid schedule in which musical practice, athletics, and homework are accounted for on a daily basis. Pamela Druckerman’s Bring up Bebe describes how French children appear to “know their place” and know when to speak and how to behave appropriately. While I am oversimplifying, I find that each of these strategies may not reflect ideal parenting skills for the digital world.
As an experienced parent (my youngest is a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island) and a child psychologist of 30 years, I have a few comments to make about parenting books in general. First and foremost, the single most important ingredient in being a good and effective parent is to love your child with all your heart and soul. After that, all parenting skills are secondary.
When I was taking developmental psychology classes in the 70’s and 80’s, parents were divided into three categories: authoritative (those who were in charge but were compassionate and interested in understanding their children), permissive (those who let their kids do what they wanted), and authoritarian (those who set all the rules and whose simple message was “because I said so”). What I have learned over the course of many years is that, in addition to teaching my children to be kind, caring, and considerate, the most important skills that I could teach them revolved around Self-Control and making good decisions.
In today’s digital world children are exposed to so many choices and experiences that, at some point, they need to be able to make good decisions for themselves. Teens and even pre-teens are often able to access inappropriate content on the Internet, face numerous interpersonal stressors on social networks, and may need to learn how to limit their time with digital media. Letting them learn from mistakes, allowing them to play to practice the skills they will need as adults, and looking at each child as an individual and using the parenting strategies that work best with each child are lessons that I have learned. In addition, modeling a few good behaviors and being willing to recognize and acknowledge not-such-great behavior (and admitting that I am not perfect) has been the approach I have chosen to take.
I recently read a great book that encompasses some of these parenting skills, ideas and many more: Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College, by Sandra Aamodt, Ph.D. and Sam Wang, Ph.D. The book not only discusses strategies for improving children’s self-control but also provides data that describes how learning a second language strengthens mental flexibility, aerobic exercise builds cognitive skills, and praising effort rather than personality are the keys to real self-esteem. Interestingly, they also present very good information about how to use a child’s interest in video games and other digital media as a tool for growth, rather than as something from which parents should restrict their children in lieu of engaging in other activities that are not of interest to them.
While basic parenting skills have not changed for many years, there are some new approaches that are important in the digital world. Parents need to be proactive in learning about the digital media that their children consume, monitor their children’s access to the Internet, and actively join the digital world in which their children are growing up. Traditional parenting, where our main job is to protect and prepare our children for the world that awaits them, now needs to include understanding and participating in the digital world as well.