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Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

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The Sanity List

There’s a baby screaming and grabbing your ankle, a toddler emptying out your spice jars, and you have a headache…. There’s just no way you’ll make it until nap-time, or whenever the babysitter arrives, or your spouse gets home.

Or maybe you’re at work, and you didn’t sleep well the night before, your coworkers are driving you insane, your computer is refusing to work, and you just don’t know if you’ll make it through the day without screaming at someone.

Whatever situation is making you feel desperate, if you’re feeling that way, you’re not going to be thinking clearly. You feel trapped, frantic, and like there’s just no way you can survive. And this is not a good frame of mind for creative thought or good decisions.

Which is exactly why–sometime when you’re not frantic–you need to be proactively creative and make pre-crisis decisions.

This is where the sanity list comes in.

Everyone has activities that make them feel better when they’re stressed, though not everyone has figured out what they are. The idea behind the sanity list is to write some super simple relaxing activities down and post the list somewhere it’s easy to see. You know that next time you’re feeling that way, you aren’t going to be in any state to come up with great ideas, so you do that beforehand.

I’d like to share the sanity list I just wrote, just to give you some ideas. (My stressors usually involve a couple of adorable children who don’t have off-switches, so my ideas will reflect that.)

Say an Our Father

When you feel swamped by stress and screaming and frustration, sometimes it helps to realize that you really can take a few seconds away from whatever your troubles are, and lift your thoughts to God. And the last phrase of the Our Father–“forgive us… as we forgive those…” is always a helpful reminder when you’re angry.

Play music

Music has the ability to change the mood of a situation very quickly. Find some music to calm yourself and the situation down. The act of choosing a song to listen to can also help just by breaking you out of your cycle of negative thoughts. For at least a couple seconds you are thinking of doing something that might help, instead of just trying yourself how impossible it all is.

Go to a store

This won’t work for everyone, but when I’m having a really bad day, I sometimes find it helpful to pack myself and the kids into the car and go to a store. My kids like the new things to look at, and so I usually get a break from the crying…and if not, at least there are other people around to keep me from murdering anyone–just kidding (mostly).

Call a friend on the phone

I do this a lot. I really enjoy talking to friends, and often they have an outside perspective on my problem that allows me to find a solution. Or at least they sympathize. Which is also helpful. In any case, the phone call helps pass the time and take my mind off how angry, frustrated, or tired I might be.

Go for a walk

Just getting outside for a few moments can sometimes clear your head. Try checking the mail. Your screaming kids won’t kill themselves in the thirty seconds it takes to walk to the mailbox.

If that’s not enough of a break, going for a walk sometimes helps. If I’m home alone with the kids that means getting two small kids into clothes, loading them up in a stroller, and going around a few blocks. My kids love going outside, so it can be a good redirect for them, and even though the walk itself might only take five or ten minutes, the whole process of getting everyone dressed and out the door takes longer, and gives positive direction to the chaos.

And yes… going for walks doesn’t get the dishes washed or the laundry folded, but it’s good exercise and it might just keep you sane. And that’s more important.

Eat a snack

If you’re feeling desperate and angry, is always worth checking to see if it’s been too long since you ate. And if there’s kids involved and they’re being awful, they’re likely hungry too. Eating a healthy snack with protein in it can often make this difference between a good afternoon and a terrible one.

Exercise

Strenuous physical activity is a good mental break, and it can also make you release endorphins which will make you feel better. One of my favorite exercises for when I’m going crazy is running up and down the stairs a few times. I’ve never liked jumping jacks, pacing back and forth indoors doesn’t get you tired enough, and pushups are too hard. Running up and down the stairs is just the right amount of challenge. It tires out your leg muscles, but it also makes you breathe hard, which is good for your health, and I find it’s an excellent outlet for anger and frustration. It only takes a couple minutes.

Writing a sanity list and posting it somewhere easy to see is a very simple way to make your life more intentional and less reactive. It gives your calm, level-headed self a way to reach your frantic upset self when you need it the most.

If you’re interested in ideas for living more intentionally, check out some of these other articles.

Finding the underlying problem

Getting out of survival mode

Choosing your personal style

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Letter to my future self

Dear future self,

I’ve been seeing parents dealing with their teenage and middle school children lately, and sometimes it makes me cringe. Based on my own memories of being a teenager, and my experiences teaching teens for three years, it seems like a lot of people go about it all wrong.

Here’s a few things I want to be very careful to remember in ten years, because I can only assume that the parents I see have forgotten these things, and their children suffer for it.

Teenagers aren’t scary monsters

Teenagers are not horrible monsters that come and replace your sweet babies after a few short years and do their best to ruin your life. Based on the reactions I get when I tell people I like teaching middle school, and the self-pitying comments I hear from parents, I get the impression many people think this.

Adolescence is just the next stage in a child’s development, and while it will be difficult because of hormones, mood swings, and potential personality clashes, it can be a wonderful time if managed properly. Young adolescents have the energy and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with a budding adult intelligence, which makes them a lot of fun if managed properly.

Teenagers need respect

Just because you are someone’s parent doesn’t mean that you can disrespect them and their ideas and still expect them to respect you. Respect is a two way street, even in parenting.

Teens and preteens are if probably more sensitive about their personal dignity than you are. If you demean your child you are placing him in an impossible situation: either he must accept it and see himself as worthless, or, if he wishes to see himself as redeemable, he must see you as wrong.

Teenagers are neither adults nor children

They are not adults, of course, and they need to be guided towards good choices and guarded from bad ones. Internet filters and rules about technology are necessary. Just as you wouldn’t give a fourteen year old a car, a credit card, and a full liquor cabinet with no guidance, a full-function smart phone is too much for a teen to handle without guidance.

However, this does not mean they can or should be treated like two year old olds.  They must be given opportunities to learn responsibility. And this means no more and no less than giving them responsibility. They need to be treated as competent if they are ever to become so. And they have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes. The great thing about giving a teenager limited responsibilities is that they can learn about making mistakes while the consequences are manageable.

A twelve year old should be able to do all of these things:

  • Keep track of their own school work. (It’s not your job as a parent to pack your fifth grader’s backpack–don’t let anyone tell you different. If they forget something at home, the consequences will be relatively small, and should be felt by the child.)
  • Decide what appropriate winter wear for the day is. (If you’re doing something unusual, guidance can still be helpful)
  • Plan and cook a simple meal for the family
  • Babysit younger siblings (maybe not for days at a time, but certainly for an evening out).
  • Do their own laundry. This doesn’t mean they have to do all their laundry, but you shouldn’t have to hunt down their dirty clothes, or did their clean ones.
  • Earn money working for people (they will need help connecting with people to work for)
  • Respectfully and intelligently discuss their own rules and discipline. (Teach your child how to respectfully ask for exceptions or modifications to the rules)
  • Set personal goals (with help)
  • Start budgeting and tracking their expenses
  • Go to the store, ride bikes, or take walks in a reasonably safe neighborhood without a hovering adult.
  • Order their own food at restaurants without your help. (Giving them a budget is reasonable)
  • Start using power tools under supervision
  • Mow the lawn
  • Take care of their own garden plot
  • Remember to bring their own things to routine events. Church books, school supplies, etc.
  • Understand that they are a contributing member of the household with responsibilities in making everything run smoothly.

Depression is not just a bad attitude

A lot of teenagers suffer from more or less severe depression. If your kid has consistently bad moods, low energy, poor sleep, or general lack of motivation, it’s likely not just a bad attitude. You won’t solve it by yelling at them. It’s probably not their fault.

If your kid has these problems, look for simple solutions first.

  • Trauma: if the behavior came on suddenly, figure out if there was a trauma of some kind. Gently try to get your kid to tell you what happened and work through their feelings in a positive way. Having a good, respectful relationship with your kid is invaluable for this. (Depression-causing trauma doesn’t have to be something serious like sexual assault. Even something as trivial as being called a “baby” by an authority figure can cause long term issues if not sorted out. Trust me.)
  • Exercise: Make sure your kids are getting enough strenuous activity. Outdoors is best. If a person is already depressed, they will almost definitely need company to help them exercise.
  • Nutrition: a good multivitamin can do wonders, especially for girls. And almost everyone who doesn’t live in the tropics can benefit from taking vitamin D3.
  • Social life: does your kid get out and spend time with good friends often enough? Healthy social interactions can keep you break the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
  • Responsibility: if you have nothing in your life that is your responsibility and of which you can take ownership, minor depression can quickly develop into feelings of worthlessness. It’s important for everyone to feel that they have a role to play and that they would be missed.

Depression is sometimes a physical condition that doesn’t respond to normal methods like those above. Antidepressants can help in extreme cases, but alternative medicine usually has fewer side effects and can sometimes yield very good results.

At the moment, dealing with a two-year-old, I look forward to the day when I can have an intelligent conversation with my own child. I look forward to being able to start having a friendship with my child, to trusting her, to learning things from her, to watching her mind grow and develop as she becomes a woman.

I know it can be hard to share a house–and especially a kitchen–with another woman, and this is probably part of why so many mothers struggle with their teenage daughters. And I know it’s hard to watch a child struggle and learn things the hard way, and that this is what growing up looks like. And I am sure I will have my share of arguments and disagreements with my children as they grow up.

But hopefully this letter will remind me that my children are people and that they want to be treated like people. And that adolescents can be very enjoyable.