Editor’s note: Ken Denmead is a father of two and works as a civil engineer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s also the author of “Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share” and the editor and publisher of GeekDad.com. He is on Twitter.
When it comes to talking about technology and kids, there’s a tired strawman propped up and being poked at in the old parenting best-practices barn. It seems like the debate is always framed in terms of either/or. Do I let my kids sit at the technology du jour (tablets, phones, TVs or game consoles) for hours on end, or do I banish all technology from their lives until it’s time to teach them how to drive?
That’s the kind of balderdash that fails to recognize the nuance and improvisation it takes to be an effective parent and helps embed a sense of guilt in many parents who just can’t achieve the perceived perfection demanded by whichever camp is yelling loudest.
I want parents to take a step back and realize that one of their many important jobs is to help their kids find balance in life; to help them understand that there are many good experiences to be found outside, playing with their friends, getting exercise and sun. And there are many good experiences, and a lot of knowledge, skills and life-lessons to be learned via technology.
Finding a balance between the two is what helps a child grow up into a well-rounded individual.
My kids, for example, have found their own balances (with our guidance). My older son spends almost precisely the same amount of time playing basketball video games on the family X-Box as he does playing actual basketball out front in our driveway. My younger son works on homework on his tablet, occasionally Facetime-calling me (at my workstation in the garage) to ask questions about a problem, or to challenge me to a game of Ping-Pong in the game room.
Technology is a part of life, and keeping your kids from becoming comfortable with it will potentially handicap them later. It’s better to help them incorporate technology into their lives in a healthy manner, setting reasonable limits, and framing usage as a part of the social contract with friends and family.
A big question that comes up is the idea of babysitting with technology. I don’t know how many parents I’ve seen having dinner at a restaurant with their kid watching videos on a tablet or phone. That’s where technology becomes a problem. If you’re together as a family unit, then communicate as a family – this is the only place your kids are going to learn to have real, meaningful conversations with you in a public setting; take advantage of it. If mom and dad want to go out to dinner and chat, then get a babysitter and leave the kids at home.
On the other hand, for the three-hour trip to grandma’s house (ours runs across the California Central Valley, where there is no sight-seeing), there’s really no harm in everyone plugging into a movie, game, or ebook with a personal music choice. Before personal media devices, trips like these were torture for everyone involved. There weren’t enough games of out-of-state license plate bingo or I-Spy to make them enjoyable, and fights over the choice of radio station never made it a happy time. Letting everyone relax isn’t hurting anyone’s childhood development.
You know your kids best. Give them reasons to want to be outside (rather than forcing them), and they’ll do it. Give them fun, educational things to do on their technology, and they won’t end up brain-dead screen zombies. Teach them how to balance those things and, like the allegorical man who was taught to fish, they’ll never go hungry for health or wisdom.