How to Raise an Adult on Technology

Opinion | Technology Tips

How to Raise an Adult on Technology

By Mary Hossfeld     Sep 11, 2015

How to Raise an Adult on Technology

When companies create tools that help educators teach students, parents can find themselves stretching to catch up. And when kids find, adopt, and even create their own technologies, well, that stretch can quickly become a scramble.

As a mother of three, I try to embrace the benefits and challenges of new technologies faster than a teenager can post a selfie. But I also worry that my parenting skills are a beat behind. Do I give my kids too much freedom around tech, or not enough? Should I be more up-to-speed about their online behaviors—in school and out—or less? Some days I feel extraordinarily informed; others, completely out of the loop. So I reached out to Julie Lythcott-Haims, former Stanford University Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Stanford’s first Dean of Freshmen. And I asked her, from one parent to another, about technology’s impact on modern parenting.

Lythcott-Haims has the unique wisdom that comes from a decade spent mentoring Stanford students. In 2010, she received the university’s Lloyd W. Dinkelspiel Award for defining “the” undergraduate experience at Stanford. Dubbed “Dean Julie” by a decade’s worth of Stanford undergrads, she was known for her fierce advocacy for students and equally fierce critiques of helicopter parenting. Her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success was released in June and has already hit the New York Times bestseller list. Lythcott-Haims lives in Silicon Valley with her partner of over twenty-five years, their two teenagers, and her mother.

EdSurge: When I was a kid, parent-teacher communication consisted of a rare phone call and, more frequently, hand-written notes my mother would pin to my coat. Today, our children's teachers are just an email—or even a text—away. Is there a downside to the 24/7 private access parents have to teachers?

Lythcott-Haims: Parent engagement is crucial to students’ success, yes. What we mean by that is parents should promote education, create a supportive environment where kids can do their homework, take an interest in their progress, ensure they go to school, read to them.

But why do we need to intervene, to micromanage every moment? Why are we so afraid that teachers can’t teach and our kids can’t learn? Teachers are overwhelmed with the avalanche of parent inquiries they receive. There are only so many hours in a day. I’d rather the teachers teach my kids than respond to my emails. It’s my kids' education and my kids' job to do their homework, work hard, improve, and learn. Even if they fail (our worst fear as parents) that becomes a crucial, teachable moment. We can't force kids to be accountable or responsible—they must learn those critical traits on their own.

By constantly talking to their teachers about their work and their progress we’re almost removing our kids from the equation. Not a good thing.

We no longer have to wait for parent-teacher conferences to get a glimpse of our kids' academic lives. In some cases, parents can even check their children's GPAs online daily, read assignments, etc. Is this too much of a good thing?

It’s too much. When we check up on our kids’ grades weekly or daily, and then by extension comment upon the results to our kids, or worse, grill them, we teach our kids that all that matters are their grades and scores, not their learning, and that their worth as humans is a function of their grades and scores. We behave as if every assignment is a make-or-break moment for their future. Kids wither under that kind of pressure. It completely stresses them out and zaps a love of learning right out of them.

Texting, email, Facetime, online calendars—there’s no doubt digital communication helps me connect with my kids. But when my middle-schooler asked for a family Slack channel, I gulped . . . Does all this connectivity come at a cost?

Technology certainly facilitates interaction and togetherness, but I think it’s too early to know whether the quality of our human relationships will suffer or be enhanced by it all. That said, I am already worried about our kids’ communications skills.

For example, I know my own teens absolutely hate to make a phone call to a stranger, such as calling a store to see if it carries a particular item. I chalk that up to the fact that they’ve always been able to reach a friend directly via cell phone, social media, or texting rather than having had to push through the awkwardness of first getting a friend’s parent on the phone before reaching the friend. (Back in the day when phones were attached to walls, as tweens and teens we got quite practiced at saying, “Oh hello Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So, it’s Jane. Is Jenny home?”)

I have friends who purposefully stay out of their kids' social media lives, and others who troll their children’s Facebook and Instragram accounts and insist on knowing every password. Clearly, it's complicated. From your vantage point, has social media been good or bad for parenting?

I see social media as today’s equivalent of notes passed in class and other types of teen-to-teen communication. I wouldn't dream of trolling their accounts. Yes, I appreciate that content available on the web can be dangerous, and that social media can exacerbate teens’ propensity to overshare or be mean. Still, I want to give my kids rules and expectations along with privacy and independence. If they break my trust, then I’ll start checking up on them. Neither of my kids is my Facebook friend, but they are friends with numerous extended family members. There are enough caring eyes and ears out there for me to be confident my kids are being looked out for without my having to hover over their lives.

In my own home, we’ve talked about installing apps on my teenagers’ phones so I could know their whereabouts in case of emergency. I’m torn; my kids, of course, are vehemently opposed. Do I or don’t I?

Tracking people by GPS is one of the worst outcomes of our great technological advancements. Parents do it with college students. It's like they're on a leash. Okay, yes, if you’re only going to use it to track them down in the case of an emergency (i.e. a big earthquake hits), fine. But hasn’t our sense of what constitutes an “emergency” really changed? (“I haven’t heard from my kid in three hours! It’s an emergency!”) How do you build trust around where they go and what they do if you’re constantly checking up on them? It’s claustrophobic and crazy-making. So I’m on your kids’ side. Don’t do it.

To what extent is it our responsibility as parents to become familiar with or master the technologies our children use?

Well, “master” is a high bar to set, but I think we do ourselves and our kids a real disservice by not understanding the various modes of information delivery and communication available to them. We need an app that teaches parents about the apps our kids use, that advises us as to where we might want to inquire further, or set limits. I'd buy that app!

How can we use technology to be better, smarter, more thoughtful parents?

Kids today lack basic life skills because we’re doing so many things for them well past the age when they need our help. In my book I cite an example of a Chicago kid, college-aged, who was starting a summer internship in Manhattan. He had just arrived in town, and had taken a subway to his summer sublet, and came out onto a bustling intersection. He was at the right station, had the address of the sublet, but he had no idea in which direction to walk to get to the sublet. So he texted his dad—in Chicago—for help. Dad excused himself from a meeting, looked up the address of the sublet and gave the son the directions.

The better use of the cell phone, in my view, would have been for the son to use a Maps app to find his sublet, or to call his new landlord. The better response from the Dad would have been “Check your maps app or go ask a store clerk for directions.”

With technology evolving at the speed of light, is there any other advice you'd give to parents today?

Remember your own childhood—the freedoms you enjoyed and the degree of independence you experienced. Believe it or not, those things helped make you who you are. Why do you want less for your own kid? We’ve gotten so overly fearful that a child can be snatched or injured at any moment that we have a panicked need to know where our kids are at all times, and that they are okay. Kids who grows up tethered to a parent grow to fear the world, and grow to feel unsafe unless they are by your side or connected to you by cell phone. Let technology stimulate their curiosity, expand their creativity, deliver information, connect them to humans, and develop their independence, not become a crutch or a tool for permanent infantilizing.

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