“Every child has to raise itself.”
I have my share of impulsive freak-outs when I glance at the couch from the kitchen and see my tween daughters in their favorite spots staring at their screens again. They’re connecting with friends, reading news, checking weather, editing vacation photos, learning embroidery, finding a new workout video, making a slide show of summer memories, posting their smoothie bowls. They could even be using the anxiety management app from the pediatrician. So when I tell my kids to do something else, something productive, something creative, my kids respond: Maaahhhhm— everything is online! I sigh and try to remember—at least for that day—that it’s true. It goes against all my Montessori-inspired parenting intuitions, but to quote Michelle Obama last week, it is what it is. I can’t change it. I can only try to help my kids navigate it.
I know, I know! They can be seeing and doing terrible things right in front of me! It was probably a Tiktok makeup video that prodded them to sneak a concealer purchase when they rode their bikes to Dollar General. But teen magazines in the 90’s did the same thing. And speaking of 90’s kids, the ones who watched MTV seem to be pretty high-functioning and normal now. So yes they could be doing wretched things. Or they could console a friend or make and post a how-to video about making a pitcher of their favorite freshly brewed iced tea. Does trusting them some make me a bad parent? If not then why—no matter what I do in this area—am I stalked by guilt?
The pandemic has exacerbated all of this. For some reason I project all of the stress of this global crisis onto this issue: what are they doing online and why aren’t they playing outside? As a pandemic parent on edge much of the time, it escalates quickly. Here’s an example from a recent lunchtime, when someone pulled a bag of tortilla chips out of the pantry:
tween: “Do chips have carbs?”
me: “Why…why do you care…?”
internal me: Oh dear God, she’s found the body image
and eating disorder corner of the internet!
Yes, cue the fear, that quick. In the Before Times many of us parents (consciously or not) relied heavily on our kids being too busy to disappear into device time. Bring on all the extra-curricular activities—riding lessons, dance class, running club, visits with neighbors/cousins/grandparents, acolyte duties, youth group, handbell choirs. Just keep them out and about so they don’t have much free time to sit around and get into trouble. Enter 2020.
I don’t speak as one schooled in psychology or child development. I can’t offer concrete solutions for managing screen time or recommend secure apps to keep you worry-free. Family dinner is my main parenting strategy. I do know the ultimate goal is to have discerning kids that are critical thinkers and can use the information they are so lavishly drenched in to make good decisions. They need to figure out what online (because it’s all online!) tells the truth. There’s probably more than one way to get there and I stand with you, Primary Caregiver, in solidarity because it’s an extra hard year to parent teens and especially tweens and you are not alone.
In January when 2020 was cold and young and fresh we decided to read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl aloud together as a family. It seems dubiously privileged to lump our story in with a Jewish family being hunted down by a fascist white supremacist regime but by the time we finished the book in the spring, we related to Anne’s cloistered life in a new, even haunting way. But as a parent this quote from Anne near the end of the book sticks with me, consoles me, “I understand more and more how true Daddy’s words were when he said: ‘All children must look after their own upbringing.’ Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
Otto, dad of two quarantined daughters in the last prior global catastrophe before this one, empowered his girls to shape their lives even as they grew into them. Can we still hold space for this point of view? Or is that door closed now that children have all the world’s information (and disinformation) in their back pockets?
I was scrolling through my feed recently and saw a familiar sunset, gorgeous and fiery. I’d seen it earlier that evening. There were foreground trees in silhouette and this caption: “Jesus made this wonderful peace [sic] of art.” It was posted by my tween.