Holding On to Our Kids in a Digital World

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by Deborah MacNamara

Digital devices provide kids with the capacity to connect with each other like never before. No longer confined by geography , classroom walls or home, they have unprecedented access to a constant stream of friends, information and entertainment. While our kids emerge as savvy inhabitants of this digital world, parents are left to  monitor,  negotiate, and police their child’s online interactions and activities.

While it is clear the digital age presents new challenges to  parents in terms of holding onto their kids, what is often missed is how this is colliding with the phenomena of peer orientation. Traditionally, children have oriented around their adults but in the last 50 years many are taking their cues, values and bearings from each other and at the expense of adult influence. There are many reasons contributing to the rise of peer orientation stemming from changes in family structure, economics, and increased geographic mobility. Children have become increasingly separated from the adults who are responsible for them, leaving them with relational voids that are often filled with peers. As if in a perfect storm, our children’s enhanced capacity to use digital devices comes at a time where their drive to be with one another is at an all time high. When our kids prefer to be with their peers they can feel miles away from the adults who care for them. They occupy themselves in connecting to people and places in a digital world that many parents feel they are shut out of.

The answer to keeping our children close lies in cultivating,  deep, strong, caring relationships with them. You cannot take care of a child if you do not have their heart. Parents play need to take up the responsibility for the relationship with their kids – but what are some of the ways this is lived out loud?

1) Collect our Children -Collecting a child is an attachment ritual used to activate relational instincts to depend on, look up to, trust, and follow.  In collecting a child we seek to get in their face in a friendly way and try and get a smile, a nod, and an overall sense of warmth and connection between us. In pursuing them in this manner we gather them to us and invite them into relationship. The warmth, delight and enjoyment we express conveys we are the one who will take care of them and provide for their relational needs. It is this collecting dance that builds the deep, caring relationships parents need that will help them hold onto their kids.

2) Nurture to Fulfill Attachment Hunger – Parents can best nurture their children when they seize the lead in the attachment dance. Reading their child’s need for contact and closeness and providing generously for them conveys they are holding onto them and are their best bet. The provision of care a parents offer needs to be greater than a child’s pursuit for connection, that is, if they need a hug, we have three in return. When a child feels there is a generous invitation to exist in their parents presence they hold onto them in return, seeing them as the ones to take care and nourish them.

3) Preserve the Connection at all times – There are many things that can come between a parent and child including behaviour, unmet expectations, and strong emotions. While adults need to convey rules and reminders of appropriate conduct when infractions have occurred, they must also communicate through words and deed that the relationship is still intact. If behaviour or conduct has come between us, we must find a way to hang onto a child and impressing upon them that our desire to take care of them remains unwavering. To send them out into the world hungry for connection due to perceived breaks in our relationship pushes our children into connection with each other and out of orbit with us. Parents must assume their rightful position as being responsible for the parent-child relationship, especially when faced with conduct that is less than ideal.

4) Protect Against Competing Activities and Attachments – Keeping children close in a digital world requires the conscious creation of structure and rules around the use of communication devices and peer interaction. Why would we allow children to use their devices at the dinner table where we were meant to collect their eyes and listen to their stories? Why would we allow them to retreat to their room with their devices seeking connection with others and eroding their appetite for interaction with us? We must consciously create rules and structure around the use of digital devices and peer engagement that will preserve and protect our relationship with them. As we set rules and rituals around technology use, parents must lead by example. We cannot let our love for our new tools blind us to the responsibility we have in creating a context for their safe use in and out of the home.

5) Matchmake to Build a Village – We cannot leave it in our children’s hands to build the village that will raise them. Parents need to take an active role in introducing and match making their children to adults who are responsible for them.  Coaches, teachers or extended family members are potential attachment figures that can provide for a child’s needs rather than leaving them to their own devices and often in the hands of their peers. By matchmaking we set our children up to fall into attachment with other adults, drawing attention to similarities between them and the warmth that is there.

Social media and the enhanced capacity to keep one’s peers close was born from relational hunger and fuels it today.  The best inoculation against losing our children to their peers and the online world are deep nourishing relationship where parents present themselves as the answer to their child’s needs. If we hold onto our children they are more likely to hold onto us and see us as their best bet. May we remain conscious enough of the challenges that lay before us so we can steer our children into the digital age while at the same time holding onto our relationships with them.