Parenting in a Digital Age for Digital Media & Learning Conference

February 19, 2010 University of San Diego, CA

I’ve been doing research on U.S. families and their media uses for the past 12 years.* I started doing research on families when I was P.K. (pre-kid). Actually, when I started out, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have kids. After all, everyone knows what happens when a white middle class woman like me has kids:

she becomes a conservative who spends all her time feeling anxious and worried about everything, and she tries her best to control everything, especially by restricting the digital and mobile media that she’s sure are causing harm to her kids.

I was also worried about what having kids would do to my career as a professor and social scientist. One of my male colleagues reassured me on that score. He said, “Don’t worry, having kids will make you a better social scientist.”

Mom/Social Scientist

I’m not sure if that was meant to place a career value on having kids, or if it was a comment on my lack of abilities as a social scientist at the time. But my partner and I did decide to take the plunge shortly after that.

And did I become a conservative?

Well, obviously not, or I wouldn’t be attending THIS conference, where people are dedicated to exploring how digital and mobile media can actually improve learning. After all, many of us believe that even if the computer and Internet revolution won’t automatically make everything better, and the changes that are occurring can seem overwhelming, this moment of change can give people an opportunity to consider what could be better – or what society could be like if it were more democratic, more open, more kind, more collaborative, more fair for everyone.**

So I’m not sure having kids made me a better sociologist. But I do know that being in a community of people who value collaboration and who think that everyone has an important contribution to make has made me a better parent.

I see a few common values in the community of scholars, educators, designers, and community leaders who consider themselves part of the digital media & learning community. First, this is a group that values a child-centered style of learning. We want to follow young peoples’ curiosities, and we think every child has worth and deserves our encouragement and help in development. Second, we want young people to learn to be responsible:for themselves and for their own learning, and we think that transformative things can happen for them when they have a stake in what they’re doing. And third, we see that for learning to take place, there has to be a way for young people to move from one step to the next step to the next; we talk about scaffolding learning, about mentoring, and about long-term systems of support.

Another Guitar Hero Mom

I think there’s a lot that parents can learn from these approaches to learning and to life. For one thing, I think that, like a lot of Guitar Hero moms, we can come to really value the time that we spend playing with our kids. The value doesn’t lie with the game itself, or with what we learn from games, but with how we can spend time together doing something that we all enjoy, which is kind of like an experience of collaboration. Plus, doing something fun together, something the kids are better at than the parents and something that they can teach a parent to do, gives the kids a chance to experience a position of competence and leadership in our families. It’s a great way for them to feel like the adults in their family value something that they care about, and to feel like those adults are willing to take risks (like the risk of looking kind of silly) to both learn something new and to support them in something they care about. By just being with our kids when they’re immersed in what they consider the fun of digital media, we can demonstrate that we value them, we appreciate their curiosity and their willingness to pursue ways of developing competence, and we want to be with them and share in something they enjoy. It’s actually a pretty easy way to accomplish some important goals, like sharing a positive moment together.

There’s also some interesting common ground that these values of collaboration, child-centeredness, the development of responsibility, and a two-way mentoring approach share with larger trends in U.S. families. Sociologists and historians of families such as Arlie Hochschild, Annette Lareau, Stephen Mintz, Harriet Pipes McAdoo, Kathleen Gerson and others have been tracing changing gender roles in the family, arguing that those changes have occurred in relation to economic change, and that over time, they have reorganized relationships of authority within family life.

cotton mill workers

Think about what life was like for parents and their kids 150 to 200 years ago, for instance. Back then, most children would leave their parents at 11 or 12, entering into indentured servitude, or slavery, or mill or mine work, or an arranged marriage and early childbearing. They didn’t move from childhood through adolescence and into responsible adulthood; they moved from living under the authority of one set of adults (their parents) into life under the authority of another set of adults (their bosses, owners, or for young women, their spouses).

But over the past 100 years, life has become quite different, at least for some children.*** We’ve been able to raise them through those years when they start to separate from parents and develop their own sense of authority and autonomy. That time in life can be a source of strain, as Erik Erickson told us long ago, but over the past 100 years, our ideas of parental authority have also changed – from adult-centered, strict, and controlling to child-centered, flexible, and empowering.

And now, with digital and mobile media, we have greater opportunities than ever to practice child-centered, flexible, and empowering parenting. Digital and mobile media give parents and their young people an opportunity to experience that shift in a very positive way, as parents have an opportunity to learn from their kids, giving kids authority in household to teach parents. Some parents are embracing this in really awesome, life-affirming ways already, and that’s been a real inspiration to me as I’ve been involved in interviewing parents and young people.

But of course, as parents we don’t usually think about digital and mobile media primarily in this way. We think a lot more about the risks that these media pose. Young people, especially teens, are motivated to try out things that adults have forbidden; they’re learning to take calculated risks. And of course, the digital and mobile media provide all kinds of new ways to try out taking risks, whether that involves sexting, meeting strangers online, or experimenting with nastiness.

There are also concerns about what digital and mobile media are doing to our kids. Many parents have told me about their concern with how these media make kids live in an “always-on” position that seems to make it difficult for them to shut it off and focus on what’s going on around them in the moment. But that’s not just a problem for kids, actually. One of the most poignant stories I heard occurred when a teen girl was asked what she’d most like from digital and mobile media, and she replied, “you know, what I’d really like is if my mom would be off the phone while I’m playing soccer.” We as parents are a part of this culture of distraction. This is an important societal concern, not just one of what’s happening to our kids.

I think it’s important to think about what we model as parents, and also about how we communicate our concerns about digital media with our kids. It’s important to think about not only *that* we talk with our kids about the risks of digital media, but *how* we talk with them. Because how we communicate influences how they hear what’s said. It determines whether they’ll accept or dismiss our concerns, and whether they’ll feel supported in their lives – or isolated and misunderstood. This suggests that, again, by taking a more child-centered approach that emphasizes their abilities to gain responsibility and to learn bit by bit, we might be able to be more effective with what we’re trying to convey to them.

It’s true, as many have said in this conference, that parents aren’t fully responsible for the outcomes of their children. They need more support, and they need our help to get that support, which means advocating for child-centered laws and policies that shape how their lives can be lived. But still, parents want to know from us about what they can do in this new mediated environment.

And because of that, I think we are living through a moment of real opportunity as scholars who understand something about digital and mobile media. We know the risks, and we also know the potentials. We know that digital and mobile media can be important tools for collaboration, for fostering a child-centered life, for offering opportunities of scaffolding learning and providing support. I think that if we help to address their concerns, we can also help parents to see the value in the potentials for digital media – and the value in trusting and learning from their kids. And ultimately, then, I think we have an important role to play. Because we can help to change the conversation from one of panic to one of possibility.

Thank you!

* My research team and I have interviewed and observed more than 600 preteens, teens, and parents in single parent, blended, married, same sex, and unmarried families that have come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds and racial/ethnic and religious backgrounds. My research team generally defines the U.S. family as a multigenerational group who share a household and that includes economically dependent young people.
**This is inspired by Henry Jenkins.
***in many places in the world, children still enter slavery or work at a very early age.


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