I spend a lot of time with teenagers, because I have one. As an observer of this unique species, I am noticing that teenagers are changing in fundamental ways as a result of their relationship with technology.
Teenagers are frequently out and about in the world on their own and with their peers, particularly in the summer. They’re taking a crack at independence, living new situations and challenges without their parents’ supervision and guidance. Adolescence is a time to start figuring things out for themselves, to problem solve, and to be creative with whatever challenges life is presenting. It’s a time to build self-reliance and maturity, as they attempt to navigate the world on their own. It’s a crucial and transformative period in the development of our children, one in which they lay the groundwork for confidence and capability that will support them for the rest of their lives.
It used to be that when teenagers went away in the summer, they went away. These days, with smartphones in their hands, there’s no break in the communication. Many teens stay in constant contact, in a continual conversation with their parents throughout the day. If something upsets or delights them, or a practical problem arises, they’re quick to text out for help, validation, and feedback. And they usually receive that understanding, empathy, guidance, solution, or whatever else is needed, immediately. Technology is removing the need for our kids to figure things out for themselves. It’s robbing our children of the opportunity to experience their lives on their own, to live through challenges and joys inside their own company, and to learn how to effectively meet life’s ups and downs in their own unique ways. With a smartphone in hand, nothing needs to be figured out or experienced alone. Living happens by consensus, inside a shared and safe zone of continual communication and handholding. Previous generations, in contrast, had to let go of the big people’s hands at some point, to jump into the waters of independence, because there simply was no alternative, and we grew into actual adults as a result.
The result of all this communicating is that we are unintentionally growing a generation of helpless, infantilized, and unable people—children who don’t feel and are in fact not equipped to handle life’s challenges. Technology is depriving our youth of the true self-confidence, grit and resilience that can only come from and through practicing independence. Just because our kids can now do without cutting the cord, and can effectively rely on us to babysit them around the clock, doesn’t mean that they, or we, should.
What then is the solution to this new digital dilemma, the disempowerment and disabling of our children as a result of their dependence on constant communication through technology, and our parental collusion in this dependence under the guise of attentive parenting? The solution begins with awareness. That is, becoming conscious of the long-term effects of perpetually interacting with and attending to every text your child sends. While it may feel good to be helpful, needed, and wanted, to be the person that your child wants to share everything with, in fact, providing moment to moment validation, support, and guidance, eventually will create a not self-reliant and not self-confident human being. When we literally accompany our children through every step of life, they stop (or never start) knowing how to walk for themselves.
Although counterintuitive perhaps, stepping away from your child’s texts can be the wiser and more loving choice. Explain to them why you are not immediately responding to their every communication, what the larger intention is behind your silence, that it’s in service to their true independence (so that they can’t accuse you of neglecting or forgetting them!). When you allow your son or daughter the opportunity to start experiencing life on their own, to figure it out, generate solutions, self-soothe, cope… you are, in the long run, being a good parent. You are offering a gift to your child that is far more valuable than solving the problem of the moment.
This is of course not to suggest that we should never be available to our children’s communications, but rather that we should become mindful of what we are actually doing in a larger sense when we are forever and immediately available to our kids every experience. If we truly desire what’s best for our children, namely, for them to become capable and to know that they can trust themselves, then we as parents need to stop holding up the other end of the constant conversation. It’s up to us; we who are older and wiser need to take the higher road and create some space and silence, turn off the conversation, be a little bit unavailable, and let them discover that they can indeed fly on their own.