At first it was easy.
You could talk to your kids about anything at all, and it scored you big parenting points.
How to help your baby talk
…speak to your baby whenever you're together. Describe what you're doing, point things out, ask questions, and sing songs.
But now that your kids are older, you’ve gotta really work for those parenting points. And in a cruel twist, the hardest topics you may ever need to discuss with your kids arise at the very time they’re least likely to listen to you—when their teenage brains compel them to put more stock in the words of peers than of parents.
We need all the help we can get.
I did some investigating. I read some ‘expert’ suggestions, talked to some of my own parent-friends (hey, listening to your friends works for teens and adults), and drew on some of my own parenting
fails experiences. The result was a list of ideas for how to talk to your kids about their technology and social media use.
But first, we need to acknowledge something: raising kids who grow up to be independent adults who make good choices is a time-consuming (and sometimes frustrating) job. Helping your kids navigate the digital world is not a one-and-done conversation. You talk to them about your rules and expectations. They make mistakes. You talk to them again. Lather, rinse, repeat. And (this is important!) it’s all completely normal—in fact, it’s a process you really can’t skip over. As we were putting together our RAKKOON app to help parents with exactly this issue, we saw it time and again: parents who let their kids experiment with social media—letting them make mistakes under controlled circumstances and with parental supervision—ended up with more trusting relationships later on, and their kids ultimately ended up better equipped to become safe, independent users of social media.
So take a deep breath and know that the conversations you’re having with your kids now, are going to need to happen again. And again. Be prepared to sit next to your kids on the couch a lot more often than you probably want to. Then, while you’re sitting there, try out these ideas for getting your point across:
1. Remember what it was like when you were a teenager.
It’s genuinely hard to remember how little life-experience you had when you were twelve. But nothing will cause a teen to tune you out faster than sensing you have no idea what his life is like. So before you sit down with your kids, take a minute (or twenty) to think of some examples from your own young adulthood, so you’ll have some evidence that you get where they’re coming from. Finding common ground is the trick here—social media may be a new thing, but the need it fills in a teenager’s life is as old as dirt. Did you spend hours sitting on the floor of your room, your fingers tangled in the extra-long phone cord, whispering secrets in your best friend’s ear? The method is different now, but the intention remains the same. Remind your teen (and yourself) that you were once in their shoes.
2. Make your own rules.
It’s great we have so many resources these days to help us figure out the trickier parts of parenting. But too often we let our own instincts (and the knowledge we have of our own family dynamics) be overridden by ‘expert’ advice. Limit screen time to two hours. Put the computer in a central location. Check with your pediatrician! Advice can be useful but you shouldn’t feel handcuffed to it. When my husband and I were setting up expectations for weekend screen time, we realized we both had fond memories of entire Saturday mornings spent watching cartoons. There was just something awesome about getting to veg out in front of the tube for three solid hours on the weekend. We decided to make Saturday morning screen time a thing in our house. (And, yes, it was three hours and not two because we were okay with that. In fact, an unexpected upside of offering a big chunk of time all at once was that it actually reduced the pestering for more time—after three hours the kids were ready to move on to non-screen activities, which made the rule easier to enforce. Win!)
3. Take a cue from commercials.
Those marketing folks spend their lives getting people to buy into things. Take advantage of their expertise and use it to make your message more effective. Lots of short conversations are better than one long lecture. Think ahead about the three main points you want your kid to take away from a conversation, and stick to the script. Also, consider your audience: if you can make your message funny or deliver it in an unconventional way, it’ll be that much more memorable. I still remember the formula for finding out the area of a circle, because my 7th Grade math teacher, Mr. Bowlware, made a song out of it. (Goofy? Yes. Effective? Let me answer this way: πr²)
4. Think dialogue, not monologue.
In order to become adults who can take care of themselves, teens need to assert their independence. This is one of the reasons behind their unpredictable and sometimes even defiant behavior. And it’s one of the hardest things I’ve found to deal with as a parent. Because what I want to say is: “Listen to me! I know what I’m talking about! I’ve been where you are and I’ve learned the hard lessons! Let me help you!” (Look at all those exclamation points—every one of them necessary because that’s how strongly I feel about this!) Instead, I have to force myself to say, “What do you think?” and “How do you feel about that?” Question marks instead of exclamations. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let them negotiate out from under the rules I set, but it’s amazing how much more smoothly things go when you have buy-in from your constituents. Then don’t just ask the questions—really listen to the answers. Because, like I said before, this is only the beginning of a long string of conversations with your kid. The more carefully you listen and try to understand their point of view, the more smoothly all those future talks will go.
5. Not all rules have to start with the word “Don’t.”
It’s a fact: no one likes to be told what to do. It’s also a fact that as parents that’s largely our job. But just like on the Food Network, presentation counts. Consider opening the conversation by giving your kids a ‘Do’ instead: “Dad and I have decided that using YouTube to teach yourself ukulele shouldn’t count as screen time, so after your homework’s done you can use your iPad to practice.” If the conversation feels like something your teen wants to be a part of, then they’re more likely to really hear what you have to say. And isn’t that the point?
One last thing
Of course, the app we've been working on to help you monitor social media collaboratively with your kids is a great tool for keeping the conversation going. You can read more about it in the blog post What is RAKKOON and Why Does It Work?.