Acknowledging The Unknowns Of Raising Kids With A Smartphone In Your Hand

With the average adult spending four hours a day on their phone, our own use of technology – and concessions about overuse – are also slowly coming to light.

There is going to come a time when my children want to speak to me about my smartphone use. It’s a time I both anticipate and dread.
We’re all in the midst of an ongoing discussion about the use of screen time and its effects on childhood development. At what age to begin, how frequently to expose, and the possibility of “addiction” are now well-woven threads in our parental consciousness.
But with the average adult spending approximately four hours a day on their cellular device, our own use of technology – and our concessions about overuse – are also slowly coming to light.
We acknowledge collectively that a massive shift in the way we relate to the world around us has occurred, but our ability to adapt is impaired because there’s simply no precedent for this. We’re learning the rules as we go. Adults relating to one another while continually checking devices are having to dialogue and work together to find the right balance to maintain healthy relationships.
And it’s a tough balance to find.
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Our children’s generation is coming into a world already immersed in handheld technology. They have not yet had real opportunity to voice their perspectives. To be a child raised by adults who frequently interrupt human interactions to look at their phones is something to which we as parents cannot relate.
As our children mature and reflect upon the ramifications of the age in which they grew up, it’s certain that we will receive both appreciation and criticism for the childhood they experienced.
It took me years of parenting before I realized that helping my children develop a healthy relationship with technology is a significant role I will play as their mother. Like eating habits, it is something that, for all intents and purposes, will be an integral part of their lives. However much I attempt to follow the recommendations for their exposure (or lack thereof), I need to acknowledge that my own example will be a pivotal and perhaps paramount factor in shaping these relationships.
So how can we use our experiences to intelligently educate our children about healthy habits? Where should we begin as parents in discussing technology use with our children?
I believe these conversations must begin with compassion. Though not a word commonly associated with technology, teaching our children to see this issue through a compassionate lens can be a conduit for their own self-awareness and positive change.
From there, other important aspects can be discussed:

We do not know how this will play out

Like every other generation that has lived through a technological revolution, we have the task of wrapping our minds around a reality that has shifted dramatically from the past. And just like every generation before us, we will make great advances and terrible mistakes with these new abilities.
Addressing this duality with our children teaches them to place themselves in the context of an ongoing story without a clear ending. We do not have the whole picture, and we are learning as we go. We are trying our best, sometimes failing, but in feeling compassion for this thread of our human history, maturing children may be able to more effectively navigate their own emotions in a perpetually changing world.

Our use of technology is rooted in our humanity

Whether it be a desire to connect, learn, make an impact, curb anxiety, or share emotion, we use (and overuse) technology because of our humanness. We are a social species in a world that often demands frequent changes and diminished community connections.
In using technology, we seek to find the same human necessities our ancestors sought in a world free of technological devices. That we are often left feeling unsatisfied with time spent on our phones is a harsh reality with which we are still coming to terms.
Seeking compassion will inspire our children to explore the potential of technology without sinking into the negative emotions that frequently plague their parents.

People are always more important

About a year ago, while I was doing something on my phone, my oldest son (four at the time) asked, and then persisted in asking me for a snack. Finally, exasperated by my delay, he stated, “Mommy, taking care of me is more important than looking at your phone.”
Regardless of the importance of what I was doing or the respect children must have for the other tasks their parents must complete, what struck me about my son’s statement was his inherent knowledge of his value over technology. He has grown up surrounded by it, but it has not curbed his awareness that his mother being present to him matters.
I do not want my children to ever lose sight of this – that our interactions with one another are more important than the gadgets that we hold in our hands or on our laps. I was happy my son felt this so intensely, and I hope that he, and every other member of his generation, does not lose sight of this truth as they grow.
I hope that as my children maneuver through this technological era, compassion will enable them to explore the potential that technology holds without losing sight of the humanity that makes it all worthwhile.

Why Our Kids Need Parental Guidance, Now More than Ever

Your kids are watching you.

In the 2008 book Outliers, author Malcom Gladwell artfully described the “10,000-hour Rule” as a foundation for mastering skills and achieving success. My oldest son turns nine in March, and his younger brother turns seven in May. I can attest that my wife and I are well beyond the 10,000-hour marker post and have yet to master being a parent.  
Years ago, somewhere between hour one and hour 100, the reality set in: Being a parent is tough. After the baby is born and you transition away from the cooing and coddling stage of bliss, somewhere between a hungry baby and a cold cup of coffee, you realize that sleep, shaving, and sex are no longer part of who you are.
Personal hygiene and wellness aside, you’ve discovered that you could not be happier being a parent. Who would have thought? All those years burning the midnight oil, studying hard and cramming for final exams, or staying out late with friends was basic training for the physical, mental, and emotional strain you would encounter as a new parent.  
Fast forward tens of thousands of hours, many doctors’ appointments, vacations, first days of school, new friends and old friends, sick days and birthdays – and we are still not experts, on anything. I can say with fervor and pride that my wife and I developed Ninja-like reflexes useful for changing diapers as well as capabilities for diffusing epic battles over Legos that would wow diplomats of the State Department.
Take, for example, a recent bedtime story conversation between my youngest son and me. He had come home with a new library book, “Snakes! Snakes! Snakes!” Like many of his peers, my son loves learning about all different kinds of wildlife. (Did you know that there are more than 3,000 species of snakes in the world?) As we read the book, he shared his top three favorite snakes in this specific order: rattlesnake, yellow python, and king snake.
The book talked about predator-prey relationships and expanded upon the diverse diet of snakes, which includes insects, mice, birds, rabbits, eggs, goats, and antelope. When we finished the book, he yawned and said, “Thanks for reading to me, Dad,” in the sweet way only your child can do. He turned over and asked if I would rub his back a little.
“Of course,” I said. “I’m glad you liked the book.” For a moment, all seemed quiet – Operation Night-Night was a go.
For a brief moment, my mind shifted to the kitchen. I thought about having an 8 p.m. snack. Maybe ice cream…popcorn…or some nachos. On the other hand, maybe, I thought, I will have something healthier, like a green tea and relax. Yea, that sounds like a plan. A warm green tea with honey.
“Dad?” my son said, as he turned back toward me, jolting me from my food fantasy.
“Yes, what’s up?”
“Do humans have predators?” Ah, there it was. An awesome and enlightened question from my six- and soon to be seven-year-old.
I did a quick 360-degree mental situational check and thought about my audience, the clock, and the answer I was about to give. The image of my wife’s face came to me, like an apparition, as if to say, “Do not [choose your expletive wisely] this up.”
My thinking brain began to cloud my judgment. I thought about aliens, murderers, terrorists, and other unknown species that may be roaming the Universe. My science mind kicked in. I desperately tried to rationalize something logical, like how humans are at the top of the food chain, mightier than lions, more majestic than eagles. We are a predator’s predator, I thought.
But saying that to my son will not work – he loves animals. This makes humans sound so dreadful. What was the right answer? What was the honest answer? What in the hell should I say? Perhaps my son’s question originated from a place of fear and anxiety. I did not want to feed that beast.
I thought about the uncomfortable and naked truth – that humans are our own worst enemies. Frankly, we cannot get out of our own way. We are predators unto ourselves. The divisiveness, rhetoric, and crass behavior that characterized the recent Presidential election flooded my brain. I felt my own body tense and my anxiety rise.
I froze. I breathed. I looked at my son, patiently waiting for a response.
I said, “Do you love animals?”
My son replied, “I love all animals.”
To lower any potential level of anxiety I chose to say, “There are no predators of humans.” My son looked relieved. “However,” I continued, “humans can sometimes be mean to each other and to animals.”
“I will never hurt an animal or person,” he said.
I smiled and praised him for being so thoughtful and sweet. Then he fell asleep.
I recognize that I could have handled the brief exchange differently. But in the moment, the approach felt right. The exchange sat with me for a couple days. I reflected on the role of a parent in a child’s life.
I believe most people would agree that being a parent is the single most important job anyone can have. The responsibility for fostering peace and kindness, tolerance and acceptance, dignity and respect, curiosity and passion resides with each of us as citizens. It is up to us, each day, to live life with a sense of purpose, mindfulness, and compassion. As parents, we must teach, empower, engage, and lead our children with these values from our homes and our hearts.
We shape and influence our children in many ways. Children learn by watching our behaviors. They trust us. We need to be self-aware and careful with these relationships. Parents are in a position to provide, without judgment or restraint, balanced guidance to those spontaneous questions that come up at bedtime. While we may not provide the best answers every time, we can show our children that we are listening, that we care, and that we support them.
Humanity is unhinged, or at least feels so. Whether directly or indirectly, our children are experiencing the political discourse, outright distortion of information, and blatant disregard for human dignity. In this environment, we need to double down on our role as accountable citizens.
Most of all, we need to nurture the next generation to be better than we are. Creating a more peaceful, sustainable, and just society begins, and ends, at home.

To the Girl Who Bullied My Daughter: I Wish You Knew Compassion

Some kids have no idea that their peers may be fighting difficult battles.

To the girl who told my daughter that her reasons for having a panic attack weren’t valid, let me enlighten you – and others like you.

Yes, you are correct in saying children are starving. Just a few short years ago a local church helped us out by giving us groceries from their food pantry while we went through a difficult time financially. Her father was desperately trying to find a local job in order to give up the truck driving job that kept him away for so many years.

They also helped pay our electricity bill to keep the lights on. And you were correct in saying that people were losing their homes every day. If you had taken the time to be my daughter’s friend you might know that we lost ours.

Have you ever lost your home? Have you ever been forced to pack up your life as you knew it and start over somewhere in a place unfamiliar to you? Did you find that you had no friends to turn to? It almost feels like you needed someone at some point in your young life and you had no one to validate your own fears.

To say that my daughter had no reason to have a panic attack because I forgot to tell her goodbye when I went to work shows me that you do not know her at all. If you did, you’d know that she lost her grandmother, my mother, very unexpectedly and it left a mark on all of us.

She was quite literally feeding us supper one night, telling us she loved us and would see us the next day, and gone the next morning after passing away not long after we’d left. If you had an ounce of compassion and had chosen to be my daughter’s friend rather than judge and jury, you’d know that not long after she lost her grandmother she pulled out every last one of her beautiful long eyelashes thinking that if she made enough “wishes” on them, her precious grandmother would come back.

Did you lose someone too?  Did it hurt so much that you couldn’t breathe or talk or cry? Did you need comfort that was never offered to you?

It breaks my heart that you are so young, and already so callous. I can’t help but think that you struggled with something and the compassion you needed wasn’t to be found. I also wonder – if you’d felt compassion, maybe you’d understand that finding out last week that her grandfather has cancer triggered all the fear and anxiety my daughter has worked so hard to overcome.

If you had taken the time to be kind, she might even tell you about her brother being diagnosed with brain cancer three years ago and how we still go for scans every six months, terrified it will come back. You’d know that despite therapy, time, distance, and meditation exercises the mere thought of potentially losing one of us is enough to drive her into a panic. And so she needs to hug us bye, tell us she loves us, or stay in touch during the day. Have you known fear like that?  Are you afraid of losing your own family now?

If you really knew my daughter, you’d know that she and I are extremely close. You’d know that I have an autoimmune disorder that has only gotten worse year after year, and her newfound anxiety has her very afraid of losing me.

She watches television; she sees the medication commercials. She knows the disease. And though I do my best to shield her from so much, I cannot shield her from my father’s frail form. I cannot hide my mangled, swollen joints. She is afraid she’s going to lose us. In reality, she will. We will all lose each other. You, too, will lose someone close to you.

This life is temporary. Every single moment is precious. I’ve taught her that. I also teach her to have compassion. I teach her that above all else, be kind. And I try to teach her not to worry and fret but I worry myself. I worry mostly because there are people like you who don’t know the whole story – don’t want to know the whole story – who will hurt her long after I’m gone.

I’m here now, though. And I will fight for my family with every fiber of my being and continue teaching them to be kind – always. Someday my daughter might be the kind, compassionate friend you’re looking for when you need it most.

10 Practical Tips For Teaching Young Kids Kindness and Safety

Ideas for helping kids stay safe while practicing compassion in tricky situations.

I let my daughter chase birds at the park, but she may never, ever hurt them.  I allow her to observe bugs and gently touch them if she would like to, but I ask that she never squish them. After all, they’re living creatures too. I never stop her when I overhear her reprimanding our dog, but I do remind her that he’s just a dog and forgetful like she is at times. And when she sees someone who is different from us and asks “Why are they like that?” I suggest we go up and ask them.

You would never believe the lessons and compassion that policy has created for her.

Recently my daughter returned from the park with my husband. While sharing her daredevil-ish moves and exciting adventures, she mentioned that there was a scary man sleeping on a bench. She said she stayed away from him because “we don’t talk to those people. They are bad.”  

I tried not to react and focused on her beaming pride about hanging off of the monkey bars and going down the big-girl slide. But inner turmoil and confusion crept from my stomach to my throat to my face for her and the world to see.

I was frozen. Part of me that felt ashamed because she called someone who was obviously homeless “scary” when chances were that their situation was just sad. 

Then I realized that what she believed was probably best and safest for her until she was old enough to understand. She was simply too young to balance compassion for someone it that situation while also knowing to keep her distance at the same time.

A little background: my husband was raised Hindu. Hinduism is a culture that prides itself on tolerance and kindness. I spent over a decade of my life studying Buddhism. While I sometimes found its passivity to be a detriment, I still relate to the loving kindness aspect of the religion, and always try to understand people before pointing fingers at them. 

It was very difficult to allow our child to believe that homeless people were scary. It felt like a contradiction of everything we are trying to teach her. Still, in my heart and bones I knew this was the best way to approach the situation. Her safety is the priority. Just as I tell her that the stove is hot even when it’s off so she doesn’t play by it, I needed to tell her (for now) that all strangers are dangerous so she won’t approach them. In this case, this rule includes homeless people. 

I still struggle with this. I wish I could find the perfect balance between safety and compassion for the mind of an-almost-four-year-old, but I truthfully believe that she’s too young for a fine-tuned balance to exist. 

Still, I do have some suggestions for teaching our young children to be kind and safe at the same time. This isn’t science by any means, but here are a few suggestions to pave the intentions in front of them.

For Safety

1 | Teach your children to trust their instincts: Most children are perceptive and intuitive by nature. That is why so many of them hide behind our legs and lower their volume when answering a question from someone they do not know. Nurture that gift. Tell them that if it doesn’t feel right to talk to someone, then they shouldn’t and they should find an adult they trust immediately.

2| Teach them social boundaries: Some children will talk to anyone while others won’t leave their caretakers sides. Teach your children that it isn’t okay to talk to strangers, and that it isn’t okay if strangers try to talk to them.

3 | Be honest about danger: We all find gentle ways to tell our kids not to accept candy from strangers, and not to get into a car with a stranger, but many parents are afraid to tell their children why. Tell your children of the dangers. Tell them that something bad can happen and that some strangers might try to take them away. Of course, you wouldn’t say this to a two-year-old, but as a child approaches three and four they can begin to process these threats and apply them in circumstances.

4 | Help your child to identify suspicious behavior: Instead of just scaring them with “stranger danger,” explain to them that it is not safe if a stranger offers them candy, asks for help finding something or someone, or pretends to be an authority in a make-believe story: “I know you are the kid that is bad in school. Come with me!”

Tell your child that they know all of your friends and if someone tries to pretend to be Mommy or Daddy’s friend, they are lying. Tell them over and over again to NEVER open a door for a stranger NO MATTER WHAT THE STRANGER SAYS, and NEVER get in a car with someone they don’t know.

5| Teach your children that it is okay to yell, kick, run, and do whatever they need to do to protect themselves: There is time for manners and time to make a huge scene, and we MUST teach our children that it is okay to act out this way if someone is trying to touch, hurt, or take them.

For compassion

1 | Don’t allow name-calling: Seems simple, but compassion begins with rules about what is okay and what is not. “Poopie head,” silly or not, should not be allowed. Teach children that when they get into an argument, it’s okay to be angry, but you still shouldn’t tease or call a person names.

2 | Teach good manners: By teaching children to say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” we set them up to be kind in their social interactions.

3 | Reward kindness with love: When you observe your child being kind to others, tell them that you are proud! Give them hugs and kisses and even high fives. Emotional rewards stimulate the mind and nervous system in ways that material rewards never will. The ‘feel good’ rewards will make them yearn for more and will also teach them what if feels like when someone is kind to them.

4 | Don’t trash-talk in front of your kids: Children are always listening and always understanding much more than we imagine. Set a good example. Practice compassion in front of them. Do not talk poorly about anyone in front of your kids if you don’t want them speaking badly of others.

5 | Point out others demonstrating kindness: Teaching by example is always powerful.  Point out other kind children and adults. Talk about heroes and leaders who are good to others. When your child hears you discussing your pride towards others like this, they will want to follow in their footsteps to make you feel proud.