Three Words for Digital-Age Parents: Access, Balance, and Support

stencil_300-300x225Here’s a given about being the parent of a young child—it’s exhausting. Mix in some unknowns like your child’s seemingly unnatural attraction to glowing screens, and it can be bewildering. What’s the right mix of apps and grass stains?

Here’s another given. There is no “correct” answer, and you’re probably too busy to read a 15-page research synopsis, like the Fred Rogers/NAEYC joint position statement on use of technology with young children. (Just in case you have the time, see http://www.naeyc.org/content/technology-and-young-children.) The document addresses many of the concerns and controversies involved with raising a young child in the digital age. Full disclosure: I was one of the many advisors to the document, so I know it well. Because you have laundry to fold, let me boil down the key ideas to three words:  access, balance, and support, or ABS. Just like your car’s brake system.

A is for access. Your children won’t gain technology competence if they can’t touch the technology. By playing, or fiddling around with digital cameras, downloading apps, using laptops, and playing video game systems, they’ll figure out how wriggle a wire to make something work, find a wi-fi signal to avoid roaming charges, or how to get a song from a CD to a file. By the time they reach middle school, they’ll be bilingual, fluent in both Windows and Mac, and they can pick up either a Kindle or an iPad with no degree of hesitation.

B is for balance. Just as a healthy diet consists of a variety of foods, a child needs just the right mix of concrete and abstract, real and pretend. Screens tend to be abstract and symbolic, so screen time should be balanced with real and concrete activities. This is easier said than done, especially when your child is glued to an Xbox or building a Minecraft empire. There’s an art to knowing when to set a limit, or when to play along. You might go camping in a state park this summer, but rather than leave your iPad behind, use it to find stars (use an app like Star Walk) or use the camera to capture the sunset. The screen makes a pretty good nightlight, too, but no app can replace the charm of a campfire. Or, at the very least, get a kitten. Nothing undoes the effects of screen abstraction faster than cleaning out a litter box.

S is for support. Left on their own, young children won’t be able to get access, or achieve balance. It would be like leaving them alone in the candy aisle. They need their own customized expert who is tuned into their abilities and interests, and that expert is you. You have help, in the form of your friends, parents, grandparents, librarians, and teachers to serve as bedtime story readers, fearless technology role models, app curators, and helpers for those hard levels.CTR_Image-2-307x234

Someday—sooner than you think—your baby will be a proud high school graduate, leaving your nest. I know: my youngest daughter graduates next month. Now is the time, while your children are young, to attempt the ABS formula, so that someday they can record and edit a video for a class project, best their dad’s score in Super Mario Bros., program a sprite in Scratch, find and download a calculus app, use an ATM, pump their own gas (a big deal for New Jersey kids), post some prom pictures on Facebook, and—more importantly—have the wisdom to know when not to post or tweet something.

Next time you hear a car dealer talking about an antilock breaking system, remember the other meaning of ABS. Both can keep you out of the ditch, and on your way to your destination.

Photo/Children’s Technology Review

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