5 questions that will change how your grown (or little) kid thinks about technology

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Day 2 of our New York Times-inspired techsperiment: can we go without iPhones, iPads and computers for our three hours of family time each night?

The day brought a new challenge in the form of a comment on my blog, from my own mother:

I’m thrilled to learn from this blog post that you’re trying out the methodology I suggested recently for getting your kids to sleep earlier, ie turning off all the technology over the supper/bedtime hours. Good luck!

My first instinct was to race home and hand an iPhone and an iPad to each kid. The question of whether, when and how we let the kids engage with technology — and how we use it ourselves — is a frequent source of, um, “discussion”, between my mom, me and Rob. Like any ongoing discussion, it runs on a point system, so if my mom was going to regard our techsperiment as a point for her side, we’d have to call it off.

Before I pulled the trigger I called my mom to talk about her comment. “People my age all think it’s ridiculous you’d ignore the advice I give you,” she told me. “But then you listen to the same thing because you read it in the New York Times.”

That remark made me realize that our struggles over technology aren’t actually about technology. They are about how much I do or don’t listen to my mom; about how much influence my mom has over our lifestyle and parenting choices. Technology is simply one more battleground for fighting out the age-old battle for independence that is part of every parent-child relationship.

The battle heats up around technology because it is the one area in which everything we do is different from how our parents did it. We might argue about what I wear to the office party, but my mom went to office parties too (and yes, at age 39 my mom does still tell me if she thinks I should wear something different to the office party). We might disagree about our standards of good housekeeping, but my mom had to decide how much effort she would put into keeping her dining room table clutter-free. We might let our kids watch more TV (or less) than I was allowed, but my mom had to make a rule about whether and when I could watch TV.

But my mom’s career choices didn’t include the decision about whether to friend her boss on Facebook. She didn’t have to decide whether to shut off her mobile phone when she got home from work, or whether she’d respond to evening e-mail. She didn’t have to set household policies on violent video games, or what I could watch on YouTube. None of those choices existed.

For precisely that reason, my mom’s edicts on technology carry less weight than the experiences and perspectives of my peers — people who, like me, are engaged in daily negotiation around the role of technology in their professional life, their social life and their parenting.

But less weight isn’t no weight, as you can see from this techsperiment. Yes, it’s true, I rebuffed my mom’s initial observation — as in, “I would observe that if you two were really serious about geting your kids to bed, you would spend less time playing with your computers and actually engage with your kids.” If the New York Times’ story resonated enough to inspire us to try unplugging for a few hours a day, perhaps my mom’s comment softened up my neurons.

Which brings me back to my mom’s question: why didn’t I listen to her in the first place? Besides the seniors’ discount — by which I mean, discounting the tech pronouncements of seniors — my mom’s input was sidelined because it was a conversation-stopper rather than a conversation initiator. When I read the story of the mom who banned gadgets during family time, it precipitated a conversation between Rob and me about the role of technology in our own home. And it was that conversation, and not the New York Times, that got us to try our techsperiment.

The implication for parents (and I include myself in this) is that if you want to affect your kids’ relationship to technology, you need to do it through conversation, and not by handing down edicts or advice. Here are five questions you can ask your kids to start a meaningful conversation about technology, whatever their age:

  1. How do you decide what kind of information, stories and pictures to share online?
  2. How much time do you like to spend on the computer each day? How do you feel at the end of a day like that?
  3. What are your favourite things to do online? What do you like about them?
  4. Where do you feel like technology is really helping you live the kind of life you want? Is there anywhere that you feel it’s getting in the way?
  5. What could I be doing online that would let us communicate more or understand each other better?

The more curious you are, the more effective these questions will be. If you’re using them to deliver a message (“you’re online too much”; “you shouldn’t blog about your personal life”) your kids will hear that judgement and shut down, instead of hearing questions that can open them up.

Approach the conversation with genuine interest in your kids’ perspectives, asking follow-up questions that help you understand why they make the choices they do, and you’re more likely to catalyze deep thinking on their part. And who knows? You might get a new perspective on technology yourself.

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