Within each of us lies the potential for incredible change. Armed with enough information, we can change our world – or at least, as much of it as we can influence. As we’ve seen in our recent look at tech addiction and the effect of technology on young minds, however, sustained change takes more than individual consciousness. It takes the combined, concerted effort of whole communities.

How can communities band together to improve the outlook for tech-addicted children?

  • We need choose to change. Real change starts with the choice to change. Do we make the choices we make just to avoid conflict with our own children? Do we not know better?
  • We need to understand the problem. Dr Tim Barry has outlined some of the issues, which we’ve shared in this series on technology and growing minds. So, when we do know better, how do we react then?
  • We need to understand what our alternatives are. Children are born with a natural gravitation towards REAL experiences. When you actively invest yourself in teaching your children how to do dangerous things, you build a bond. You teach them respect – for you; for the (potentially dangerous) thing they are learning to do; for themselves; for the joy of mastery; for the process that mastery requires; and for the passage of time on the journey to success. Moreover, you demonstrate trust, which builds self esteem.

The profound impact of human connection

Traffic engineer Hans Monderman found a way to improve traffic. He found that traffic improved when people got confused about the traffic signs. People had to connect with other people – they had to make eye contact at, for instance, the roundabout – and that fixed the traffic problems.

In a similar fashion, children seem to thrive in an environment of what Dr Tim Barry calls benign negligence or fertile neglect. Sometimes referred to as rewilding or deschooling, this philosophy is based on the fact that children need to play and explore and discover in order to grow.

Bravery as a platform for mastery

Dr Barry cited the case of a school principal in northern Europe who applied for the right to use a vacant lot next to the school as a play area for the children. Leaving the space in its raw state, the principal and staff watched to see what effect – if any – this kind of free, unstructured play would have on the children.The results were marked: innovation increased, while bullying declined; marks went up as absenteeism went down.

Danger can be a fertile breeding ground for learning – as long as both parents and teachers are discerning about the kind of danger. The kinds of danger that punctuated our own childhood have become rare in our modern age. Children are discouraged from going on walks, climbing trees, building forts from what they find outside. There are very opportunities for bravery today.

With bravery comes the opportunity for skill development and, ultimately, mastery. In its absence, we see an increase attention deficit, anxiety, and depression.

Practical de-technologising

It doesn’t help to say “all technology is bad”. The simple fact is that this isn’t true. A healthier approach would be not to limit the amount of technology, but to increase the amount of healthier activities in your child’s life:

  • Spend time with them interacting, being connected.
  • Allow them free, unstructured play time outdoors.
  • Give them the tools and opportunities to create things.
  • Show them you trust their growing abilities by allowing them to do slightly more dangerous things. We certainly aren’t advocating giving your child her first chainsaw the day after you persuade her to put down the iPad for the first time. Rather, start her on something simpler: perhaps letting her use the sharp scissors (with supervision at first – but NOT help. She needs to know you think she can do this. That will help her to think she can, too.) In time, as she demonstrates more responsibility, increase her options.

Be clear about the level of trust and responsibility you are willing to entrust to your child. There is no rule that says every child in the house should automatically get the same thing as every other child does. Older children should have achieved greater responsibility and privileges than their younger siblings. It is perfectly acceptable to tell younger siblings that certain privileges or activities only become appropriate at a certain age, or once they have demonstrated a certain level of responsibility. They can only get something when it becomes appropriate for them to do so. This is not being unfair. If anything, it is more fair, since the older sibling should have earned more if she has been allowed to do so. A family is not a democracy. It is a benign dictatorship.

Have the courage to do what’s best for your child: it’s not punitive. It’s about finding a kind and gentle way to connect the truth of these values to your kids. Parents need to set clear boundaries in order to help their children feel safe and develop a sense of self.

This doesn’t mean we default to a totalitarian “Because I Said So” approach. This will never work for very long – especially if children are being allowed to develop their faculties of creative thinking. Parents need to develop more original and effective ways to communicate their family truths to their children. One example could be to get real. Be vulnerable. Open up. Tell the truth. You might say,

“If I get you an XBox, I will lose you. It’s not that you’re bad or that I don’t trust you. Rather, it’s because I want to have a relationship with you. And I can’t do that if you spend all afternoon glued to the screen …. Especially if you’re playing something I don’t understand.”

Remember: children find it empowering to be part of a clan – to have five or six guiding principles defining who we are as a family.

Finding the balance

Sadly, the pressures of modern life distract us to the point that we don’t have the resources to parent actively. We need a time balance.

In his book “The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties,” William Docherty describes the intentional family. He asserts that great families don’t happen by accident. You need to DESIGN your family to get the results you seek. If you treat your family’s development as an afterthought, you’ll get the results that coincide with that approach. As parents – as families – we have the opportunity to create something deeply special.

The question, then, is do we make the choices we make just to avoid conflict with our own children? Or do we have the courage to do what is best for your children?

For sustained change, we all need the courage to make the hard choices.

This article was developed based on a talk presented by psychologist Tim Barry on the subject of technology and how it affects our children. Tim Barry practices in Hilton, Pietermaritzburg. He can be contacted on 082 577 7128, or via email at tb@futurenet.co.za.