I'm going to come right out and say it: parenting, just on its own, can be a bitch. I'm not complaining; just stating a fact. I'm pretty sure it has always been a bitch for parents throughout history but I think we have it a bit more challenging today in some respects, particularly with today's media and communications being as accessible by our children as they are. Just like generations past we still have an enormous responsibility to our children; it's just become even more complex thanks to the media.
The complexities we face as parents today are intriguing and rewarding and terrifying all at the same time. Books, TV, and video games are media that have the ability to capture our children's attention and teach them things we may not feel comfortable exposing them to yet. The temptation to severely restrict their interaction with entertainment devices is strong, but is it the most effective method of parental censorship? By effective I mean, is it accomplishing the goal of promoting values that we have chosen to instill in our children – values that teach them how to make smart decisions when they are grown?
To get right down to it, are we teaching them to be discerning or to just listen to the loudest voice in the room? Right now we may get veto power and without too much competition most of us can out-shout our children. But what have we taught them? That we are there to rob them of a good time. If all they do is see us work and sleep and restrict the good times (in their minds), we have become the proverbial cat to their mouse. And when we are away, they will play – and we will not have taught them responsibility.
If you're not sure where I am going with this, let me state for the record that I do not support the notion that we should give children unrestricted access to today's media. I am no more comfortable with an xBox, Playstation, or Wii being allowed to raise my child than most parents I know, but let's put aside the media's demonization of gaming, for one example, and look at it with a rational eye.
First of all, let's not look to June Cleaver because she would have no idea what to do. Today is not her day. Being a parent today is some tough shit and we need to avail ourselves of all the tools we can to protect our children from life's dangers as well as prepare them to deal with that reality on their own and make the right decisions.
Second, let's accept that we live in the Information Age. Technology has advanced to where video games and television are an integral part of our lives, and the excitement and adventure they can offer to our children from the convenience of our homes is something we do have to compete against – unless we choose to use them as tools to communicate and promote good values in our children.
Kids today are more sophisticated than most of us were as children; survival today demands that of them. Gaming and television are part of our parental tool kit for today, and as parents, we need to roll up our sleeves and learn about these tools. When I say learn, I mean research the facts for ourselves. There has been a lot of bad hype in the media, but we need to balance that information with the fact that bad press sells better. Naturally we hear more about the disadvantages and problems of how bad TV and video games are, than about how to use these tools of modern media effectively in parenting.
I feel concerned when I hear parents say that they do not allow their children any sweets, or video games, or only allow television on the weekends. Not because I think children should do whatever they want. I'm concerned about the motivation and the effectiveness of this approach. If it is to teach moderation, is that being effectively communicated by removing the privilege? Or is the message completely lost, leaving them to come to the conclusions that parents are old-fashioned, have no appreciation for the fun things in life, and are basically big killjoys whom they need to look out for, or worse yet, hide from? This is the fast track to losing their trust. If they don't know where we're coming from and figure we clearly don't relate, the only goal that has been achieved is that we have successfully chipped away at the trust that we will have to regain when they become teenagers.
My point is not to let our children do whatever they want. Far from it. My point is that trying to raise a child the old-fashioned way is a risky proposition – riskier in my opinion than helping them navigate and understand the complex world we live in. Are we qualified guides when it comes to helping our children develop responsibility and focus suitable for today?
We are all witness to the fact that television and video gaming pervade our lives today. We cannot afford to be naive and ignorant of the power of media. Life today demands vigilance and awareness which both come from engagement. It's the acknowledgement of this fact that makes me feel all the more responsible to teach my son to develop good values and the confidence to live on his own terms. I know the best way I can help him is by giving him guided exposure to the real world. I can only do that if I have acknowledged that today's world is not yesterday's world. It is not the world it was when I was a child or when my mother was a child, nor will it ever be that world again.
I think we can all agree that denying or severely controlling children's access to what they consider a good time – be it video games, the Internet, movies, or junk food – will only create a stronger desire. It will also jeopardize their understanding that we are not just their live-in adult police; we too have desires and want fun, and we balance it out with prudent research and risk/benefit analysis.
We need a balance between protecting our children and teaching them to protect themselves. We need to teach them how to find out what is important to them and how to safely enjoy those things. I am convinced that as parents we are in the best position to provide this education in surviving and enjoying life as a responsible adult. In the meantime, we get the opportunity to find the child within and let it come out to play, with our own children.
This may mean taking some time to research games that complement our children's skills, learning style, and areas that could use further development. Role playing games, for example, provide opportunities to exercise critical thinking, strategizing, decision making under stress, and some good hand-eye coordination skills. Then there are the virtual-world games, the god games, where they learn similar skills in a slower-paced environment with more room to develop management skills and learn to test theories and scenarios that may make them more successful in their games. Being a gamer does not instantly make your child develop asocial personality traits; leaving them alone with gaming or television as their babysitter or even just allowing them to experience interactive media or even television without guidance is the real problem.
Television is also an effective learning tool. There are numerous documentaries that can engage our children's minds and teach them about the world they live in, other cultures, professions, even just nature. In fact, talk about good and bad, ugly and beautiful, safe and dangerous – Mother Nature has it all and yet we are comfortable with her, because it's what we know. We played outside in our respective home towns, we are familiar with the terrain. There is new terrain for us to trek today with our children as well. They have more options available to them and we need to know what those options are, intimately.
We do ourselves a great service when we embrace the fact that it's a jungle out there, and that we are our children's designated guides. Not tour guides, because neither we nor they are just visiting. This is our home, our world, and we are teaching them how to survive it because one day it will be theirs to walk through without us holding their hands. We are our children's best hope of surviving the jungle of life. We should be the ones to teach them the ins and outs of survival, and that means getting to know the jungle ourselves. Today that means getting to know the jungle of media, and developing updated values that empower our children to face that jungle on their own when the time comes.
Animals teach their young to hunt and defend themselves and be independent; they accept that one day their offspring will be kicked out of the nest and they prepare them for this eventuality. Can we, as more evolved mammals, boast the same pragmatism in our parenting? I know I want to.
This may sound like a lot of gloom and doom but it's a change of mindset that has made me embrace my own life even more fully, as I want my son to. I am able to explain the reasoning behind the rules we do have without becoming stressed; I am able to dismiss some of the rules that really don't matter; being clear on the reasons allows me to encourage him to contribute alternative ideas to achieving those same goals. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me young.
Looking at today's parenting issues and challenges with a more informed, critical and rational eye not only keeps us sharp and in the know, it gives us a new sense of confidence in our values. It also increases our "street cred" with our children; we gain their respect. All of this becomes more comforting to me as I become increasingly aware that my own son is getting closer to independence. Mommy will not always get to be there to monitor his daily life, as much as I'd like to. I know one day he will outgrow his current dependency on us as his parents, and that as a mother I must accept this inevitability and prepare for it. Up till then and even when that day comes, I want to be assured that I have created a foundation of trust and respect and the values I want him to have, using tools and media that he embraces.
But today my beloved boy is barely eight years old so we are a few years off from that reality. Today I get to enjoy discovering life's jungle through his eyes on a daily basis. We get to play, as mother and son; I'm relearning the joys of the jungle through his eyes, and teaching him how to navigate it safely.
Life's jungle holds some very good times for us and our children – yes, even the parts of the jungle that make some of us nervous. Approaching those areas with the confidence that can only come from knowledge and proper preparation can turn the jungle out there into a world of excitement and wonder for us and our children.
Let's not approach the jungle and its unknowns and dangers timidly; let's make it our bitch and teach our kids that embracing life's jungle – the good and the bad, the ugly and beautiful – and making it work for us is how it's done.