One mom’s cellphone contract for her son

Rules are fine, but experts suggest we need to control our anxiety more than our kids, in most cases, for their sake.

By Anne Collier

When I first read Janell Hoffman’s 18-point contract for her 13-year-old son Greg’s cellphone use, I was a little put off. So it really helped to watch Good Morning America’s video story about it. Why? Because GMA gave it a light touch, and reporter Akiko Fujita pointed out afterwards that “a lot of this was done in jest.” That helped because this was very public parenting, and – if this national story really was a fun collaboration of mother and son – that says reams more that’s useful about parenting in a digital age than one mom’s 18 rules. [Public parenting becomes more like public humiliation for the people who aren’t willing parties to the “fun” (see this).] It also helped because it gave a little family context to a big long list of rules on a page – a list that was going viral and, without context or humor, felt pretty heavy-handed and a little disrespectful of most 13-year-olds’ intelligence.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the rules are great. I particularly liked No. 17, which points to the great need we all have for “presence” in these times when we’re so “tethered” (MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s word) to stuff and people not here with us right now. There’s a lot of wisdom in the full set, but it’s not wise – not motivating or inspiring for our children, or even particularly helpful to them – if we reflexively assume they all need a comprehensive set of rules like this.

Here’s what motivates people (of any age), I learned from Syracuse University professor Scott Nicholson, who recently took a sabbatical to spend a year at MIT studying what motivates people:

* Agency or autonomy. Some experts refer to this as choice – Janell probably got son Greg’s buy-in before posting her blog, right? He certainly seemed to enjoy the on-camera interview he and his mother gave reporter Akiko Fujita. But most importantly, the rules need to make sense to him (I have a feeling he already knew many of those rules and would’ve followed them without prompting, and his mom probably knew that).
* Competency. Janell was probably just pulling everything she could think of into one place – great for her blog post, convenient for other parents – but a very comprehensive list assumes a very low level of competency or wisdom in the person at whom they’re aimed. But by the looks of them together in the video, I’m sure she assumes much more intelligence on Greg’s part than all those rules indicate. 
* Relatedness or relevance. This might not seem fair: Parents didn’t use to have to make sure their rules were relevant, but think about how effective irrelevance really is, now that it’s supremely easy for kids to find alternatives they feel are more relevant or engaging, as well as workarounds to rules they feel don’t relate to them.

Those are key to engaged learning, behavior change, motivation, etc. because of the ownership, or stakeholdership, they deliver to the learner. So, based on those, here’s the parenting style that might be more effective for more parents than handing a kid a sheet of rules:

“I believe that parents do well when they are willing to exhibit trust and when they do not stop there. Parents can ask their children to teach them about the media environment in which they’re immersed,” writes parent and professor Lynn Schofield Clark in her important new book The Parent App.

That Janell’s rules went viral probably attests to “the level of anxiety and oversight that seems to have become common among middle- and upper-middle-class families when it comes to social networking sites, mobile phones, gaming systems, and other forms of entertainment and leisure,” as Clark puts it in her book, based on interviews with families in many socioeconomic brackets. But she also found that the very technologies that give rise to this anxiety “actually provide parents with new means for connecting with and creating stronger bonds with our children.”

So what you and your kids might do is consider Janell’s rules together as a family – maybe spread out over 18 dinner-table discussions! Include the kids’ views of each one, whether it’s relevant to them, and why or why not. Talk about whether social norms or practices among friends and in your family eliminate the need for any of the rules. Then together come up with any rules your family might need – and follow them as a family. [Thanks to my friend and fellow parent Sooz Fassberg for prompting this post.]

Related links

* Helicopter parenting not helpful in or out of media: In The Parent App, Clark cites Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbord in writing that the understandable desire to protect our children has become “a problem of epic proportions in the United States,” and new media are not only another focus of our over-involvement but also enable it. “We fail our children when we privilege protecting their individual happiness and well-being over their ability to develop a sense of what is good and right in relation to others [not just media]. We might shield them from the consequences of their own behavior because we don’t know how to (or we don’t know that we need to) confront them … or because we want to spare them pain…. Either way, we do them a disservice.” Clark later writes that “what young people need from their parents is not fear or heroes who can save the day when things go wrong. Such efforts only prepare young people for their place in a society of surveillance and containment. What they need instead are parents who are part of a community of people that looks out for them, listens to them, asks permission to gain insights into their lives, and models supportive relationships both within and outside their immediate families.”
* “What the Net privacy big picture has to do with parenting”
* “So we’re all becoming cyborgs, Dr. Turkle?”
* “Only sometimes ‘alone together’ in the same room”
* “WHAT has ‘online safety’ wrought (with parents)?!”
* “Peering thoughtfully through this window into our kids’ lives”

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