It happens millions of times each day.
A mother and a teenage child are sitting at a dinner table.
The motherhas asked about the child’s day and, after listening attentively, is starting to talk about her time at work. The teenager appears to be listening, albeit in a lethargic and distant fashion.
All of a sudden, in mid sentence, the teenager’s phone pings, rings, buzzes or plays a Jay-Z clip.
From his slothlike state,the teenager springs into action. The faraway gaze caused his mother’s words recedes, replaced by an animated glance at the phone and a relentlessly effective, if seemingly frantic, deployment of both thumbs to answer the text message.
The message sent, the faraway look returns. Dinner resumes.
Some parents, myself among them, find making a space for meaningful one-on-one conversation amidst the myriad of adolescent communcation choices-whether through texting, IMing, Facebooking, IPoding, or the comparatively traditional talking on the phone-a challenge. Others worry about the nation’s collective attention and about the cumulative effect of having such immediate access to gratify one’s communication whims.
We should not fear, according to Michael Osit, author of Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in an Age of Instant Everything. While not as different from other parenting books as its title implies, the book does make some useful philosophical points and practical suggestions for how to navigate this dramatically different and constantly changing terrain.
Generation Text opens with two scenarios that contrast typical mornings for students 40 years ago and today. As one would expect, the current student’s mornings have far more stimuli and, according to Osit, are markedly more complex.
The difference, of course, is technology.
A licensed clinical psychologist, Osit covers relatively familiar ground-it seems like every parenting book I’ve ever read talks about the holy trinity of parenting styles that is comprised of permissive, authoritarian and authoritative, or democratic, in Osit’s language-and he has a couple of twists.
To begin, he makes the point that the style should be best suited to meet the child’s needs and temperament. This is a contrast with other books I’ve read which are a little bit like Goldilocks tasting the oatmeal, with authoritative being ‘just right.’
More basically, Osit devotes the final chapter, “How to Make Technology Work For You,” to discussing how parents can work with technology to forge connection with their children, help them delay gratification, set long-term goals and internalize positive moral values.
Osit talks at length about the importance of setting limits on children’s access to technology, whether through limiting time in front of the screen or by not permitting children to attend events that are not age appropriate.
One of the book’s more engaging sections comes when Osit talks through three technology-related scenarios that two parents must make about each of their children, who are different ages and thus have different needs.
Osit challenges parents to move beyond guilt they may feel about working hard, being tired and making themselves unavailable to their children as a consequence. He also talks about the importance of tackling thorny topics on a regular basis so that children are in the habit of sharing around issues like drugs and alcohol and sex when difficulties arise.
All in all, the book is helpful, if not as different from other sound parenting books that discuss topics like identity formation, the importance of modeling and the need for consistency by parents toward their children. While I found myself waiting for a fundamentally different approach that never quite arrived, in some ways there was a reassuring element to that, too.
Members of Generation Text may differ from past generations in that they are just as, if not more likely, to communicate with hundreds of virtual friends than play games with kids on their block. And, on a basic level, they still are children, with all the attendant trials and joys of growing up in a specific time and place.
For our part, we parents remain parents, taking our turn in a role we learn by doing. We are trying our best to draw on our own experiences, childhood memories and our sense of what our kids need to help guide them during a time when the rules and methods of communication have fundamentally changed.