4 Tensions of a Digital Parent

4 Tensions of a Digital Parent

I’m a digital parent.

By “digital parent” I mean that I am part of the first generation whose lives are characterized by digital immersion. I’m 33 – barely inside the gates of the millennial fold – and I can’t remember not having a computer. More importantly, I can’t remember parenting without one.

I Google parenting tips.
I search WebMD to diagnose weird rashes.
I Yelp restaurants to see if they’re kid-friendly.
I get advice from parenting blogs and Twitter feeds.
I use Groupon to search for affordable family-fun deals.

Digital immersion has huge implications; implications that millennials are just beginning to understand now that many of us are becoming parents. Implications for unexpected dangers, but also phenomenal opportunities for growth.

Here are a few tensions that millennial parents will soon find ourselves dealing with. Disclaimer: I don’t know the full resolutions to any of them, but I feel that there is value in naming them – if only to better chart the waters we find ourselves forced to navigate.

Tension One: Presence

When our first child cried in the middle of the night, I felt the weight of presence. Actually, my wife did. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, food was required, and all I could do was root for her. There wasn’t an option. This infant was going to keep crying until his little tummy was full. At the time, I didn’t understand that this pattern would play out for the next eight years – and I suspect the next few as well 🙂

Parenting takes presence – not just availability. There’s a difference: I can become available given enough time. I can schedule it. My work world provides that expectation. Presence is different. Presence is the freedom to step up. The freedom to engage without being lured away. To give without cost. To anticipate a need and meet it with little concern for self. Interestingly, presence is a very Christological attribute. It’s possible that “learning to be fully present” with our children, spouses, and friends will become a new way of looking at sanctification in a digitally immersed world.

Tension Two: Authenticity

Millennials are the first generation who can publically brand ourselves. We’ve created profiles on a variety of social networks and then we’ve been given the opportunity to reinforce those profiles with carefully filtered images that support our self-selected image. The brand of “me.” The odd thing that I’m learning from my kids is that humans don’t do this automatically. Self-branding is a learned skill. My kids – like all kids – are self-conscious to varying degrees. But they haven’t quite made the leap into forging and shaping that self-consciousness into a solidified brand. They are individuals. And they are genuine.

Treating children with authenticity is dependent on our ability to see them as individuals. I want my daughter’s self-image to be a healthy one. An authentic one. One that she doesn’t feel pressure to manufacture. When the time comes for her to engage in social media independently, I pray that the image she chooses is a solid extension of the self she’s already spent years cultivating. In many ways, I believe that the children of millennial parents will likely understand the vanity of self-imaging better than we do.

Tension Three: Nurture

Recently, my eight-year-old son mentioned that another boy at school had made fun of him. As my father-heart was breaking, a funny thing happened: where my Dad probably would have taken me out for donuts the next morning, I googled “when boys bully.” After twenty minutes (and a dozen articles), it occurred to me that I might have made a misstep. I never asked him a follow up question. The accessibility isn’t at fault here. Neither is the device. I just haven’t learned how to wield their power yet.

I’m discovering that parenting is about long-term nurture, and rarely about short-term solutions. Millennials are categorically solution-driven. If we don’t know what the answer is, give us 12 seconds and we’ll find it. All of that accessibility has a curious side-effect: If we’re not careful, we can give our kids a solution to a problem we don’t fully understand yet. And over time, we slowly lose our ability to nurture.

Tension Four: Focus

We are a distracted generation. As a group, millennial parents are aware that our devices provide us with an escape route at the swipe of the finger. We are nimble enough to shift our attention from a movie we’re watching, to a Wikipedia article about that movie, to learning trivia about that movie, and measuring the box office gross. In US and Japan. We’re getting information, but we aren’t cultivating the ability to stay focused for very long.

Parenting is about focus. There isn’t an easy escape route. There isn’t a pause button. Problems arise and issues between siblings present themselves whether I like it or not (usually when I’m carefully reading a blog like this one). As more millennials become parents, our discipline to cultivate the ability to focus needs to trump our ability to attain information.

I’m faced with an option countless times throughout the day: I can engage in my childrens’ lives or I can conveniently escape. Even if just for a moment. True, my Dad could lift up his evening paper just as easily as I can lift up my iPhone. But here’s a standout difference: My iPhone is an escape not just to a news story, but to my entire world. I can connect with that world on demand in whatever way I want (Do I want to be entertained, educated, affirmed, or find a new salsa recipe?). Distractions have always been there. They’re just different. And they’re different in a way that I don’t yet fully understand.

A few things God’s teaching me personally about how to handle digital immersion:

  1. Don’t fully vilify something that God can use, and don’t blindly embrace something that carries unknown implications.
  2. Successfully navigating digital parenting means continuously cultivating discernment.
  3. Identity formation is a process that takes a gentle hand and an affirming presence.
  4. Although the landscape has changed, the core issue is the same as previous generations. Ask for advice.
  5. Parenting just takes work

A prayer for my fellow digital-parent pilgrims:

God, give us the hearts to truly listen to and see our children. Give us patience to be fully present and attentive. Help us to know the irreplaceable value of our undivided attention. Teach us what information to be concerned with, what to listen to, and what to shut out. Give us clarity and the discipline to seek silence when needed. Give us courage to venture into parenting with courage and humility; knowing that You have called us here and that our time here is short. Show us how to use new tools well and the joyful responsibility of being Mommies and Daddies.

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