Cookies before dinner.

You tell yourself you are just going to try it. To see what all the fuss is about. I mean its free, right? So there is no harm done there and besides, all your friends are trying it too.

It's pretty fun actually. You have a good time, play some silly vampire vs werewolf games, find out your stripper name, poke some people, catch up with old friends and even find some new ones.

You start doing it more and more. You start adding pictures of your life. What you made for dinner, what you did that day, funny shots of the kids. You like more of your friend's stuff and your 'friends' like your stuff too. Soon you are sharing all kinds of things with all of these friends. Things that you like and things that you think they will like too. And they do, they really, really like YOU and all your things!

This all starts to feel really good. Whenever you share a picture or a status or a post, it gets liked and then YOU feel good and popular and LIKED. And repeat

and repeat

and repeat.

.

.

.

.

And then one day, somewhere between a healthy dose of keeping in touch with friends, obsessive ranting about EVERYTHING, and scrolling through your timeline to like as much as you can and see how many likes you have that day, it somehow becomes more important to constantly update your Facebook status and check on all your "friends", than it is to actually spend time with the real live people in your life.

.

.

.

This is your wake up call....

for you and your kids!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This past weekend I attended a lecture by Dr. Gordon Neufeld on Raising Children in a Digital World. My friend Nancy has been bugging me for years to go to one of his talks and I finally listened to her.

Baby with iPad

Dr. Neufeld is a clinical psychologist  and the author of the wonderful parenting book, Hold On to Your KidsIf this book is not in your possession yet, then I highly recommend it (just maybe wait for the updated edition coming out this summer). Dr. Neufeld's research and field of study is that of human attachment and how this affects development in our children. His book is all about why parents need to matter to our kids more so than their peers and his theories and practical application of them is even more relevant in the bright lights of the digital revolution than ever before.

Dr. Neufeld started his talk with a quote from Marshal McCluhan, who said that for every tool of the media that extends our reach (and I guess that would include social media these days), there is an equal and proportional amputation of something else.

What I learned at Dr. Neufeld's talk is that we, the parents of all of these "digital native" kids, are quite possibly that "something else" at risk of being amputated from our kids lives!

In his book and in his lectures, Dr. Neufeld talks about a phenomenon he calls peer orientation. Simply put, this means that children become more attached to their peers than to their parents or the adults responsible for them.

Attachment is the most significant and pre-eminent need of human beings. We need to connect with each other. This is true of the newborn baby needing closeness and proximity to their mothers and it is also true for the toddler who is having a complete temper tantrum and needs a hug far more than he needs a time-out. It is true for the teenager who is desperately looking to belong and to simultaneously be their own individual and it may very well be true of the grown-up on Facebook, trying to make connections with people who are like her, who understand her, and who can validate her life.

So what does this all mean? What are we, the parents, to do in this digital age when our kids have such easy access to their peers practically 24/7?

We can't turn back the clocks and take away all the digital media in our lives, so how do we make sure that it is not RUNNING or RUINING our lives and the lives of our children?

Dr. Neufeld gave a very simple analogy at his talk that made everything so very clear to me.

Cookies.

Yes, cookies.

Cookies are delicious treats and everyone likes them.

BUT...

There is an optimal time for cookies.

If we eat cookies before we eat dinner, than we will ruin our appetites for the real meal that fills us up with all the vitamins and nutrients that our body needs to grow and stay healthy.

In the digital world, cookies are the internet and all it's fudgeo, marshmallow-y, gooey chocolate chip fillings!

The cookies he is talking about refers to any form of digital media - Facebook, texting, gaming, Instagram or the new and in my opinion, kinda sketchy, Snapchat. The MEAL is the attachment we have with our children, our connection to the people in our lives that are closest to us. We need to fill our children with a good healthy meal of attachment, of love and trust and respect (for self and for others) before we let them out into the digital world to have cookies.

And even then, when we do let them out into that world, we have to make sure that they are not INGESTING more cookies (information) than they can actually DIGEST. This can be a tricky thing to figure out and is probably different for every kid, but one thing is certain, we are putting these devices into the hands of our kids, giving them unlimited access to all of this information and education, and what we are failing to realize is that they are then re-purposing them as a means of connection and attachment. If we are not filling them up with that kind of connection with US, that sense of belonging and sameness, then all we are doing is sending them out into this world hungry for those connections and that intimacy.

And intimacy they will find online. IN SPADES. It will be a superficial kind of connection though, one that is empty and does not actually provide any kind of lasting fulfilment. Just like cookies. They are delicious, but they don't fill you up properly and in an hour, you are just hungry for more cookies.

At the halfway mark of Dr. Neufeld's talk, I literally grabbed my head and gave it a shake, because what he was saying just then, quite literally BLEW MY MIND!!

He was talking about his sabbatical in a small town in Provence, France and how he coud not figure out why he and his wife where not getting good service from the local merchants in town. It wasn't until a resident told him that he was being "barbaric" in his interactions with people, that he understood the problem. He had not been making eye contact, getting a smile and a nod from the town merchants, before launching into his needs or wants from them. In other words, he was not using basic manners for human discourse! It wasn't until they understood this concept of "collecting", this face-to-face setting of the stage for human interaction, that things started to turn around for them in town.

Now take this concept and apply it to FACEBOOK!

There is no 'collecting' in social media. There is no eye contact, no smiling, no acknowledgment of 'Yes, I SEE you, I KNOW you.' Basic manners and rules of human interaction have left the building people! Trust me, I've been in one too many Facebook "conversations" to know that this is precisely the case. Digital intimacy is EMPTY because this simple attachment invitation does not get across. Nowadays parents, not only do we need to talk to our kids about unsafe intercourse, we have to talk to our children about the dangers of UNSAFE DISCOURSE!

Dr. Neufeld points out that the consequences of this kind of empty digital intimacy can be just as devastating for our children:

  • it spoils the appetite for true intimacy and meaningful connection
  • it takes them away from their parents who are meant to be their 'answers'
  • it fuels obsessions and addictions (new research from Germany shows that digital addictions are more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol)
  • the preoccupation arrests the maturing process, rendering them stuck in immaturity
  • and ironically, it increases feelings of loneliness and frustration

And really, it's not just our kids who are in danger here. These kinds of empty and superficial connections are affecting grown-ups as well and perhaps this is the real danger. If we are spoiling our own appetites for meaningful connections, if we are not being fulfilled in our own relationships and are depending more and more on superficial ones via social media, than how on earth are we to be the example for our children and show them how to foster proper human attachments?

I went home Sunday night with my mind abuzz with so many swirling thoughts about my own dependency on social media, and what and how I can keep that attachment component of parenting alive within my life and with my family. The concept of attachment seems so easy when they are babies. You just keep them close to you physically. Wear them, breastfeed them, sleep with them - Easy peasy, lemon squeazy as my kids like to say!

The real challenge of parenting comes as they get older, as they start to learn that they are not the same as us and as they start to emerge as their own separate beings, with their own ideas and thoughts and intentions. This emergence does not signify a release from us and from attachment. It means that we need to work harder to keep those attachments viable, even when we are apart. BECAUSE THAT IS WHAT ATTACHMENT MEANS! It is EXACTLY about how to stay close, especially when we are apart.

We wonder all the time "what is wrong with kids these days?" Where is the empathy? Where are their manners? Where or when or how did things get so messed up?

You don't have to look far to figure some of this out. Dr. Neufeld points out that we are routinely use a child's need for proximity against them. We use time-outs for discipline, we do "123 Magic", we shun them when they misbehave and do the one thing that is the polar opposite of attachment and we send them away from our presence. We also use the things that children are attached to against them - do this or that/don't do this or that or I will take away your lovey, your soother, your leap-pad, your phone, MYSELF. This is a dangerous game we are playing, parents, and we are the ones courting a lack of attachment and empathy because of it.

But fear not! All is not lost and we CAN still make a difference for our little digital natives!

Dr. Neufeld finished his lecture with some key tools and behaviours for moving forward and parenting in this digital world of ours.

He says that we need to:

  • Believe that we are what our children need (and not just as babies and toddlers, but well into the teenage years).
  • Invite dependence in other ways. No one can compete with Google, so share something that only you can teach them, be it cooking, wood-working, drawing... Whatever it is, invite your kids into your world and give them a legacy that is from you and only you.
  • Create rituals and rules that safeguard healthy attachment. Make family meals a priority, have a game night with no electronics, have weekly or monthly family date night, vacations together, etc...
  • "immunize" our children by fulfilling their attachment hunger. Don't let them out into the world hungry and looking to fill up on cookies, because they will find them, they always do!
  • Be the example for our children and take the lead with our own use of digital technology.

We all know that being a parent is a tough job. Throw the digital revolution into the mix and things just get that much more complicated. We can't stop our kids from being a part of the revolution, but we can equip them for it. And I don't mean by getting everyone their very own laptop, iPad, iPod, smart phone and Facebook account.

We must equip them with the knowledge of our love, our trust, and our respect, and by fulfilling their need for attachment TO US! So that when they are out there navigating their way through the digital world and they get lost, they always know where and who to come back to to reset the compass.

And you know what, we should probably put that jar of cookies away from us for a time too...

Natasha~

 

Photo credit: Henriksnet's Photo from Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence.