Present Parenting in the Digital World

I have always been a fan of carousels. As a child, I believed that if the carousel would go fast enough that my carefully selected horse could depart the confines of that mechanical track and gallop across the countryside…much like what I had witnessed in Mary Poppins, a favorite childhood movie.

The carousel was an outlet for my vivid imagination as I gleefully journeyed lap after lap on quests to “save the day.” As part of this and without fail, when I looped past the ride’s entrance gate, I would look to see if my mom was watching me. Somehow in my mind she was just as much a part of my adventure, and I wanted to make sure she was included. With a big smile and a wave, she would reassure me that she was engaged. It never dawned on me how monotonous it must have been for her to wave every time, or that she had no idea that she was a character in my larger drama. She simply let me know that I had her full attention. For her sake, thank goodness, the ride only lasted a few minutes.

With a big smile and a wave, she would reassure me that she was engaged.

As I fast forward to present day and get to the point of my blog, here it is: I had her full attention. I, of course, did not know it at the time, but there was a very significant developmental need being met for me during that carousel interaction. I received the undivided, fully present attention of a significant caregiver.

Within this context, being fully present means that you are “still enough” to see the beauty in the child. Essentially, this is the priceless gift of a mind set free of distractions. For a few moments each day, there is no other agenda but what is going on in the here and the now through that child’s perspective. Note: this is for a few minutes throughout the day, and not ongoing. Continuous attention is not required, is not practical, and is actually harmful, because it may promote self-centeredness in the child.

I had her full attention.

During this designated time, the kiddo explores their world and offers a shared experience with a parent or primary caregiver. As part of this interaction, ideally the child experiences: “I see you, and I celebrate the uniqueness of who you are.” In addition, through the undivided curiosity of another person, the child’s perspective encounters validation. And not just from any person, but from someone they hope will be proud of them.

Among the benefits that these exchanges cultivate within the child is a sense of confidence as the child forms and shares their personal opinions. Then, as the child matures, they are more likely to share their views and life experiences with a peer or even in their classroom depending on where they fall on the introversion-extroversion spectrum.

In turn, the child will learn that others’ perspectives are also valid. This fosters relational intelligence as the child discovers that differing opinions can co-exist without resorting to rejection of the person. As their ideas are validated, which is not necessarily the same as agreement, their healthy sense of self allows them to move from merely exploring their environment into engaging it. As they age, they will set and achieve both personal and collective goals as part of an interdependent life. They will view themselves within the larger context of the world and believe that they are both significant and that they have a purpose.

This fosters relational intelligence

Without such confidence, the growing child may still explore the world, but they will discover ways to do it aside from others. In other words, they will have less engagement. They will retreat within themselves, or they may discover counterfeits to real-life-connections, such as online-only communication.

Without essential in-person eye contact and genuine feedback, the development of the mind becomes limited. “From the moment you entered the world, your mind has been powerfully shaped by your environment, and the most important part of that environment is your interactions with other minds.” (Dr. Curt Thompson: Anatomy of the Soul) Yes, throughout our entire lifespan, we must be on both the giving and receiving end of personalized attention for the sake of our optimal health and well-being.

These vital exchanges combat the increased sense of aloneness that we may experience as part of our modern culture. We have never been more available to one another, due in large part to the technology age, and yet we have never been more withdrawn. A 2017 American Journal of Preventive Medicine article stated that: “In a survey of more than 55,000 people, 40 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds reported feeling lonely often or very often. The BBC Loneliness Study showed that lonely people have more friendships that are online only, indicating that they may go online to feel connected and may avoid face-to-face interactions with people. Young people who already feel lonely, are socially anxious, or have difficulties maintaining friendships are less likely to use social media in a positive and meaningful way.” In line with this article, I would suggest that it is not the volume of our digital interactions that need to change, but rather, the frequency of our fully-present-interactions that must be sustained in order to both repair and increase our sense of belonging.

As exemplified through my carousel story, I learned that I was not alone during my childhood, because every time I searched for my mom, I realized that she in turn was looking for me. What does this remind you of? All the scriptures of Jesus giving His undivided attention to one person. Also, the parables of searching for the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son. Being lost or unknown matters to Jesus. He sees us, and He invites us to see one another.

Whether a young child is physically returning to their parent to check-in or simply making eye contact from atop that mechanical horse, hopefully the return message from the parent is “I welcome your coming to me.” If I had not received that reinforcement, I eventually would have given up and stopped my search to pinpoint her amongst the crowd of spectators. I would have become independent.

He sees us, and He invites us to see one another.

My point is this: to know that someone is in close proximity, but chooses to not engage, is an exceptionally painful experience for a child. The message becomes: I am alone. I am not worth the undivided attention of my parent or loved one. Ouch! The result is a child with a lack of secured confidence on a path of becoming an adult with trust issues.

Without that solid safe base and attachment to a caregiver, you will witness a totally different child on a carousel. Without a clear reaction from their parent, a kiddo will stop looking for them and instead turn inward or watch the other children. There may even be a blank stare on that child’s face. They are living with this message “I am alone.”

The greatest pitfall is when the digital age replaces meaningful face-to-face interactions.

To make matters worse, they learn that others are more connected than they are. They witness it with their own eyes, and they watch it online. Their lack of real life engagement may lead this child to social media and screens as a passive bystander to the adventures of others, or to accept strictly online connections as being an acceptable substitute for the real thing.

Being fully engaged with another person has and will always be a need and a difficulty. It requires vulnerability and courage. Now, we have an additional challenge when it comes to being fully present with another person: technology. More specifically, it is social media and screens, which may offer another distraction and also become a counterfeit. The benefits to the digital age are too many to list; however, like most things, it has pitfalls. The greatest pitfall is when the digital age replaces meaningful face-to-face interactions.

Social media and screens at their best are a powerful enhancement to our lives, especially when not used as a replacement for relationships. So much information is available to us, and this is a wonderful thing as long as our online world does not take the place of real-life-experiences. How do we keep the benefits of technology without the pitfalls?

We invite you to a four-week parenting seminar: Screens and Social Media. As part of the content, you can expect to learn simple and practical tips to foster the development of the brain and relational skills for children in our digital age. This free event is open to the public and will take place on four consecutive Wednesday evenings from 6:30PM – 7:45PM starting on October 23.

About the Author

Dr. Brenda Neyens

About the author: Dr. Brenda Neyens is the Spiritual Formation Director and a Licensed Professional Counselor at King of Kings Church.