THE YOUNG BOY with spiky blond hair lies in bed wearing football pajamas and staring at the miniature solar system hanging from his ceiling. His bearded father lies beside him, fielding a few questions before turning out the lights.
“How far away is Mars?” the boy asks.
“Well, it’s 141 million miles from the sun,” the father replies soothingly, “so, pretty far.”
“Why is it red?” the boy continues, keeping his eyes fixed on the fourth planet dangling from the ceiling.
“Because its surface is made of iron oxide.”
“Why do they call it Mars?”
“Well, it was named after the Roman god of war.”
The boy flashes a slight, admiring smile. “You’re so smart, Dad.”
Then the camera pulls back to show something that had been out of view: the slim tablet computer resting on the dad’s outer thigh. Slyly, he taps it to bring up the next Google results page before asking his son, “Did I ever tell you about Jupiter?”
This 30-second spot for the Google Search app delivers a warm feeling of parental engagement and confidence — if not candor. But it masks an intriguing question. In this mobile era, when the answer to nearly every question lies a few taps away, just what are we as parents supposed to know?
My mother likes to tell the story of how her father — an exacting, self-educated trolley driver for the T — would regularly interrupt mealtimes by pointing to the large map hanging in their kitchen and expecting her to recall the name of a certain mountain rising above Montana or some river cutting through Tennessee. He had committed all the answers to memory the old-fashioned way. I can only imagine the disgust he would have felt for that bearded father trying to play sage while surreptitiously tapping the tablet at his thigh.
Times, of course, have changed radically since my mother was a kid in the middle of the last century. They’ve even changed considerably since the oldest of my three children was just getting going at the start of this century, when finding an answer still involved padding over to our den to call up Google on the desktop. Now even my youngest daughter, who’s in the second grade, can fact-check anything I say with a swipe on my iPhone.
Will this instant access to all manner of information end up clarifying our role as parents, freeing us from having to supply lots of facts and allowing us to focus on providing wisdom? Or, because our kids are far more adept at tapping and swiping than we are, will it chip away at our sense of parental authority? In other words, will it make us lighter, or simply lightweights?
These are the questions I’ve been wrestling with. If there’s one point that researchers and parenting specialists agree on when it comes to guiding your kids around the shoals of adolescence, it’s the importance of keeping open lines of communication. Technology, though, can often tangle those lines, making it harder for us to talk, or talk honestly, with our kids. Yet after sifting through research across a variety of disciplines and marrying it with my own experiences, I’ve come to see things differently. I no longer believe that we have to choose between ceding the high-tech ground to our digital-native children or feigning and straining to control all aspects of it. There can be a third way. And while it’s true that technology often puts up thick walls between parents and their kids, if used the right way, it can also be surprisingly good at helping to break them down.
A FEW MONTHS AGO, my oldest daughter came to me with a question about her homework. She’s a seventh-grader, and this was the first time that I ever remember her asking me for homework help. Through the years, my wife and I have always stressed our willingness to assist if she got stuck on something. Considering what I do for a living, I was more than happy to give her writing assignments the once-over, as my father had done for me. But she’s a self-directed kid who always made it clear she preferred to handle things on her own.
Now she was struggling with an assignment, and unfortunately it wasn’t writing. It was math. More to the point, it was an assignment that demanded knowledge of the distributive property with variables. You remember the distributive property with variables, don’t you? Of course you don’t. Like me, you probably forgot everything you knew about that concept approximately 12 seconds after you left junior high.
One of the most humbling parts of being a parent of a middle schooler is that you always assumed your kid would at least make it to high school before you were forced to confront evidence of your own academic incompetence. Looking over my daughter’s work sheet, I saw a jumble of numbers and letters and parentheses. It looked like an artifact from a World War II exhibit on the code-crackers of Britain’s Bletchley Park. I thought back to my teenage days when I sold paint at Sears and often waited on immigrant contractors who had to stand by helplessly as their 6- or 7-year-old daughters did all the talking. Back then, I felt bad for those sad-eyed men, because we both knew there was something wrong about a child seeing her father unable to take the lead. Now, I was feeling nearly as helpless.Continued...