Why Getting My 11-Year-Old a Phone Was One of the Best Parenting Decisions I’ve Ever Made

WHY GETTING MY 11-YEAR-OLD A PHONE WAS ONE OF THE BEST PARENTING DECISIONS I’VE EVER MADE

Leticia Barr

There was never any question in my mind that when our daughter started middle school, we would get her a smartphone. My husband and I work in technology-related fields and knew the benefits and drawbacks to getting her a phone at age 11. Instead of pledging to Wait Until 8th — delaying the introduction of a smartphone — we’ve spent the middle school years actively discussing and navigating the perceived dangers of the device while enjoying the unexpected advantages of it as a communication tool to strengthen our relationship. And you know what? It’s been one of the best parenting decisions we’ve ever made.

It’s rare to find good news about tweens, teens, smartphones, and social media. But in our house, the very tool that we purchased for our middle schooler to stay in touch with us has had surprising benefits during the critical adolescent years.

On any given day, I can usually count on at least one type of communication from my now 14-year-old daughter, who will start high school next year. This morning I sat down in my home office to get started with my work for the day and noticed that my daughter had updated her Instagram Story while waiting for the bus. She sent friends good-luck wishes for the week’s tests and a series of funny memes as a stress reducer. Her InstaStory was thoughtful and sweet and let me know that this week is going to be rough — even though she didn’t say it on her way out the door.

During the middle of the day, I noticed she posted during lunch when she was allowed to have her phone out at school. She breathed a sigh of relief that testing was over for the day and sent me a private message, responding to my InstaStory laughing at the day’s antics of our backyard chickens. On the bus home, she sent me a photo of a cat whose head was stuck through an entire pizza, followed by laugh emojis.

“Cat pizza? Really?” I asked as she walked in the door after school.

“Cat pizza!” she exclaimed, erupting in a fit of laughter. We talked about how ridiculous the meme was as she made her way to the fridge. She grabbed a stick of string cheese, and, holding it with one hand, she thrust the phone in my face with the other, scrolling through a series of memes that were just as hilarious. We were both laughing when her sixth-grade brother walked in the door a couple minutes later. Soon she was sharing what she had just showed me minutes before, and he was sitting there, shaking his head and smiling. Later the whole scenario was recounted for my husband at the dinner table. He had trouble understanding why this whole thing was funny until he was subjected to the meme thread, too. I guess you could say that social media has the power to bring us together as a family, even if we’re bonding over cat pizza.

While the decision about when to get your child a smartphone differs for every family, my husband and I don’t have any regrets about putting devices in our kids’ hands earlier rather than later. Sure, there have been downsides. We’ve learned exactly how quickly 2GB of data evaporates when kids are watching YouTube videos on the bus, witnessed the explosion of text messages in a group chat upon leaving the house to play a soccer game, and talked through some tough things before we meant to in the high school years. Text and private messages have been scrutinized together during conversations about how hard it is to convey tone through a screen. We’ve seen friendships wax and wane. But many of those ups and downs are as much hallmarks of adolescence as fallout from smartphone and social media use. And at every step of the way, parental involvement has been key.

If you’re looking to use social media as a positive way of communicating with your teen, here are three takeaways from our experience:

Realize the importance of learning together. While you may feel that you have a grasp on today’s social media tools, new ones are popping up every day. I remember when my daughter asked if she could download Sarahah. She said that some of her friends were using it, explained what it was used for, and asked if she could join, too. Before saying yes, I did my homework. I read the Common Sense Media review, polled fellow parent friends on Facebook, and did a quick Google search to get up to speed on the general parent sentiment. It’s not easy to parent in the digital age when new apps, social media platforms, and devices are coming out, but it’s important for families to work toward teaching responsibility and creating conversations, rather than just saying no.

Use the same social media tools as your kids. Not only does this familiarize you with the platforms, but having an account facilitates communication and conversations about the things that are important to your teens. My daughter and I communicate regularly through Instagram, and even though we don’t have a Snap streak going, I can still keep an eye on the content she posts.

Be respectful about what you post and the way you interact with your teen on social media platforms. While social media tools are great methods of communication, be aware of what is and isn’t OK. As my daughter has gotten older and her friends have become more social media savvy, I’m even more careful about what content I post. I’ve always checked with my kids to ensure the photos I’m sharing get their stamp of approval, partly because I know their friends can see what I post. Have a conversation with your teen about what is and isn’t OK, and know that what they may deem appropriate now might not be in the near future.

Helicopter Parenting: From Good Intentions to Poor Outcomes

HELICOPTER PARENTING: FROM GOOD INTENTIONS TO POOR OUTCOMES

Sandi Schwartz

Do you stand over your child’s shoulder when they do their homework? Do you find yourself directing your kids’ every move? “Pick up this, clean up that, sit up straight, finish your homework, study hard, say thank you.” Do you spend a good chunk of your day obsessing about your children’s success, like will they make the sports team or school play, and will they get into the top-notch college you (yes, you!) always dreamed of?

I hate to break it to you, but you may be a helicopter parent—a term which is commonly used but also has a basis in research on specific parenting behaviors and their effects on children.

Most parents want the very best for their children, and so they’ll go to great lengths to be wonderful providers and protectors. The deep love and care that parents have for their children can even push parents to, well, be a bit over-the-top. And helicopter parents are known to be overly protective and involved in their children’s lives.

The term paints a picture of a parent who hovers over their children, always on alert, and who swoops in to rescue them at the first sign of trouble or disappointment. The term was first coined in 1990 by Foster Cline and Jim Fay in their book, Parenting with Love and Logic, and it gained relevance with college admissions staff who noticed how parents of prospective students were inserting themselves in the admissions process.

Helicopter parenting can be defined by three types of behaviors that parents exemplify:

  • First, information seeking behaviors include knowing your children’s daily schedule and where they are at all times, helping them make decisions, and being informed about grades and other accomplishments.
  • Second, direct intervention means jumping into conflicts with kids’ roommates, friends, romantic partners, and even bosses.
  • Third, autonomy limiting is when students think their parents are preventing them from making their own mistakes, controlling their lives for them, and failing to support their decisions.

We all want to love our children as much as possible and protect them from the dangers in our society. We live in an increasingly competitive world and want to give our kids every advantage possible. But if we over-parent and smother them, it can backfire big time. A collection of research in recent years shows a connection between helicopter parenting and mental health issues like anxiety and depression as children get older and try to make it on their own.

The negative impacts of helicopter parenting

In 2010, a study by researcher Neil Montgomery, a psychologist at Keene State College in New Hampshire, found that overprotective parents might have a lasting impact on their child’s personality by prolonging childhood and adolescence. Approximately 300 college freshmen were surveyed about their level of agreement with statements regarding their parents’ involvement in their lives. The results showed that 10 percent of the participants had helicopter parents. The research also revealed that students with helicopter parents tended to be less open to new ideas and actions, and were more vulnerable, anxious, dependent, and self-conscious.

A 2016 study from the National University of Singapore published in the Journal of Personality indicated that children with intrusive parents who had high expectations for academic performance, or who overreacted when they made a mistake, tend to be more self-critical, anxious, or depressed. The researchers termed this as “maladaptive perfectionism,” or a tendency in children of helicopter parents to be afraid of making mistakes and to blame themselves for not being perfect. This happens because the parents are essentially—whether by their words or actions—indicating to their kids that what they do is never good enough.

Another 2016 study evaluated questionnaires about parenting completed by 377 students from a Midwestern university. Students responded to statements about the type of parents they have, how often they communicate with their parents, and how much their parents intrude in their lives. The students also completed a number of tests to discern their decision-making skills, academic performance, and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Results showed that higher overall helicopter parenting scores were associated with stronger symptoms of anxiety and depression.

According to that study, helicopter parenting “was also associated with poorer functioning in emotional functioning, decision making, and academic functioning. Parents’ information-seeking behaviors, when done in absences of other [helicopter parenting] behaviors, were associated with better decision making and academic functioning.”

In addition, the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research published research in 2017 suggesting that helicopter parenting can trigger anxiety in kids who already struggle with some social issues. A group of children and their parents were asked to complete as many puzzles as possible in a 10-minute time period. Parents were allowed to help their children, but not encouraged to do so.

Researchers noted that the parents of children with social issues touched the puzzles more often than the other parents did. Though they were not critical or negative, they stepped in even when their children did not ask for help. Researchers think this indicates that parents of socially anxious children may perceive challenges to be more threatening than the child thinks they are. Over time, this can diminish a child’s ability to succeed on their own and potentially increase anxiety.

So how does all this hovering cause mental health problems in our children?

First of all, helicopter parents are communicating to their children in subtle (or not-so-subtle) ways that they won’t be safe unless mom or dad is there looking out for them. When these children have to go off on their own, they are not prepared to meet daily challenges. This inability to find creative solutions and make decisions on their own can cause a great deal of worry since their protector is no longer around to help them.

Because these children were never taught the skills to function independently, and because they may have been held to unattainable or even “perfectionist” standards, children of helicopter parents can experience anxiety, depression, a lack of confidence, and low self-esteem. Another issue is that if these kids have never experienced failure, they can develop an overwhelming fear of failure and of disappointing others. Finally, if we don’t let our children have the freedom to learn about the world and discover their purpose and what makes them happy, they will struggle to find happiness and live a balanced life—all impacting their mental health.  

What we can do to break the helicopter habit

All parents know that parenting is not easy. Having children and raising them presents innumerable challenges and surprises, but also immense joy and connection. Now that we know that overparenting only leads to more problems for our kids, we can make the following adjustments in our parenting approach:

  • Support your children’s growth and independence by listening to them, and not always pushing your desires on them.
  • Refrain from doing everything for your children (this includes homework!). Take steps to gradually teach them how to accomplish tasks on their own.
  • Don’t try to help your children escape consequences for their actions unless you believe those consequences are unfair or life-altering.
  • Don’t raise your child to expect to be treated differently than other children.
  • Encourage your children to solve their own problems by asking them to come up with creative solutions.
  • Teach your children to speak up for themselves in a respectful manner.
  • Understand and accept your children’s weaknesses and strengths, and help them to use their strengths to achieve their own goals.

Parents should, of course, do the best they can for their kids. Impulses to involve ourselves in our children’s’ lives often come from a sense of duty, and of unconditional love. We can harness those desires to give the most we can to our kids by resisting helicopter parenting, which can lead to poor outcomes in adulthood.

Instead, try letting your children discover themselves—their weaknesses, strengths, their goals and dreams. You can help them succeed, but you should also let them fail. Teach them how to try again. Learning what failure means, how it feels, and how to bounce back is an important part of becoming independent in our world.

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