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Parenting Issue

Getting through to your kids in the digital age

How smartphones, family dinners, and admitting you don’t know everything can help you connect.

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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.

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“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.

 Sal Khan says his Khan Academy, a free online teaching resource, provides “a huge opportunity for parents to connect with their children.”

Sal Khan says his Khan Academy, a free online teaching resource, provides “a huge opportunity for parents to connect with their children.”

I realized I had no hope of trying to conceal the bewilderment in my eyes. Then I remembered having heard about something called Khan Academy. That free online video resource had sprung from the math tutorials an MIT grad had created from his Boston apartment to help his young cousin in Louisiana understand her middle school math. “Let’s check it out,” I told my daughter.

If you’ve never seen a Khan Academy video, you really have to — even if you have no need for tutoring. What began with a couple of short lessons that hedge fund analyst Sal Khan uploaded to YouTube has now ballooned into a Silicon Valley nonprofit with a global reach and Bill Gates’s backing. But the brilliance of the enterprise is that it continues to rest on the raw power of Khan’s stripped-down video clips.

I typed in “the distributive property” and up popped a YouTube tutorial. In addition to guiding us through the lesson, Khan explained the building blocks behind it. This is especially important in math, where understanding one concept relies on the scaffolding of having mastered the concepts that came before it. Khan is a natural teacher. Through his narration, he conveys the message: “Don’t sweat it. We’re going to figure this out.” As my daughter and I watched, we both started to buy into it.

On the nights that followed, my daughter continued to come to me if she struggled with a particular problem. Together, we’d go to Khan Academy and work it out. Before long, I was back in the math groove enough that I could offer her guidance without checking the website. Before long, my daughter realized she actually “got” this math, and her requests for assistance dried up. Interestingly, she began seeing me as a different kind of resource, occasionally asking for advice on other subjects. When she had to do a research project for social studies, she seemed ready to hear my Wikipedia speech: “It’s a great place to start, but get off the page as quickly as possible before your standards get soft. Move down to the bottom of the page and click on the links to primary sources.”

I realized that coming clean with my daughter when I didn’t know an answer liberated me to offer something a lot more valuable: I could share my experience and judgment about how and where she might find the answers herself.

Not long after trying Khan Academy, I reached out to its founder and asked how an ex-engineer and former finance guy could be such a gifted instructor. “If I’m really honest with myself,” the 36-year-old Khan told me, “it goes back to my own school days” in Louisiana, as the bright son of immigrants from India and Bangladesh. “You learn in middle school that the fastest way to get beaten up is if you come across as arrogant, condescending, or talk down to people. And the best way not to do that is, in your mind, not to be arrogant, condescending, or talk down to people.”

Growing up, Khan lived with his mother, who was so busy working at a convenience store and servicing vending machines that she didn’t have the time to help him with his homework. Nowadays, he and his staff have found that Khan Academy provides “a huge opportunity for parents to connect with their children.”

The idea that homework and technology, two areas that are usually sources of friction between parents and kids, could instead be opportunities for positive interaction and collaborative learning is surprising. But it shouldn’t be. Parents of preschoolers spend plenty of time at the computer with their kids exploring educational websites. As our kids get older, however, we tend to take on the role of enforcers (“No screen time until you finish your homework”). After all, if you don’t put some limits in place, you can easily lose your tweens and teens to their digital silos. That’s the main reason my wife and I continue to resist installing Wi-Fi in our house — a stance that our three daughters argue is idiotic. Still, we figure that requiring them to take the extra step of having to log in from a wired computer or ask to borrow one of our phones introduces just enough inconvenience to boost the likelihood that they’ll hang around for a face-to-face conversation rather than retreat to their own devices.

I was hesitant to bring up my outlier Wi-Fi stance during my conversation with Khan because he’s become the toast of Silicon Valley. Consider that the tech heavyweights blurbing his new book, The One World Schoolhouse, include not just Bill Gates but also Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, TED curator Chris Anderson, and telecom titan Carlos Slim Helu, the world’s richest man. Innovators like Khan embolden tech evangelists like the editors of Wired magazine, who crowed on a recent cover that the robots have already won, putting human teachers and artists and even therapists on the road to irrelevance.

But after making my Wi-Fi confession, I was stunned by Khan’s response. “Personally, in my own house, I try not to touch a computer or cellphone when I come home,” he told me. “Parents should try as much as possible to quarantine the technology” — unless they’re using it to go on joint explorations with their kids. Khan, who has a 4-year-old son and a 20-month-old daughter, has simply learned to deal with an inbox full of e-mail when he shows up at the office in the morning. Yet he admits that his wife, a busy rheumatologist, has yet to sign on to his quarantine policy. “I get frustrated at the dinner table when my wife is texting,” he said.

For Khan, it’s all about the proper use of technology. Harness it to make your life richer and more efficient, but refuse to let it take over.

 

***

IF WE FUMBLE A BIT at helping with homework, that’s not such a bad thing. As it turns out, homework doesn’t play a particularly important role in improving academic performance. A recent international study of educational systems, which was conducted by the company behind The Economist, ranked Finland first. That’s the same Finland where the school calendar is light and homework is almost nil, in comparison with the 17th-place United States. (Then again, the No. 2 spot went to South Korea, where the pressure for students to perform is so intense that the average family spends about 20 percent of its income on private tutoring and the government has had to crack down on late-night “cram schools.”)

After spending more than three decades studying homework, Harris Cooper, chairman of Duke University’s psychology and neuroscience department, has become the nation’s leading authority on the subject. He told me that homework can improve academic results, as long as it’s kept to about 90 minutes per night for middle school students and about two hours for those in high school. More than that tends to be counterproductive, adding stress while cutting into desperately needed sleep.

Cooper and researcher Erika Patall, now at the University of Texas at Austin, studied the effect of parental involvement with homework on kids’ academic performance. Surprisingly, they found a negative association for middle school students (unlike for younger and older kids). Patall suspects it’s due to the conflict arising from nagging reminders about homework at a time when kids are naturally trying to pull away from the yoke of their parents.

There’s something that’s far more reliably associated with academic success than homework. It’s also closely associated with a variety of good outcomes for kids: healthy diets, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of drug and alcohol use, depression, eating disorders, and teen pregnancy. It’s the family dinner.

Findings like that make me happy that my own family eats together most nights, even if work and activity schedules mean the plates are often hitting the table at an hour when other households are starting to turn the lights out. But the main reason I like family dinner is that it’s typically the time of day when I laugh the most. Don’t get me wrong. Not every dinner is a winner, and sometimes, in the face of sister squabbling, any of the Ward Cleaver in me loses out to the Al Bundy. More often than not, though, dinner is the time when all five of us are most likely to let our guards down and act silly.

By now, the power of the family meal is widely accepted (even if a few researchers suggest it has been overrated), and more parents appear to be trying to make it a priority. Remarkably, families with strained relations also have been shown to benefit from eating dinner together regularly. In one 2012 study, 57 percent of teenagers reported having family dinner five or more times a week. However, those self-reported figures may be inflated. A University of California, Los Angeles study that videotaped the routines of nearly three dozen middle-class families found that only 17 percent regularly had dinner together, often eating separately even when the entire family was home.

And even when everyone is seated around the same table, are they really eating together? When you go to restaurant and see a family where all the members have their faces glued to a different smartphone or iPad, you have to wonder what the point is.

For answers, I turned to Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, a University of Minnesota professor whose team has produced the deepest body of research on the family dinner. She said it’s too soon to tell whether all that mealtime texting and surfing will erode the power of the dinner. But she and her colleagues did explore a close analog — television — with some unexpected results. They took a diverse group of middle and high school students — some who regularly had family dinner while watching TV, some who had it while the TV was off, and others who almost never had family dinner — and then compared their nutritional intake and their use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. When it came to nutrition, those who had family dinner without TV ate slightly better than those who ate with the TV on — but the difference was small. Yet both those groups of teenagers ate much better meals than those who didn’t do family dinner. Unfortunately, the data did not distinguish between families that were actively watching TV and those that merely had it on in the background. Nonetheless, the results suggest the act of eating together is more important than the level of conversational engagement.

As for substance use, the results were similar — for girls, anyway. Those who regularly had family dinner, with or without the TV on, used alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana at significantly lower rates. For boys, however, on this point there was no observed advantage. Neumark-Sztainer told me that across all their research, they’ve found that the benefits of family dinner accrue more to girls than boys.

Still, the overall benefits for both sexes were big enough that she made family dinner a top priority for her own three sons and daughter, who are now grown. She kept electronics away from the table, as well as contentious topics like grades and college applications, weight and body image. Whenever those issues popped up, she would swat them like a fly hovering over her potato salad, saying, “Oh, we can talk about this after dinner.” When things remain light, that boosts the chances of easy conversation rather than pointed fingers.

***

 

WHY IS IT SO IMPORTANT to keep the lines of communication open? Basically, we want to believe that our kids, when they encounter a complicated moral or ethical decision that has profound implications, will feel comfortable enough, and trust us enough, to seek our counsel. So much of parenting is preparing them and us for those pivotal moments.

 Parents should let go of the pretense that they have all the answers, says Dr. Michael Rich, a Harvard pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.

David M. Barron/oxygengroup.com

Parents should let go of the pretense that they have all the answers, says Dr. Michael Rich, a Harvard pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle has become a valuable Cassandra warning about the dangers of letting computers take over our lives. That’s an interesting role for someone who works on the Mount Olympus of technological innovation. “The computer revolution wasn’t supposed to be about giving people more facts,” Turkle, the author of Alone Together, told me. “As a parent, my authority comes from wisdom, from being able to put facts together and then help my child think through things.” Technology, she stressed, is just an actor, “and maybe it’s an actor that needs to be subdued and put in its place.”

That’s sensible advice. But it doesn’t mean technology should be kicked off the stage. Unless we’re prepared to trade in our Toyotas for horse-drawn buggies and move to rural Pennsylvania, we’ve got to deal with the digital world. And it can offer some unanticipated upsides. Studies suggest that teenagers who use social media have enhanced self-esteem and friendship quality (although there are clear drawbacks, such as vulnerability to cyber-bullying and unwanted sexual advances).

Dr. Michael Rich, a Harvard pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, argues that we should treat technology like nutrition, like the food we put on the table for our family dinners. It’s all about making good choices.

When I described my experience of stumbling onto Khan Academy after being unable to field my daughter’s question about the distributive property, Rich said that approach turns out to be the wisest course. Not the stumbling part, of course, but rather letting go of the pretense that we have all the answers and instead being willing to hunt for them with our children. While that bearded father in the Google commercial might be able to get away with playing the omniscient role for his young son, that’s not going to work for a seventh-grader. Besides, that dad failed to answer his son’s actual question about how far Mars is from Earth, instead parroting Google’s answer for the Red Planet’s average distance from the sun.

One of the best ways to keep communication with our kids strong, Rich told me, is to use technology to promote the exchange of ideas and knowledge. I thought back to a recent conversation I’d had with my seventh-grader when we were driving somewhere. The ride had begun like so many others during the early teen years, where I ask lots of detailed questions and get lots of monosyllabic replies. Then a Bruno Mars song came on the radio. I asked my daughter whether she’d seen the YouTube clip of his hilarious Saturday Night Liveskit, when he played an intern for Pandora forced to impersonate a series of singers after the Internet music service’s power went down. When she said no, I handed her my iPhone so she could check it out. That ended up sparking a wide-ranging conversation about music, other funny stuff she’d found on the Internet, and eventually what was going on in school.

Sometimes the kids are the ones doing the initiating, such as when that same daughter showed me a YouTube clip of a young girl doing a superhuman 54 pirouettes in a row. That led to an interesting discussion between us about prodigies and lost childhoods. Meanwhile, my fifth-grade daughter decided she wanted to teach herself how to put together slick PowerPoint presentations, choosing my life story as her subject just so she’d have some content to fiddle with. That prompted her to ask a host of fresh questions about family history. In every one of those cases, newfangled technology served as the trigger for old-fashioned talk.

Sure, technology makes things trickier, and we’ve got to ensure our kids use it responsibly. But no good will come from pretending it’s not there. Over the years, Rich has delivered more talks about parenting in the digital age than he can remember. Invariably, after his presentation, at least one mother or father will approach him and self-righteously announce, “We don’t have a TV in our house.”

Rich’s response is always the same, rooted in his belief that sensible parenting requires living in the real world: “Get one.”

Neil Swidey is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @neilswidey.

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