“They’re Always on their Devices!”
We hear this complaint everywhere parents gather. Underneath the complaint I hear a distress that they know it’s wrong but feel powerless to change it. The blame is mistakenly put on the technology, robbing the caregivers of the sense of control that’s essential to raising a child.
Leading child psychiatrists over the last 100 years have encouraged a healthy balance between adapting to a child’s signals of need and allowing them to experience the natural frustration when needs aren’t met. In the Sixties, DW Winnicott coined the phrase “the good enough mother” and suggested that the mother gradually allow the child to be frustrated in order to assist the cognitive development of the child and the emergence of a healthy concept of external reality.
John Bowlby, the founder of Attachment Theory in the fifties, wrote that secure attachment is enhanced by the parent’s ability to tolerate the child’s protest against boundary-setting. He saw through his years of working with mother-child dyads that the healthiest attachment came when the mother wasn’t lenient nor authoritarian, but had found the right balance of boundary-setting that let the child feel secure and protected.
Dan Siegel, a highly regarded neurobiologist and clinician today, provides scientific evidence that allowing the child to be frustrated strengthens the growth of neural abilities to self-regulate.
Here’s a metaphor that might help you find the right allowance of your child to choose an activity and length of time on it (like a computer game or app). If you were to imagine you and your child surrounded by the world’s largest rubber band, how far would you want to allow your chld to stretch away from what you know is right for her/him? When your child stretches, you feel it where the band touches you. When you feel the tug (“it’s Saturday afternoon and he’s still on the bloody ipad!”) that’s the time to exercise a tug back, to tolerate his protest when you tell him to get off, to provide an alternative activity, ideally with you, in order to help your child engage in an enhancing activity. When you pull your child in, the child feels your protection, love, and nurturance. Though it may be heard by him as a “no” or “not now,” your intention is to protect with boundaries around activities and time. That is the caregivers’ essential role not only for the child’s current wellbeing, but also to teach the child to develop her or his own internal rubber band.
Conclusion: Our children and the children we care for need to respect us in order to respect themselves, therefore we need to respect our own knowing about what is good for them and enforce it.