Is your older child or teen sneaky about using the internet, even though you have rules limiting computer use to online curriculum? Do you feel like your teen's online behavior is pushing you into controlling internet access?
Some parents complain of kids straying from school assignments and hiding browser history, especially as kids approach and pass into the teen years when they are more computer savvy and more aware of internet content beyond their curriculum. These getting-older-kids are sometimes willing to try to hide their internet use, even as some parents try to end the disobedience with punishment and removal of computer access.
In homeschool discussions, I sometimes see parents coaching one another to persist in an authoritarian approach to controlling their older children's and teens' internet access. They recommend various devices that can block internet access. They characterize the behavior as sneaky and caution one another to "be the boss" and "get control" over their pre-teens and teens. They advocate harsh restrictions and punishments.
This may not end well.
Internet controls such as blocks on routers and devices may work for young children, to keep them from accidentally stumbling on troubling content. For kids who are beginning to know how to manipulate technology, it is likely that the more controls parents put in place, the better they will become at circumventing them. That creates motivation for sneakiness and positions parents as the adversary.
This is not a situation you want your child to grow into during the teen years. Building trust is more important, and you can't do that with technical solutions to limit internet access or by physically taking the computer and devices away.
Helping your child develop judgment and self-control is important, and they can't do that if you are the one controlling everything the whole time they are growing up.
Parental control inevitably comes to an end. Do you want your kids to jump into a digital world at age 18 with zero experience and unlimited freedom?
You probably already know you don't want that, but you may not have thought about how your parenting style may clash with the outcome you hope for. Maybe you're reading this because you're getting the first hints of it now.
Rule breaking seems like something you can crack down on harder and harder when a kid is 8 or 10 or maybe even 12. After all, you're the parent, and you have the power. But punishment has limits and can damage relationships when parents are needed most, in those high stakes teen years.
We can help our kids build a habit of being trusted by looking at the root of things and by not giving up our role as guides.
Sometimes parents think this issue is about the internet, online homeschool curriculum, rules, and a child who has fallen into disobedience. After all, many homeschoolers do all or part of their learning online these days; however, the issue is often actually about growing children bumping up against parents who aren't making room for growth to occur.
Barbara Coloroso calls this kind of parenting "brick wall parenting." Coloroso wrote the book Kids Are Worth It: Give Your Kids the Gift of Inner Discipline.
In the book, she describes three basic types of parents:
- Permissive parents that she calls "jellyfish" because they have no form and don't provide guidance - "anything goes"
- Authoritarian parents that she calls "brick walls" because they have no flexibility
- Authoritative parents that she calls "backbone parents" because they are strong but flexible, like our backbones
Check out Coloroso's handout on the three kinds of families and see where you might fall. Sometimes we parents are a bit of a mix. The labels aren't perfect descriptions. Perhaps you haven't changed the rules since your child has gotten older, or you haven't considered that she will someday need to make her own decisions about internet use.
This is why Coloroso encourages parents to help kids develop self-discipline; being obedient to someone else's rules is not the same thing. Helping children internalize principles behind your rules will help them make better decisions as their orbits become more distant from you.
A backbone parent spends time talking with her child or teen about things she is reading and seeing on the internet. A backbone parent uses the internet with her child, modeling how to do searches, how to avoid negative content, how to make decisions when it's time to get off the computer or tablet and go do other things.
A backbone parent considers the downside of creating "forbidden fruit" and scarcity. A backbone parent shares articles with her child about the ways video games are designed to keep someone playing, but she also listens when her child describes the skill needed and the community around the game.
As Coloroso says, "An excellent way to teach the art of decision making is to let kids make decisions, guide them through the process without passing judgment, and let them grow through the results of their decisions."
There is obviously more to backbone parenting, and as I've written before, our parenting style impacts the effectiveness of all our homeschooling, not just how we deal with conflicts about the internet or video games. We parents have to grow with our children, and we can explore this concept and learn how to see ourselves as being on the same side as our children in their growing up process.
I am not saying the adult should become an "anything goes" parent. I am not saying that children don't need supervision and guidance regarding internet use. Sometimes parents at one extreme can only see the other extreme as the only alternative. But research about families tells us that the most effective way is in that difficult middle zone, when we parents are strong with our guidance but flexible. That means we respect our children's interests, treat them with dignity, and help them understand our principles rather than just expect them to respond to rules.
Electronic devices and the internet are going to be part of life for our kids, and if we let them become what separates us from our children and teens, that will be among the most damage the devices can do.
For further insight, read How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk and How to Talk so Teens will Listen and Listen so Teens will Talk by Faber and Mazlish.