A few weeks ago, during a conversation about the ways in which technology has infiltrated our lives, someone suggested that I watch a particular episode of Black Mirror, the Netflix series that is billed as the updated version of The Twilight Zone.
In the episode, a mom, frightened when her preschool daughter wanders off from the playground and disappears for a short time, enrolls in a security program that offers the promise of peace of mind. That peace of mind is delivered on a special iPad which allows the mother to monitor her daughter’s every move through an implant in the daughter’s brain. Not only does it allow the mother to monitor, but also to manipulate perspective in order to shelter her daughter from experiencing anything upsetting.
When I tell people about the episode, they are horrified. However, even though Black Mirror is science fiction, the story line it tells is merely a matter of degree removed from reality. More and more, we are justifying behaviors that undermine our children’s independence and emotional health.
Last year, one elementary school I know implemented a new tool for the classroom designed to improve student engagement and communication. I found, however, that in practice, it served as window for parents to get a play-by-play of what was happening throughout the school day. The teacher posted pictures of the students, which were sent by email to the parents, who were encouraged to “like” or “comment.” Similarly, most middle and high schools have moved to on-line systems that streamline all aspects of the students’ experiences. Students can track their assignments and grades, communicate with teachers, and find a variety of helpful resources—and so can their parents. But it is not just in school. Almost every parent I know needs only to press a button on their phone to identify the exact location of every child.
My point here is not to be critical. It is to encourage people to make mindful choices and to understand the implications of those choices. There may be good reasons to use each of these tools. But it can be a slippery slope. Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. And each time that we say, “I’m just…” (with the best of intentions) it makes it easier to go one step further down that slippery slope, which can eventually lead to dangerous territory. Here are a few examples (and, yes, all of them are true):
*parents willing to cheat to get their child into college (aka the recent scandal)
*parents monitoring their college students’ everyday activities through their phones
*parents calling professors to help negotiate roommate disagreements
*parents writing cover letters & resume to apply for their children to get a job
*parents showing up at a job interview with their young adult
*parents calling the boss to ask why their child did not get the promotion
In my talks, I often say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Well-intentioned parents want to help their children to succeed; they don’t want to see them suffer. And so they do what they can to help make that happen. Remove obstacles. Monitor. But the problem is that all of these well-intentioned actions are interfering with the development of healthy brains.
The adolescent brain is wired to want freedom. It is wired to take risks. It is wired to make mistakes. There is a reason for that: it enables us to become emotionally healthy, independent adults. Yes, our kids will mess up, and yes, it is scary. But it is what they need. It is our job to teach them how to make good choices, not remove those choices, and in order to do that, we need to guide them as they face challenges, not to keep them from facing them.