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Toddlers & Technology: The Great Compromise

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Yes, I let my toddler play with my Kindle Fire. If I deny her, it just makes that shiny, fun, colorful, taboo object oh-so-much-more desirable.

You know what I’m talking about.

And if I refuse to let her use it, then I’m constantly having to make sure it’s not anywhere remotely close to being within her reach. I’m just not organized enough to make sure that happens.

So I’ve done the only other thing I can do. I’m teaching her how to use it.

While some parents have readily jumped on the bandwagon of allowing very young children access to electronics, I know others who haven’t. While I’m not a fan of giving children technological free-reign, I think it’s important to teach children how to use technology responsibly.

And unless I never use my computer, cell phone, Kindle Fire, or TV in my toddler’s presence, she’s going to want to use them. She’s a toddler, not a pet. She wants to do whatever I do, so it’s my job to teach her how while instilling self-discipline & a sense of respect & responsibility.

So here are a few common-sense guidelines I try to follow while teaching my toddler how to use the technology around her.

  • By Permission OnlyThis is a compromise that she is quite capable of both understanding & following. She knows that she must ask to use said technology. She also knows that sometimes she will be allowed to use it (if Mommy is able to sit with her & isn’t currently using it herself) and sometimes she won’t. While disappointed when she can’t use it, she is willing to move on because she knows that some other time, she’ll be able to play with it again. When she is confident that asking leads to results, she will ask. If she only hears no, she will not ask, then simply take when I’m not looking. So we compromise, & it works.
  • Mommy-Approved Content Only – The toddler knows that, once she’s got access to the technology she wants, she then has to get approval for content. This is easy, for now. I’m Mommy, & I know what this child loves. I’m also more experienced than she is, so I know what all the buttons do & how to digitally hide things. I make sure I’ve got apps on my smart phone & Kindle Fire that she loves. I get fun, interactive books for her to “read.” I utilize every tool in my Netflix bag o’ tricks. And I read, watch, or play almost every piece of content before my child gets her hands on it. (If I don’t get it pre-screened, then I’m right there with her, ready to turn off whatever it is if it violates my moral code or child-rearing goals.) Like I said, it’s easy right now. It gets more difficult with age. (I have a grown step-daughter, so I know this well.) Yes, I’m 100% controlling what she’s exposed to right now, & yes, I know that I won’t be able to as she ages. I’m ok with that, because right now I’m laying groundwork for the day when she’s in charge. I’m conditioning her to play educational games that make her think, to read classic books like Beatrix Potter, & to favor cartoons that aren’t Japanime. Will she only ever use technology for these things? Of course not. But there will be an expectation built into her subconscious & a draw to certain things with a noticeable lack of interest in other things based on the framework I’m laying right now. How do I know this? Because someone laid a framework with me when I was a child, & it still impacts what I watch, listen to, & read today.
  • Time Limits – No, my toddler may not play with electronic toys willy nilly for however long she wants….usually. I hate to admit it, but there have been a couple of occasions when I sat her in front of the television with Curious George queued on Netflix & let her have complete dominion over the PS3 controller. (Can you say ‘super pregnant?’) Nobody’s perfect. But generally speaking, that is far from the norm. I limit TV shows based on number of episodes she can watch, movies by number of repeats (yep, there’s been an afternoon or two where we watched The Tale of Despereaux more than once, back-to-back), Kindle Fire apps by minutes, etc. These guidelines aren’t perfect, but they work for me, so I use them. Toddlers actually do respond to limits, & surprisingly well, so I’ve found. I state the limit up-front, repeat it occasionally throughout, & calmly, gently repossess technology at the end. It’s rare for a tantrum to arise. She grasps the concepts of one & more than one. She understands what “one more episode” means. However, to help her transition, I usually have an activity to follow-up technology time. It could be anything: put a puzzle together with me, go play at the park, ride her bike, prepare a snack, etc. Having something to transition to makes it easier to say goodbye to technology for a while. Besides, children actually get quite bored with technology. If there are alternatives, they usually opt for those.
  • Don’t Break It!!! – Fact: There is inherent risk that my child will break my $200 Kindle Fire or lose the PS3 controller or accidentally purchase & install an embarrassing & sexy app on my phone. Fact: There is inherent risk that I will break my $200 Kindle Fire or lose the PS3 controller, although I’m unlikely to accidentally purchase & install any app on my phone. Yes, the risks are greater with my toddler, so some oversight, restrictions, & guidelines are needed while she’s learning. Remembering that I am also capable of breaking & losing things helps me stay calm in the face of inevitable failures my toddler encounters while learning. First, she can only use the technology with me there. This satisfies several needs, including being able to intervene if she decides to bang my phone repeatedly against the TV screen. (It’s never happened, but I’ve learned to never assume it couldn’t.) Second, she must remain seated on the couch in the family room while she is using said technology. This ensures (usually) that things are going to remain in a general location, minimizing losses. Third, depending on the technology (but especially with my Kindle), I sit with her, directing her in using the technology in the way she wants. Sometimes she wants to explore it, so I guide her in that instead of saying no. Maybe she doesn’t want to play the app anymore & wants to see what else Mommy has on there. Ok. But I’m there to make sure that both she & my Kindle come out of the experience intact & fully functional.
  • Days Off – We have days when no electronics are used in our house, period. (Using my smart phone to place necessary calls is the exception, I suppose.) I think this is important for many reasons. Primarily, my toddler’s developing brain needs extended breaks. I firmly believe that too much electronic exposure contributes to disorders like ADHD, plus said exposure is simply not natural. Also, with electronics off, we’re able to spend even more time together as a family. Furthermore, over time it sends my toddler the message that electronics are not needed for day-to-day living. Quite frankly, I need the days off sometimes, too. It’s very easy for me to get swept away by the technological advances available today. Having my children taking their cues from me forces me to behave more responsibly than I perhaps might otherwise.

While there are other guidelines I’m certain I’ve failed to mention, these are my Big 5. And like my mommy skills, these guidelines grow & evolve over time.

Although many people completely oppose combining technology with the toddler years, I’m no longer one of them. I used to be. I swore I’d never let my toddler watch TV, & I never even dreamed of a Kindle or smart phones. But one thing motherhood has taught me is that anything I do, my children will inevitably want to do. And while I’ve changed a lot of things in my life to make room for responsible parenting, my love affair with technology cannot be moved. I’m no longer convinced it has to be.

So for those of you who are adamant against toddlers using technology, I commend you for your commitment & support your continued efforts in that regard. For those of you who find themselves more & more ok with it, I’m right there with you.

Let’s teach our amazing kiddos how much fun responsibly-used technology can be.

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