Teach Your Wired Children about Healthy Relationships

March 27th, 2013

By Dr. Jim Taylor

children_relationshipsTechnology, such as the Internet, smartphones, and social media, can have great benefits in helping your children form and maintain relationships. At the same time, if not used with limits and guidance by your children, such use may prevent them from developing the essential relationship qualities and skills that have allowed us to make real connections and build real relationships for ages.

There is certainly a place for children to have online relationships, but they are no substitute for the depth and breadth of flesh-and-blood relationships where your children are able to fully connect with other people and completely experience the meaning, satisfaction, and joy of deep human relationships.

Yes, children’s (and adults’) real relationships can be untidy, with hurt feelings, anger, frustration, and disappointment. But relationships are like two sides of the same coin; children can’t experience the beauty of relationships—love,  comfort, and excitement—without also being willing to accept its occasional blood, sweat, and tears. I challenge anyone who can show me that online relationships can provide that.  

To raise children capable of having health relationships in this world that is so dominated by popular culture and technology, you must be well informed and deliberate about your children’s exposure to both. Of course, the most basic way to prevent popular culture and technology from having an undue and unhealthy influence over your children’s relationships is to set limits on their exposure. You should establish clear expectations about the quality of the popular culture that your children are allowed to experience and the type and quantity of technology they are permitted to use. Just as importantly, you must create appropriate consequences to add “bite” to the expectations you set in the event of inevitable transgressions on the part of your children.

Another obvious preventive measure is to educate your children about the messages they’re getting from popular culture and technology. The more informed your children are about those messages, the less vulnerable they will be to those messages. As they get older, they will be able to make deliberate choices about what aspects of popular culture they expose themselves to and what technology they use.

Part of this education involves talking to your children about the unrealistic messages that popular culture conveys to them about relationships, for example, that love can be found in a matter of weeks (think The Bachelor) or that physical appearance is a healthy foundation for relationships (think Gossip Girls). You can also show them the differences between online and offline relationships, particularly what is missing from the former and present in the latter, for example, facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues (notwithstanding Skype and other video chatting), voice inflection (notwithstanding phone calls), touch, and smell.

So, you can’t just play defense against popular culture and technology. In fact, to raise children who are capable of healthy relationships in this digital age, teaching your children about healthy relationships may be your most important way to help them resist the unhealthy messages from popular culture and technology and ensure that they are capable of developing healthy relationships.

A good place to start in teaching your children about healthy relationships is in your relationship with your spouse. Let me say this clearly. There is no greater influence on how your children come to see relationships than your relationship with your “other half.” From a very early age, your relationship—good, bad, or ugly—likely becomes the template on which their future relationships are based. If you can show your children from an early age how a healthy relationship works, filled with respect, caring, and empathy, simply through your daily relationship with your spouse, you will instill in them a positive view of relationships that will be resistant to those that they receive from popular culture (this, of course, is more of a challenge for divorced couples or single parents).

Also, when you model the healthy use of technology as a tool for strengthening relationships, you provide your children with another template that will encourage the dominance of offline relationships, teach them how to use technology to foster healthy relationships, and make them less vulnerable to the allure of online relationships.

The most powerful way to override the inevitable messages your children will receive from popular culture and technology about relationships is to give your children the most quantity and quality of unmediated (meaning direct) social experiences on which they can build the competence, confidence, and comfort to develop healthy relationships throughout their lives. These encounters can include the spectrum of relationships including family, friends, educational, athletic, cultural, and spiritual.

This depth and breadth of flesh-and-blood relationships will also give your children the ability to compare those relationships with online relationships and, hopefully, see that the latter can’t hold a candle to the former. The more ways in which your children can experience the richness of offline relationships, the more they will come to value them and not be drawn to those gained through popular culture and technology.

In addition to maximizing your children’s in-the-moment appreciation for face-to-face relationships, you can also actively teach them essential relationship skills. Early exposure to social skills and the basics of relationships, for example, saying hello and goodbye and please and thank you, shaking hands, and looking others in the eye, as well as compassion and concern for others, will prevent your children from avoiding real relationships due to doubt, shyness, or social discomfort and give them the competence and confidence to want to explore further unmediated relationships.

You want to give your children direct experience in relationships and the tools to build self-assurance in your children’s relationship capabilities. You also want to instill in them a skeptical attitude toward the messages they get about relationships from popular culture and technology.

When you accomplish these goals, you give your children a true gift, namely, they will see for themselves that real-life relationships are far more rewarding than those found online and they will make sure these relationships take precedence over the virtual kind. And that is a gift that will keep on giving throughout their lives.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

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