"The most difficult job of the 21st century is parenting," psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz said this morning, opening a conference at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan titled "What Do You Really Need To Know As A Parent?"
For the rest of the day a series of experts suggested ways to navigate an unfamiliar landscape -- a place where changes in technology and culture make the job of parent feel like something newly created, rather than something humans have been doing for millennia.
"We don't parent outside of a context," said Dr. Ron Taffel, author of "Childhood Unbound: Authoritative Parenting for the 21st Century" and chair of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. "The context has profoundly changed over the past 20 years." Parents of earlier eras -- the Boomers, the Greatest Generation -- he said, were certain they were right. Today's parents, he said, "lack that same certitude, and the difficulty of not understanding what we are supposed to do creates a lot of confusion."
There are lots of things we're confused about -- that our children are more anxious and angry, but also more knowledgeable and confident, more focused and, at the same time, more scattered. Much of this, Taffel and others said, is because today's kids are being raised, as never before, by a "second family," one formed by their peer group, pop culture and technology, that swallows them more completely than any generation in history.
Tech, in particular, is the delivery system for the new message. Parents are right to feel helpless against the onslaught of screens, warned Dr. Susan Linn, co-founder and director of the coalition Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, because they are part of an aggressive campaign for our children's attention. Companies spent $100 million in 1983 targeting advertising to children, she said, and now they spend $17 billion. "Older parents, who tell you, 'I just turned off the TV,' weren't fighting anything like the fight you face," she said. "Advertising and marketing to children is a factor in every crisis of childhood: obesity, eating disorders, precocious sexuality, violence."
How then to fight back?
When they are younger, turn the screens off, advised Dr. Joanne Deak, author of "Your Fantastic Elastic Brain." Brains are most pliable in the early years of life, she said, and the areas that are "exercised" become flexible and strong while those that are not wither. (A child spoken to in a foreign language by a native speaker for a half-hour a day between the ages of 8 and 10 months, for instance, will carry neural pathways for that language for a lifetime, Deak said.) But scans of youngsters' brains show that children do not really learn at all from a screen. "Language acquisition centers show no change when language is being received by video or audio," Deak said, but do show a change when the speaker is in the room with the child.
The only effect that screens seem to have on the brain, she warned, to a good deal of squirming from the audience, is similar to drug addiction. "We are stunned by how insidious it is in lighting up the pleasure centers, the same places that light with cocaine and heroin," she said. That, and screen use near bedtime -- even the glow of an iPad charging in the room -- stimulates the brain and keeps children from getting enough sleep. "The brain grows the most at night," Deak said. "It needs at least nine hours a night. Our children are chronically sleep deprived, it's chronic abuse, it's certainly brain abuse. The only thing we can do worse to kids is beat them."
In a way, this is the easy part. When they are young enough that you can ban screens entirely, then you are still in charge. As children get older, though, removal becomes impractical, and the goal necessarily becomes to dilute the influence of the message.
That's where parents begin to feel lost, the conference speakers said. To push back against the competitiveness, materialism and "fear of missing out" that is fanned by technology, they suggest some things you would expect -- ban cell phones at dinner and make sure you talk to your kids. Other tips were more surprising.
Dr. Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and author of "Homesick and Happy: How Time Away From Parents Can Help a Child Grow," warned that parents need to step offstage more often and leave their child alone. He theorizes that the over-enmeshed, hypervigilant, omnipresent parenting that has become the norm recently is a response by parents who feel they have lost their children to a changing world -- and believes this reaction is more harmful than the cause.
Our fears, he said, are keeping our children from growing. He is, as his book title screams, a huge proponent of summer sleepaway camp, where children leave both their screens and their parents at home. "We can give them love, we can give them a secure base, but most of what they really achieve is achieved away from us," he said. "Children have to feel they own the experience. They cannot do that if their parents hovering over you," or even "on the sidelines, cheering."