Jonathan McKee: If I Had a Parenting Do-Over (Part 2)

John FarrellBy John Farrell12 Minutes

John Farrell: Looking back at something you said earlier about kids not having rules their senior year of high school. I’d never heard of that idea before reading it in your book. I imagine if you were raised in a strict home and then went off to college, there’s a good chance that you may use that opportunity to rebel, in a sense, and go so wild where you may have aftereffects and struggle for years.

Jonathan McKee: That’s not uncommon. I see it all the time. It’s funny because I’d never heard the concept of no rules the senior year either. I came up with it when my son did exactly what you just described. He went off to college and decided, ‘This is stupid. I’m gonna do my own thing.’

We’ve always heard about the prodigal son. I remember hearing decades before, “Rules without a relationship lead to rebellion.” We knew these concepts of if you’re rule heavy on the bonding and boundaries scale, if you’re weighing very tight on boundaries, very often what will happen is that kid will burst those ropes when he can at eighteen and flee the house and do everything but what he was taught because the relationship suffered. He never really took on those values.

I have always told parents, “If we go around and make every decision for our kid, how can we expect them to make a decision?” They’re eighteen and making their first decision on their own. Every TV show they watched was decided for them. Every song they listened to was decided for them. Every friend they hung out with was decided for them. Phone? No. This? No. If we make every decision for them and all of a sudden they’re out there alone in the world and they’re supposed to make these decisions, are they gonna pick up the phone to call mom and dad and say, “Can I watch the new HBO show because you usually tell me whether I can or not?” No, they’re going to make that decision on their own.

That’s when I realized, ‘how do we teach our kids to think?’ Although concepts like “learn to discern” are ones I’ve heard before, the question is what does that actually look like? A lot of people are pragmatically and practically trying to find what that looks like in a home. For me, it looks like everybody agrees that a toddler needs all kinds of guidance, and everybody agrees that an 18-year-old can make decisions on their own. It’s that space between where people don’t know what that looks like.

That’s where I looked at it and said, “This needs to be a segue.” So, I wrote a whole chapter on that, starting with your 12-year-old needs all kinds of guidance and your 12-year-old probably shouldn’t be making some of these decisions. One of the examples I use in the book I’m writing right now for Focus on the Family is about what actual guidelines should I have in my house? What time should the kids go to bed? When should I give them a phone? What screen limit should we have? How many hours a day can they play video games? These are the practical real-life questions that parents have today.

I read a review on Common Sense Media that says my kids shouldn’t have TikTok till age sixteen. Do I need to wait till sixteen because all of their friends have it at twelve? Should I just let them have TikTok at twelve even though they’d have to lie about their age to even get it because you have to be thirteen to get it? These are the real-life decisions parents are making today.

The example I like to use is when your kid wants to drive. Back in the day, if your 12-year-old came up to you and asked, “Can I take the SUV to the mall with my friends?” I said back in the day, because today kids don’t want to go to the mall with their friends. They want to sit at home and stare at their devices and never leave the room. But let’s just say in an imaginary world that your kids actually wanted to go somewhere and do something outside.

If a 12-year-old said, “Can I have the keys to the SUV?” We wouldn’t throw him the keys and be like, “Okay, drive safe.” You’d be like, “There’s a couple things. First, there’s a law, and you need to be sixteen years old. I need to teach you how to drive. I need to teach how to be wise. How to merge. How to not speed. How to not have your friends all talking in the car so you’re not paying attention.” These are all the things we do. We wait till they get to a certain age. We sit next to them for fifty hours. For six months you sit there going, “Okay, let’s do this together. Let’s learn. Be careful. You are about to merge. Watch. Look at this traffic here. You got to look for a way to get in. Okay, now. What do we do when we approach the stop sign?”

Can we teach them this stuff? With a phone we don’t do any of that. We don’t wait until a certain age. We just throw it to them and say, “You know this better than me.” We don’t teach them a thing. They’ve got a device in their pocket where they’re friending complete strangers. And right now, eight out of ten of Gen Z kids wants to be an influencer. Eight out of ten young people are friending everybody they can so they can get more followers and be an influencer. So, eight out of ten young people are super-excited when some guy named Ted Bundy gives them a friend request, and they’re like, “Yes! Another follower.”

Our kids don’t know how to navigate this world at all because no one’s ever taught them. The concept that I’m trying to teach parents is that it’s okay when your 12-year-old wants all these things to say, “No. You got to get older, and we need teach you how to be responsible with a phone.”

That’s why I wrote the book The Teen’s Guide to Social Media and Mobile Devices. That book is like the driver’s ed manual of our devices. It’s got discussion questions at the end of each chapter. I tell parents, “If your kid wants a phone, say, ‘Sure, let’s go through this book together. Let’s go through The Teen’s Guide to Social Media and Mobile Devices because that book talks about who you’re friending? What are you posting? What are you streaming? What are your privacy settings? Should I have Snapchat?” That’s the book that asks, “What tech should I bring into my bedroom at night?” That book talks about those issues.

We live in a country where the average kid gets a smartphone at 10.3 years old. So, the pressure’s on. We have fifth graders (10- and 11-year-olds) coming home and telling their moms and dads, “All my friends have a phone.” And in some cases, they’re not lying. The majority of 11-year-olds have smartphones right now. So, the pressure is on for a parent to say, “The answer isn’t no, it’s not yet.”

The answer is “We’re going to teach you.” Teach them how to do that and what that looks like. For a dad, if his son wants a smartphone, he should take his son and say, “Well, let’s go through this book together. Let’s go out to breakfast each week and talk about the people we’re friending. Sure your friends at school might think they’re going to be a YouTube star someday so they’re going to say yes to everybody. But is that smart?”

Let’s look at it, start dialoguing with our kids, and walk them through it. You’re going to say “no” on some things, but if you say “no” the kid’s going to ask why. We should cherish any moment that our kids ask “why?” Because if a kid asks “why,” it’s an opportunity to dialogue. And the why is more important than the rule itself. The why is the reasoning.

When they’re sitting in their college dorm getting ready to make a decision, the why is what helps them make the wise decision. The “why” very often will go back to your values. The “why” goes back to scripture because if I’ve got a relationship with God, this is important. This is one of the things that God tells us to flee. It’s one of the things that God tells us to have nothing to do with. That’s why.

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