Grit, resilience, perseverance, and emotional intelligence are all crucial for success, but how can parents help their children develop these character traits at a time when the whole world is only a click away and everything comes with instant gratification? We asked a distinguished panel of researchers, clinicians, educators, and parenting experts to share their tips for building character in a digital world.
1. STRUCTURE AND SUPPORT
Building resilience requires more than just a positive attitude; it takes confidence and self-esteem. “When kids are going through tough times, they need to feel the support of their family, their school, and their community in order to avoid succumbing to anxiety and depression,” says Michael Ungar, PhD, author of Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success. Ungar recommends providing children with plenty of structure and clear boundaries, as well as inviting them to take on responsibilities, such as helping to cook, going grocery shopping, or looking after the family pet.
2. MAKE THE SCREEN SOCIAL
Studies have shown that high amounts of screen time in young children may be linked with reduced social-emotional competence, in part due to the resulting decrease in parent-infant play. “Parents socially interacting with their baby in positive ways is the best way for them to gain social-emotional skills, because real social confidence and learning to regulate one’s emotions come initially from interactions with others that the child feels safe with,” says Ming Wai Wan, PhD, Lecturer and Co-Director of the Perinatal Mental Health and Parenting Research Unit (PRIME-RU) at the University of Manchester, UK. While excessive screen time is problematic, moderate screen time can be healthy for young kids, especially if the screen is used for social interaction. Parents can co-view content with their children, ask questions or express emotions about what’s happening on screen, and reference back to the content while engaging in daily real world activities. “This sharing in its various forms not only helps infants make sense of their world,” says Wan, “but it also helps create ‘common ground’ for conversation and even rituals and routines, which boost social and emotional understanding.”
3. STRESS THE POSITIVE
While we may automatically think of stress as a bad thing, the reality is a little more nuanced. Stress is an inherent part of life, and learning to optimize our response to pressure and stress can offer better results than simply (and futilely) trying to eliminate it. “In a recent study, students in a mathematics course were taught about the adaptive benefits of stress responses (e.g., increases in peripheral blood flow mean the brain has more oxygenated blood to use as fuel),” explain Jeremy P. Jamieson, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Rochester; David S. Yeager, PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Texas-Austin; and Alia Crum, PhD, Assistant Professor at Stanford University. “When the stress they experienced was valued as a resource that could fuel achievement, students exhibited reductions in mathematics anxiety, improvements in exam scores, and greater course completion compared to a control group.”
4. BUILD TRUST
“Resilience is the ability to navigate change and come through it the kind of person you want to be,” says Deborah Gilboa, MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Family Medicine and resilience expert. “Teaching our kids to navigate the ever-changing internet is a great opportunity to build resilience.” Gilboa recommends giving children the opportunity to prove their trustworthiness by rewarding them (with praise and privileges) when they come to you with anything suspect they find online. Parents can even create a contract that spells out clearly what kind of content kids should bring to them, as well as what the positive consequences for doing that will be.
5. PUT IT IN A LETTER
When children come to parents with negative thoughts, we’re often quick to respond with things like, “Oh, you’ll do fine!” What’s even more helpful, according to Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist, editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind, and author of 13 Things Strong Kids Do, is teaching children to do this for themselves. One of the best ways parents can teach self-esteem is to encourage their kids to write themselves a kind letter. “It might be a short note that essentially says, “You’re doing a great job’ or ‘You’ve been through tough times before and you can get through this, too!’” says Morin. “When they’re having a rough time, they can turn to their own words for a little boost in encouragement.”
6. GO FOR THE GOAL
When it comes to character development, it’s essential for parents to see their children as individuals, and to listen to them and validate who they are and what they want to do. “One way to affirm children’s strengths is to encourage them to create vision boards,” says Lisa B. Fiore, PhD, Professor & Chair of Education and Director of the Child Homelessness Initiative at Lesley University. “Setting goals is a critical component of future-thinking, and children who have goals that stem from their own intrinsic motivation tend to find deeper energy reserves than children who feel forced to complete a task imposed by others.”
7. NO COMPARISON
It’s been a hard year for everyone, and when children feel like they’re falling behind in comparison to others, it can be very discouraging. “Help children instead focus on their own progress and how far they’ve come,” says Allison Master, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Houston. “Everyone is on their own journey, facing their own challenges, and the most important thing we can do is rise to the next challenge on our path.” If a child says, “I can’t do it,” remind them that that only means they can’t do it yet. With your support, they’ll figure it out.
8. SAFETY FIRST
Teenagers often spend a lot of time online, and it can be difficult for parents to know when their digital communications cross the line into controlling or problematic behavior. “If your child seems very anxious or worried when they receive a message from a peer or must respond immediately, this should raise possible concerns,” says Christine Barter, PhD, Professor of Interpersonal Violence Prevention, Connect Centre, University of Central Lancashire, UK. Barter and young researcher Charlotte Cooper recommend that parents support their children’s online interactions through empowering them to navigate their online interactions safely. Parents can suggest their teens look to mutual friends, both online and off, for any previous warning signs, and encourage their teens to utilize FaceTime to make sure the person on the other end is really who they say they are.
9. NURTURE GRATITUDE
Gratitude, entitlement, and indebtedness are all reactions to receiving something from others. What separates these reactions is the meaning we make out of the gifts we receive. “Children, like adults, use their thoughts and feelings to make meaning out of gifts,” says Andrea Hussong, PhD, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Gifts that children see as given without strings or expectations are more likely to lead to gratitude, especially if they are linked to positive feelings.” To explore how children are making meaning out of the gifts in their lives, Hussong recommends that parents ask their kids how receiving a gift, online or off, makes them feel and why.
10. LEARN FROM THE PAST
Being of upstanding character isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about learning from doing the wrong thing. “Asking your child to think about how they could act differently next time can help them avoid making the same mistake twice,” says Allegra Midgette, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “By talking about and asking what your child considers past regrets, you can encourage them to learn and plan together about what would work to prevent such situations from happening again.”
11. BE CURIOUS, NOT CRITICAL
Social media may have the most to offer—and present the most risk—for kids who experience marginalization in their in-person networks. Parents can be curious without being intrusive or critical when discussing online friendships with kids, asking respectful questions such as: “What do you admire about them?” “What’s the best advice you’ve gotten from them?” “How can you support them when they’re having a bad day?” “How do they support you?” “Who do you think is the best role model of your friends?” “In what ways?” “Have you ever had to stop talking to or being friends with someone online?” “What led up to that?” “These questions offer opportunities to reflect with kids about qualities of positive friendships, show appreciation and interest in their friend circles, and open a door to talk about hard things,” says Melanie Sage, PhD, SUNY at Buffalo School of Social Work. “Tone is important, and the way parents ask questions will encourage or discourage future conversations.”
About Children and Screens
Since its inception in 2013, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, has become one of the nation’s leading non-profit organizations dedicated to advancing and supporting interdisciplinary scientific research, informing and educating the public, advocating for sound public policy for child health and wellness, and enhancing human capital in the field. For more information, see www.childrenandscreens.com or write to email@example.com.