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Randi Gunther Headshot

Will You Be a Techno-Parent or a Banished Sage?

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I have just finished reading Andrew Solomon's remarkable new book, Far From the Tree. I am so grateful that this astute political activist gave up ten years of his life that I could know the depth of his wisdom and his compassion for parents whose children are different from what they had expected.

I am also deeply impacted by his thesis: Parents who have children who are radically different from them must learn to communicate in their children's language, even if it is one that those parents may have never known before. If they do not adapt to that new culture, they risk losing the ability to transfer their wisdom and experience to their children and may never know the benefits of their own capacity to transform.

This profound understanding of the requirements for healthy parent/child interchange is startlingly applicable to a common threat facing parents today; the technological communication gap that is ever-widening between parents and their techno-kids. The young people of this new generation speak a language that many of their parents do not fully comprehend. They can make unilateral and unguided decisions learned from innovative new technology that lies beyond the experience of even well-educated adults. From their "high on a cloud" perspective they can create incredible possibilities and encounter disastrous consequences, all without the guidance of those they once relied upon.

I have been a clinical psychologist and family counselor for over three decades. The children I currently work with are uniquely and significantly different from those in the past. They have capabilities that no young person has ever had before; they can instantly and wirelessly communicate their thoughts, feelings, and photographed experiences throughout the world.

As a result, these techno-children are far less dependent on, interested in or motivated by the traditions and moral lessons handed down from their elders. Those historical perspectives, crucial to successful decision making, are less important to them. Without them, young people's access to vast amounts of knowledge without guidance or interpretation can overwhelm them and encourage misuse. It also makes them terribly susceptible to untrustworthy or deceitful techno-speakers.

An equally important reason for older generations to take notice is that you people of today are often less fearful of moral consequences for their choices. When well-intentioned parents continue to use age-old strategies that intertwine philosophical wisdom with religious threats of degeneration, many children fail to respond as they may have in the past. Techno-kids are more impressed by how quickly and effectively they can control their own choices, using whatever current apps and connections that work.

They do have their own moral code and personal search for truth. From their peer-personal perspective, they strive to find meaning beyond self and heroes that speak to their hearts from technological awareness. They do not trust those who don't understand are left to seek their own versions of enlightenment. They want spiritual and philosophical principles that make more sense in light of their in-the-world present experiences, and insist on finding them using their own methods of inquiry.

For better or worse, the Internet and its many applications are not only here to stay, but will continue to create new ways for young people to communicate who they really are to those they wish to know. Unless wise elders endorse and master their language, techno-children will forge pathways less influenced by what has come before. They are then left to rely primarily upon their peer influences. Unfortunately, The Avengers, vampires and the "Lord of the Flies" children of fiction, though manifesting self-reliance and self-direction, do not provide the long-term perspective that multi-generational processes can. It has never been more important for the past and the future to blend together to ensure the best of both.

The most encouraging aspect of this process is that most young people want to teach us if we just ask. My youngest granddaughter, now 16, patiently teaches me technology, one spoonful at a time. I am fascinated that I can take a photo from Facebook, create an icon on my computer, transfer it to photo paper and then hang it on my cupboard door. I also readily understand her frustration when I do not learn at the astonishing speed to which she is comfortably accustomed, but I appreciate her hanging in there anyway.

Though my granddaughter's mother is just 25 years younger than I am, she is extremely technologically-savvy. Though her career is in medicine, she can simultaneously use her iPhone to play scrabble with good friends, find a crossword puzzle word, search for a new recipe for dinner and check in on her patients. She and my granddaughter keep in constant contact every day via text. She and her techno-hero-mom speak the same language.

I treasure the sweetness of their frequent connections and how it contrasts with the exacting limitations of how I was taught to communicate as a child. My parents told me how to behave, ignored me unless I needed correction and expected me to learn without the right to challenge either their rules or their right to enforce them. There were no other options. I learned their language. They had no interest in mine.

Being able to navigate together in a technological world will create a new kind of bond between parents and children. To send a message when it is deeply relevant in the moment, and receive an equally relevant reply, is wonderfully meaningful in a new way. In this ever-depersonalizing world, the Internet, with all of its pitfalls and miracles, may be the most intimate potential for them to nurture and maintain their intimate connection at any moment, in any place and at any time.

I may only be a recent convert to the new-speak of this next generation, but I'm not going to be left out of the fascinating technological opportunities continually unfolding before me. If I am to give my granddaughter the benefit of whatever wisdom I've accumulated, I must also willingly receive how she can simultaneously transform my life. That interchange will secure the bond between us.