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Parenting Challenges For The New Millennium
by Istar Schwager
, Ph.D.

Well, here we are in the 21st century and, contrary to predictions, we're not yet living in space stations like the Jetsons. But we are living in a rapidly changing time and need to think about what that means for us as parents. While we grew up in a more traditional and less technological world, our children have never known life without VCRs, answering machines, video games and computers.

We've had to keep pace with changes in many spheres and discover that every time we open the newspaper we're reading about some major challenge to the old order -- be it school violence or school vouchers, the global economy or global warming. What are the implications for us as parents raising children who will be spending the large portion of their lives in the 21st century?

Here are some challenges to consider. Let's remember:

Growing Up Takes Time

Our offspring may seem to exhibit astounding sophistication, but underneath it all they are really just kids. A five-year old is still just five, no matter how big his vocabulary, how impressive her computer skills or how many enriching vacations he's experienced. With all due respect for the intellect and knowledge of a child at any age -- it's a mistake to be fooled into thinking that our children can handle all sorts of grown-up challenges. It can be tempting to turn kids into our confidants or ask them to make mature decisions about important matters. Certainly listen and consider what they have to say. But remember that they still require our steadfast support, reassurance, and guidance. Besides, we'd do well to relish each stage and phase -- even the ones that aren't our favorites. Our kids will experience that age only once. In an era of acceleration, where faster is considered better in virtually every enterprise, let's keep reminding ourselves and each other that human development is one process that can't be rushed.

"Downtime" is Essential

We live at a time when there are so many interesting organized activities available it's easy to forget that kids need unstructured time. Not every minute has to be educationally enriching. Kids need time to daydream, think, digest their day, ponder and play. The rewards of unprogrammed time cannot always be measured immediately, but are manifest in creativity, imagination and enjoyment.The benefits are often long-term.

Innovators have always known that the best inspirations come when the mind is allowed to wander ­make unexpected connections and arrive at creative solutions. Kids need hands-on time with tangible materials ­ play dough, paint, blocks and dress up clothes -- time to play where the process is more important than the product. That also means a chance to engage in physical activity that's not part of a performance or competitive game, and unhurried time with other kids - ­peers with whom they can cooperate, collaborate or just be silly. What may seem like a waste of time now has immeasurable benefits for the future.

Kids Need Human Contact -- With Parents

Our kids need human, face to face time with us parents. That means parent and child in the same zip code, preferably with the TV off. Technology has made it possible to stay in contact with our kids via cell phone, e-mail and intercom. Yet we all know that there is no substitute for lap time and hugs ­ for the warmth and sharing that exists, not just in Hallmark greeting cards but as a real life possibility when parents and kids share activities together.

Since kids don't talk to us on demand, we are most likely to hear about the bully at school or the dream about next summer when we're spending unpressured time with our kids. The unhurried time may mean a leisurely weekend breakfast, a visit to the library, or sitting together on a bus. It's playing a board game; talking after the bedtime story; driving in the car without anybody in headphones.

Our children can sense when we are too rushed or preoccupied to listen. Time together is the best gift we can give them ­ certainly more valuable than the latest CD player. Growing up, many of us took our parents' presence for granted. Now kids are clamoring for more time with their parents. Even seemingly indifferent teens need us around to defy, ignore and be available for those unpredictable but precious moments when they actually wish to converse.

Technology Demands Scrutiny

While technology has brought us knowledge and convenience, we need to continually assess what role we wish it to play in our kids' lives. We live at a time when the average amount of time American kids spend watching the tube is 24 hours a week ­ that's the same as three eight-hour work days glued to the set. Media messages proliferate. Our kids are told what to watch, buy, eat, wear and play by people who do not have their best interest at heart ­ to say the least. The American Academy of Pediatrics is now encouraging parents to fill out a "media history,'' to get TVs out of kid's rooms, and to set clear limits. And of course the internet has also posed new challenges to us parents, who are often less computer savvy than our exploratory off-spring.

As the new millennium brings even more technological innovations, it will be up to us to distinguish the helpful from the harmful. We'll need to set limits on use, since too many hours with even the most wonderful educational shows, games, web sites or CD-Roms takes time away from hands-on play, imaginative pursuits , physical activity, social interactions, and other childhood essentials.

Creativity Is Key

As information becomes more accessible, creativity is going to assume a larger role in helping us figure out what to do with all that knowledge. Fifty years from now our kids will be grappling with issues we can hardly imagine. Many will be involved in careers that don't exist today. It's important to encourage curiosity, exploration and the kind of questioning that enables kids to use the facts at hand to develop new ideas, applications and solutions.

If we foster observation and interpretation we'll help our kids look beyond the information they are learning to make connections and find inventive uses for what they know. All of this can go on in very mundane situations -- noticing what happens on the checkout line in the grocery store; thinking about how E-Z pass works at a tollbooth. We can also help them apply creativity to improve their relationships with friends and siblings and us. Though we often associate creativity with the arts, at the beginning of this new millennium let's find ways that imagination and innovation can be applied to just about every endeavor.

Connected to creativity will be the ability to think through solutions with foresight and heart. Imagine the world 50 years from now -- and picture our children, grown up, making decisions about biotechnology, the environment and human rights. Seems daunting. But amazingly, one of the best preparations will come from exploration and play since that's what gives kids the chance to see the results of their actions, set priorities and learn to understand other people. Sound, creative judgment takes time to develop and is rooted in childhood.

Dialogue Resolves Conflict

Dialogue means listening, thinking about what the other person is saying and reconsidering one's own view. Daniel Yankelovich, the social researcher wrote a book called "The Magic of Dialogue" and indeed dialogue is magic. Listening, reframing, mirroring -- that is saying what we think we've just heard -- are all communications tools -- techniques for getting along better with each other. These skills will become increasingly important in the culturally diverse future. Childhood is the time to begin developing the framework.

The last millennium taught us that "might" has serious limitations in making "right." Now economic power is fast replacing sword power.The ability to cooperate, collaborate and negotiate to settle disputes peacefully will be of tantamount importance during the new millennium. Our children can learn to engage in dialogue. Not to negotiate each and every issue with us!! but as a way of encouraging two-sided listening, better understanding and win-win solutions whenever possible

We're All Searching for Meaning

The big question that many parents are posing at this rather golden period in American history is "What's the point? What is truly meaningful?" People seem to seek more spiritual answers during two types of crises: when they are faced with overwhelming hardship or when their immediate needs are more than satisfied. At a time of unprecedented material comfort many of us are wondering whether the next fancy dinner, designer outfit or state-of-the-art gadget is going to make a difference. It's one of the reasons we're attending services, sending our children to religious classes and reading books that speak to these questions.

It's easy to lose perspective about how our families fit into the larger world. Yet perspective allows us to put our lives in context and gain insight about what's important and what's not. Increasingly, our lives are affected by what happens in our neighborhoods, our city and even on the other side of the globe. Part of maturity is recognizing that we aren't the center of the universe, though every child deserves to feel he or she is central to his parent's world. When we consider our priorities, most of us will recognize that our kids are way up at the top of the list. So, as we embark on this new and exciting millennium we need to renew our commitment to our children. And we need to do what we can to help make this a world where they can lead happy, productive lives.

This article appears in the year 2000 issue of the Review, published by the Parents League of New York. All Rights Reserved. Reprint with Permission Only

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