Families

Balancing Act: It’s the first day of school. Can I talk to your kids a second? I’m afraid we’re screwing this up.

I want to talk to your kid for a minute.

The one who just went back to school. Maybe fifth grade, maybe ninth. Maybe college. This message isn't age-specific.

Parents get so much advice on raising kids. I want to talk to kids about being raised. I won't take long.

Hey! Hi there. We're not making this easy, are we?

We're jumpy and wired and operating in a state of low-level panic. It must be exhausting. For you, I mean. I know it's exhausting for us.

We're worried that you're Juuling or being online bullied or being an online bully or you're driving 90 miles per hour or you will, one day, drive 90 miles per hour or you left the assignment in your backpack or you just say you're staying after school to work on that group project but really you're going somewhere very, very dangerous.

We're worried something will happen, because we're crazy about you. Which you know, because we post that we're crazy about you all over Instagram and Facebook and our blogs. Ninety-two% of toddlers already have their own unique digital identity before age 2, an article told us earlier this year. We probably talked to you about it. We're always talking to you about articles.

Anyway, tech companies know we're crazy about you and they know we're worried something will happen to you, so they've invented all these ways for us to keep tabs on you. Constantly.

You know this.

Even if you won't let us follow you on social media, we can track your whereabouts on our phones and an app can tell us how fast you're driving and a parent portal can tell us whether you turned in the assignment.

Schools are really into this stuff. I sat in a back-to-school meeting where a teacher explained that we should check the parent portal every other day to make sure our kids are turning in their assignments, and we could, if we'd like, set up an alert on our phones so we'll be notified if any grade in any class at any point drops below a certain percentage point. She recommended getting alerted at the first sign of the low 90s.

We are not making this easy.

We've adopted a lot of the work of growing up as our own. And that's what I want to talk about.

It's not our work to do. And I worry that we're robbing you of something pretty essential, which is the ability to check your gut.

I worry that all of our geotracking and data collecting and virtual safety nets put you in this incredibly weird bind. You know someone is watching and likely to swoop in and rescue/punish you as needed. You know if you want to avoid rescue/punishment you need to stay on the straight and narrow or find a way to subvert the system. You know how to subvert the system better than we do because you've been holding a smartphone since birth and we have to keep checking the side of the modem for the Wi-Fi password.

But are we letting you check your gut? Are we giving you the space and the time and the ability to pause and decide if the thing you're about to do, the thing you are doing, the thing you just did, left you feeling OK? Did it leave you feeling queasy and anxious? Or nervous, but in an anticipating-something-good kind of way? Did it leave you feeling proud?

People are probably telling you all the time, especially if you're a teenager, that your brain isn't fully developed. And it's not. Which is another reason we feel like we need to keep an eye on your whereabouts and your homework assignments.

But I hope we're not standing in the way of some pretty critical emotional development.

To be good at your friendships and your relationships and your roles as teammate, neighbor, volunteer, employee, boss, coach, parent, maybe, you'll need to be able to tune into how your own conduct makes you feel.

You'll need to know when victories feel hollow. You'll need to know when you've betrayed someone's loyalty. You'll need to know when you chose the wrong words.

You'll need to know the joy of a well-earned win. You'll need to know when you were exactly what someone needed. You'll need to know when you chose well.

I hope we give you the space to discover all of that.

Do me a favor and practice that where you can, will you? Take a second and check how you feel after you turn in an assignment (or don't turn in an assignment) or leave the lunchroom or hit post on Instagram.

Try to make it a habit. It's going to serve you so much better than all of this stuff we're doing.

We have no idea what it's like to grow up right now. In this climate, with these pressures, and these risks. We're watching, closely. We're observing, nervously. We're trying, I promise, to do right by you.

But the real work – and joy and hurt and failure and triumph and rejection and delight and purpose – are yours to have and to hold.

Don't let us take that from you, with our apps and our parent Facebook groups.

Develop a whole inner self, one that you and only you can monitor.

Join the Heidi Stevens Balancing Act Facebook group, where she continues the conversation around her columns and hosts occasional live chats.

(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@tribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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