Our foster daughters arrived late on a windy Friday night. At the time, they were 10 and 13, the prime years for wanting a smartphone.
After introductions and signing the four-inch stack of paperwork, the caseworker had to leave. On her way out the door, she said, “Don’t let these girls near anything that even looks like a phone…they’ve gotten themselves into serious trouble in the past.”
Without missing a beat, she closed the door.
That was it. We were on our own to decide how to implement technology in a healthy way in our foster daughters' lives.
Here’s 5 big lessons we learned along the way…
1. The Alexa Effect
Our foster daughters wanted some digital freedom, but we were in a conundrum. We didn’t want to be those rigid foster parents who say “no" to everything, but the caseworker’s warning echoed in our ears.
Hardship had swept away any stability and control they had over life. So, we wanted to trust and to empower our new foster kids with something they could call their own (In the end, we discovered how this empowerment improves the parent-child relationship).
So, we ended up purchasing an Amazon Alexa for them.
Its non-visual interface to the internet did not swallow up their lives like the content on their smartphones used to.
It was a start.
The girls would plug in the Alexa speaker outside and sing “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston hundreds—seemed like millions—of times. They would tote it to the kitchen, their bedroom, the bathroom, and everywhere else there was a plug. It became a status symbol, a source of joy, and a party-in-a box.
Most importantly, we could trust them with it. It was their device and a connection to the digital world.
It was their responsibility.
It wasn't all unicorns and rainbows at the start though. We had to set some healthy boundaries first.
2. The Beauty of Boundaries
The truth is, kids want and need boundaries. Dr. Jillian Roberts, an expert in educational psychology, breaks down boundaries into four main areas:
She visualizes these four domains as concentric rings, where each layer informs and affects the next. For instance, the community ring of boundaries relies on the values and boundaries learned from the family and from one’s self.
Interestingly, online life is the last ring. How our children live and act online depends on the values and boundaries they have developed from the previous three.
How these four areas interact with each other determine how we respond when a temptation, trial, or question arises. The more we cave into immediate wants and break those boundaries, the easier it becomes to do so in the future. Adults also break their own boundaries and cave to unhealthy habits.
Like us, kids know some things they want are not the best for them:
Kids want sugary foods and energy drinks that are terrible for their health.
They want to binge on Fortnight until 3:00 AM but know they need sleep to function.
They want unlimited screen time though they need opportunities for rest and creativity.
To be honest, breaking boundaries can seem fun in the moment. My high school sweetheart barely survived an accident when she was driving 100 miles per hour in her yellow Mustang. It was a sweet ride she was not ready for. Thank God she's still here.
As adults, we can see the beauty of boundaries in retrospect. We can also look ahead and see their future value.
And as parents, if we see boundaries as beautiful and necessary for our kids, then we will approach those boundaries with greater wisdom and love.
3. The Family Promotes Kid Safe Tech
Clinical research with children has shown "felt safety" breeds trust with parents. If a child or teen feels they are in a safe environment with a loving caregiver on their side, then setting boundaries becomes a natural give-and-take. There is a deep sense of comfort in a guiding hand that sets reasonable boundaries.
Even with felt safety and mutual trust, I can tell you from experience that setting tech boundaries is not easy. Kids will test those boundaries and push for more freedom.
They will tell us about Trey and Susan who can use their phones any time they want.
They will scream, stomp their feet, and storm away.
They may even yell the dreaded, "I hate you!!"
But in the end, our job is to help them develop those four areas of boundaries. We get to nudge them along until they own those boundaries for themselves.
As one mom put it, "Their childhood is on loan to us." During this brief blip of time, we are able to form a trusting relationship where they will see the inherent benefits of those "mean" boundaries.
For our family, we set up a few healthy boundaries and expectations up front with the girls. And since our rules were fair and based on trust, the device improved our relationship rather than cracking it.
Alexa blessed us with cherished memories with the girls, and it blessed them with healthy freedom. We were in it together and realized a strong family circle is the foundation for receiving boundaries well.
4. Proactive Boundaries are Better than Reactive Emergencies
Thankfully, Alexa had natural limitations built in. Our foster daughters couldn't watch something inappropriate because it lacked a screen.
So instead of nagging and negotiating over screen time, my wife and I could offer a warm “Sure, go ahead” to more Whitney Houston songs.
But, if we had handed them an unlocked smartphone with all of its features, it would have set us all up for failure (and endless grueling arguments).
Because smartphones have so many apps and capabilities, they contain a feast of opportunities to break boundaries. It's too easy for a child, who's still developing their felt safety and values, to slip into a smartphone's natural dangers.
This is especially true for children who are victims of past trauma, where felt safety is a must for repairing connection…
If we had chosen a reactive route with our foster daughters, we would have been putting out countless fires in response to issues rather than setting our girls up for success ahead of time.
Looking back, we're happy we chose a kid safe alternative to a typical smartphone. It helped our journey by being proactive rather than reactive, and it allowed a safe space to empower our foster daughters.
5. We Need Support for the Journey
When we bought the Alexa speaker and implemented its boundaries, we did it as a family. We discussed how using it would look each day.
We’re all in this journey to find kid safe phones and tech together. Thanks to Alexa and our wonderful foster daughters, I discovered we cannot navigate this journey in a vacuum.
We need support.
I started Techless and the Wisephone™ platform to give families a wise and kid safe alternative to today’s smartphones. I wanted to support parents navigating the ever-changing world of technology.
Wisephone™ supports families. It prevents screen addiction and helps build healthy lifelong habits. But, it can only do so much. Parenting today is difficult, and we all need other humans to lean on for strength and wisdom.
In my own life, I find support in my wife, my family, my mentors, and my church. When I am short on patience, there is always someone who has a greater store of it. When I am overwhelmed, there is someone else who can help me find balance.
For all the challenges it may bring, parenting is a gift. We have the honor to guide our children as they mature and look toward the future.
May you receive the patience, peace, love, and joy this important task requires.