Saturday, July 23, 2016

Parent Chat by Matt McKee (Book Review #33 of 2016)

Parent Chat: The Technology Talk for Every Family

FTC Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my review. The views below are my own.

Parent Chat answers every parent's question of "How do I begin?" in communicating with their children about technology use and thinking about how much we use devices around each other. It offers some helpful guidelines in starting a conversation and beginning to think about how best to protect your children without damaging your relationship or limiting their creativity. This book is not a drawn-out treatise or a theology of technology. It is not preachy or overly prescriptive. At 100 small pages, it has about as many words as a long-form magazine article or a Kindle Single. No fluff, just practical thoughts, with some personal anecdotes and humor along the way in the form of clever cartoons. I would recommend this to any parent who is asking "Should I be concerned about what my daughter is finding online?" I recommend it to counselors and pastors who are dealing with families wrestling with these topics. (There are even some blank pages for notes.)

(Note: I had a paperback copy but would recommend the Kindle version instead. The links work in the Kindle version, and the paperback is missing the family Cellphone Agreement which is found on the website: )

I think the real "gold" in this book are the pages offering tips on how to best start a conversation with your child so that you are not left with one-word answers like "nothing." Practice eliciting their opinions rather than extracting facts. Ex: "What is something that has surprised you recently?" or "What is the craziest thing your friends are doing right now?" rather than just "What did you do at school today?" Engage your child by asking him to teach you something. A question like "Can you teach me how to...?" shows your child respect and encourages their creativity, while you get to learn about his world (p. 50-53).

I know the author-- he's my wife's brother-in-law. While that biases my review, I can tell you what he doesn't say in his book: Matt and his wife are the people who stand in line for every new iPhone release (he wears an Apple Watch); they have Apple stickers for each family member on their rear windshield (yes, they're that family). He used to own a company that built apps and made a living encouraging people to embrace mobile technology. His sons had screentime at very young ages. But as the boys have matured, so has Matt's view of how they use technology and the more mindful he's become about the example he personally sets. When he writes that they now judge a "good week" as one in which they spend most nights around the dinner table together without technology, that's a big deal (p. 54). When he writes that he deleted all the games off his phone so as not to embitter his children whose game time he was limiting, that's a really big deal.

As families, we won't remember many of the things we did online. Ten years from now I won't say "Remember that time I tweeted...?" I'll say "Remember that time we visited that park with the cave?" The irony is that even when we are in the same room we seem increasingly to want to isolate ourselves by spending time on the games and apps that will ultimately mean nothing to us. At an extreme, particularly as adolescents, we feel disconnected and then socially awkward. "The more people interact with screens or technology, the more people crave real, face-to-face relationships" (p. 36). Parent Chat subtly makes the point that it's possible for technology to bring us closer together and be more productive, but we have to set some boundaries rather than let it master us.

In terms of safety, the author makes a great observation-- adults look at a new tool practically with a cost-benefit analysis and ask "What will it do for me?" Kids look at it and ask "What CAN it do?" (p. 42). Kids tend to explore and push things beyond their intended limits, which is why they can suddenly end up doing things their parents would not allow (or what adults would have been afraid to try). Before bringing a new piece of technology into your home ask "What can it do?" (ie: What's the worst that could happen?) and figure out what you're okay with that tool doing, as a parent.

Matt's family has set time and space boundaries for technology, customizable boundaries that are different for each person in his household. That comes from conversations and getting to know their children individually. He mentions the new Circle with Disney as one tool for helping with boundaries; Matt is a paid spokesman for the product but doesn't try to sell it (or any other product) in the book.

If you are looking for something simple and non-threatening that you can read in an hour or less that will help get you started communicating better with your family and figuring out where you want technology to stand in your household, this is your book.

4 stars out of 5.

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