"Schools and Parenting in a More Complex Digital Age" by Head of School Bob Henderson
As the tenure of my headship enters its closing year, people ask me with greater frequency what has changed most about school leadership over the more than two decades I have been a head and over the more than three decades I have been a senior administrator. The answer is quite straightforward: these institutions are vastly more complicated enterprises than early in my career.
Many examples illustrate my point, but one of the best involves email. I honestly have a hard time recalling how I did my job before email. I do remember that the voice message indicator was always lit up on my phone in the old days, and very rarely is that so now. Somehow, calling has always been a bit more difficult than emailing, and so today the sheer volume of email is nearly overwhelming. I spend multiple hours every day responding to and composing it. Has email helped my job? I suppose it has in some ways, particularly in the efficiency and immediacy of communication. But how much less time do I actually spend making eye contact and really getting to know people? At my core, I still believe in the fundamental efficacy of management by walking around and having an accessible and open office door. I am not a Luddite and I accept advancing technology as both helpful in many ways and inevitable. And yet, I harbor no doubt that technology, and email specifically, has not simplified my professional life.
My observation of the student experience at Nobles reveals the power of the same influences. When I had peer difficulties in middle and high school, I mostly left them behind when I departed the campus. I heavily utilized the phone outside of school hours, but those conversations were limited and binary. Today, through electronic means, many, if not most, teenagers never escape the social whirl. Those conversations come home and carry over oftentimes right up to sleep, interfering with family relationships and schoolwork. Moreover, such digital discussions and exchanges, through whatever media, can be infinitely and instantaneously shared. Having grown up in this environment, our kids really do not know another way. Yet I am more often than not struck by how technology has escalated the stress and pressures of their existences even as it has provided new and enticing forms of exchange, entertainment and access to information.
I remember the decision my wife, Ross, and I made to allow our three sons to have cell phones at some point during their middle school years. I can tell you honestly that what drove that relenting (and expensive) moment was our own self-interest – for them to have mobile access was more convenient for us as parents, keeping track of their movements and plans and our family agendas. There is nothing wrong with that and my guess is that most Nobles parents arrive at the same decision in a similar manner. Yet, I have to say, at that very moment we gave in, we gave something up, and along with the convenient communication we gained, we irretrievably shifted family dynamics and modes of interaction in the direction of digital communication. Today, perhaps like many of you, I fully concede that if I want my progeny’s attention, I need to text.
There is no simple answer to these circumstances. Banning cell phones at the upper school level, for instance, is impractical and unenforceable because students organize their very lives around their devices, and even their assignments and academic world are accessed in significant measure through the phone. What I propose, however, is relatively easy yet requires deliberate effort and attention.
We need to be aware of the escalating complexity of modern life and take the steps we can to resist it. We need to engage personally and directly with the people we care about. We need to insist on as much time as we practically can away from our digital communicators. I take a very basic step with the senior administrators of the school, for example, and require that they not exchange any emails or other digital communications over weekends unless it is an emergency. After all, to do so is just dumping their problems on someone else when convenient as opposed to more respectfully waiting until Monday morning. I encourage all parents to look for the minor means by which we can make our lives a little more analog and thereby less complex – the small things can add up to a big difference. You will be doing a genuine parenting service for your kids, and if you model this in your own behavior, even when they do not seem to recognize or appreciate it you are doing right by them in the long run.