virtual parenting

Three rules to address the challenges of virtual parenting

Parenting over Zoom pushes us to be better parents

joanne katesParenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.


There was the moment, during the October spike, when one of my young adult offspring looked me in the eye and said he was planning on continuing to socialize with close friends. Not a good moment. Especially given the adorable grandchild.

The newspapers are full of warnings about 30-somethings getting COVID and endangering their parents and grandparents. But they don’t help us figure out how to maintain our relationships virtually. Which is pretty thin gruel compared to the real thing.

I often think, at family dinners, that it’s not so much about anything we say to each other, but that our closeness is what happens in the unpredictable interstices between the small talk and dessert — that as long as we break bread together, or drive in a car together, our relationship is alive, even if nothing meaningful gets said from one visit to another.

So much for virtual parenting.

Do you dispute my verb, that we are still parenting long after the fledglings leave the nest? Of course we are. We parent till we die; it’s indelible in our DNA. We can’t help the impulse to connect and to try to influence them. And now it’s about 10 times harder. Minus the soups and stews, what can I put in front of them when we’re on screen?

I have come to hate Zoom, for the limitations we all know, for its — literally — two-dimensional nature. For its lack of nuance. For the way it decimates social cues.

Virtual parenting pushes us to be better parents than we want to be. When I’m in person with my kids, I allow myself all kinds of liberties, make missteps, open my big mouth and know that it can almost always be dialed back with an apologetic facial expression, a placating voice tone and, of course, the gold standard — a hug.

Minus all those in-person warm fuzzies, we have to step up to being better parents. Much more correct. By the book. What does this mythical rule book say about how to parent young adults virtually? The rules of engagement are simple, and yet I still find them almost impossible to follow. Whenever I fall off the wagon (which is frequently) I always regret it.

Rule 1: Never tell them what to do. Does it matter that we’ve been through whatever they’re going through, and we know it ends badly if they fail to change course? Not a bit. Their developmental mandate requires them to a) refuse our advice, and indeed get sullen when we offer it, and b) learn by making their own mistakes. We can’t put the baby gate on the stairs to protect them from tumbles.

Rule 2: Their friends, lovers, spouses and everyone else they like are all perfect. Anything said to the contrary will get us in relationship hot water. Even (especially?) when we know for sure we’re right.

Rule 3: Every choice they make is the right one. Even when it isn’t.

You get the theme here? If we value our relationship over being right, we will never never never offer instructions or advice about how they should live their lives. Unless asked, which is unlikely.

What then do we do? How to fill the air time? Think back to when they were six. “How was your day?…. What did you do that was fun?… What did you do that was hard?… Who did you play with?… Was it fun?… How are they?… What are you looking forward to?… Tell me more…”

You get my drift? Draw them out. Be a world-class listener. If you’re really lucky, and if the stars align, your great listening skills and obvious empathy will encourage your young adult kids to tell you more about their lives. And to come to you for help — or maybe even a little advice — when they really need it. Because a core irony of human nature is that when people — especially our parents — listen well to us, really listen, with patience and love, we tend to think they’re really smart and a good person to turn to in times of trouble.

There’s only one way to make a metaphoric deposit in our young adult offspring’s emotional ATM — by listening. So Zoom away: When the going gets tough, the tough shut up and listen.

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