The things that influence children’s lives today are markedly different from the things we grew up with. The phone is no longer just for talking, but for sending text messages and photos, playing games and surfing the Web. The television is not just a big black box, but a movie-like screen on the wall— or it’s a small iPod filled with favorite shows to watch on the go.

And then there’s the Internet. A Pandora’s Box offering almost limitless discovery and opportunity, the Internet also brings some very real dangers and temptations.

How is a caring parent supposed to stay on top of all these new technologies? Even 4th and 5th graders seem significantly more skilled at finding their way around the technology maze than their parents ever could.

One thing we can’t afford to do is turn a blind eye. Technology is such a major part of children’s daily lives that parents shouldn’t shirk their responsibilities in this area. You may be doing a fantastic job parenting in all other aspects of your child’s life. However, without understanding at least the basics of computers, you cannot relate to your children’s ever-expanding digital world.

It is crucial to get involved in computers when children are young— the younger the better! As parents, one of the most comforting things we can do for our kids is to be there for them when they have to step into the unknown or do something different for the first time. Whether it’s their first day at a new school, a trip to the doctor’s office or the debut Little League game, children feel comforted when we are there to support them. And, whether an endeavor goes well or not, children should know they can always rely on their family for support.

This approach works just as well for children’s first steps into the digital world. Most parents with older children can remember each child’s initial interest in the computer. Parents also remember their surprise— and pride— at the dexterity most children show when they get their hands on a keyboard. And those are fun days, when your child watches what you do on the computer and you explore the Disney Channel Web site or Yahoo Kids together.

What might come as more of a surprise is that this approach doesn’t have to change. Sure, as your kids get older they will want additional privacy and may not appreciate you looking over their shoulders whenever they are on the computer. However, the family approach to technology and the continuing exploration of the Internet is still the best way to set standards and help your kids get on the right track.

If technology has never been your thing, rest assured that it’s not that difficult to grasp some fundamentals and get up to speed. With a positive approach, learning new technologies is entertaining and educational. That’s why our kids love computers so much!

Be mindful that the steps that most parents can take to become more tech-savvy vary dramatically with how old their children are and how much influence technology currently has on their lives. However, there are basic things parents can do whatever the age of their child. Here are some tips to get started.

Show an Interest. Make an effort to understand what technology your child is interested in and what he or she likes to do. Is he into video games? Which ones and why? Does she have an iPod? What model is it and which songs has she downloaded? As your children get older, their tastes and levels of sophistication change. However, it’s a lot easier to change with them and stay involved if you take the first steps together.

Connect With Your Kids. How do your kids primarily communicate with each other and with their friends— by e-mail, IM or text messages? Get connected and join in the fun. Don’t just rely on phone calls when your older kids are out and about. Learn how to reach your older kids and teens with text messages. You’ll be surprised at how quickly kids respond to a parent’s text.

Start a Dialogue. Talk to your kids about technology and in particular about what they do and where they go on the Internet. Ask them to show you their favorite Web sites. If you have teens in the house, ask them if they have MySpace or Facebook accounts, which they almost certainly do. Ask them to show you their profile pages. When children are younger, surf the Web together and make sure you know if they are connecting with friends online.

Empower Yourself. Confirm that the family computer has Internet filtering or monitoring software. You don’t have to check in on what your child is doing every day. But the fact that you can, and they know you can, helps set the right tone for responsible behavior.

Teach Children About Inappropriate Behavior. If you or you child encounter inappropriate behavior online, whether it’s violent video games, cyber-bullying or online predators, don’t ignore it. Act on the misconduct by talking to your child about the issue, bringing up the subject with another child’s parents or reporting it to the appropriate authorities.

Talk to Other Parents. Share your tech experiences with your child’s friends and their parents. Make sure that the standards you expect from your children at home are followed when they are elsewhere.

I can’t guarantee that with a little tech knowledge you will instantly become the coolest parent on the block. Yet, you may get a little well-earned respect from the younger members of the household— and open a whole new world for yourself at the same time .

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