The word “agency” is often used in association with good parenting, but it can be difficult for most parents to define. What does fostering or building agency mean and why is it important?
“In my experience, fostering agency means facilitating free choice, then making clear connections between the choice and its outcome,” Dr. Joe Dilley, a clinical psychologist and author of the book, The Game Is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug & Reconnect in the Digital Age tells Parentology. “We know from Erik Erikson’s midcentury work that it’s essential for kids to both feel autonomous and to then grasp how their decisions impact [themselves and others] in order for them to ultimately develop capacities like initiative, purpose, competence, and identity.”
That can be a slippery slope for parents. Allowing our children to have a voice should not mean giving them an equal vote for technology rules within the household. Kids don’t always know what’s best — they know what they want. As a result, technology can become the tool for punishment rather than an earned privilege.
This makes fostering agency and using technology responsibly feel like a tough balancing act.
Why Fostering Agency Is Important in Establishing Household Tech Rules
From The Terminator to Battlestar Galactica, science fiction has long warned about the ways technology could take over and destroy humanity. While these apocalyptic visions sound extreme, many parents do worry about the amount of time their children spend on devices.
“But the machine ‘takeover’ isn’t always so conspicuous. It’s typically much more insidious,” Dilley explains, pointing out how both adults and young people are “obsessively, compulsively, and impulsively” checking and posting on their devices. He argues that these actions can further disconnect people from one another.
“When we under-appreciate the massive impact on ourselves and our relationships [by] engaging primarily via texting and social media, our engagements can quickly devolve and become characterized by polarizing dynamics — like groupthink, bullying, resentment, hostility, objectification, ostracization, and so on.”
So creating consistent parenting guidelines for tech use are necessary to build healthy relationships and agency in both children and families.
How Families Can Rebalance the Relationship with Technology
“To rebalance the family’s efforts so that everyone is functioning at a healthy and sustainable level, a subtle change in roles is required,” Dilley advises. “Ideally, the role change will be a return to a structure that promotes agency; the adults facilitate free choice within reasonable parameters and the kids get to learn from the outcomes of their choices.”
While setting reasonable parameters and offering free choice can sound daunting, it’s really not. Dilley suggests parents view the exchange like a college scholarship committee, which allocates funds based on merit. In this example, parents become the committee, while devices are the “funds” and the child’s behavior is the merit.
“Either the ‘applicant’ demonstrates the level of merit required to earn the funds or they don’t. Pretty simple, but more importantly, paradigms like this afford the child or teen the opportunity to develop agency!”
As children see the correlation between their chosen behavior and privileges, they understand the impact of their decision-making. Dilley notes that the home quickly becomes a practice field for real-world scenarios the kid will face in life. He adds, “The parent is not ‘taking away’ the child’s phone [if obligations aren’t met], just as the gas company is not taking away a home’s heating if the tenant doesn’t pay the utility bill; rather, they are no longer offering it for free.”
That said, Dilley notes that many well-meaning parents can be missing a critical piece of the agency and technology puzzle.
“We parents can sometimes be unaware of ways we contradict our words or our partner’s words with our actions,” he says, such as when we tell kids to shut off their phones right before we start texting someone ourselves. “Demonstrating hypocrisy, even unintentionally, or even when we’re ‘using our device to do work’ — Because that’s the kid’s plea, too, isn’t it? — precludes the modeling of integrity and the deepening of trust that are both essential for the kid’s agency to take shape.”
It all comes down to empowering children to make healthy decisions and build meaningful relationships built on integrity and autonomy. Digital devices aren’t going away, but by setting ground rules and fostering agency in young people, it will help families foster interpersonal relationships in an increasingly technology-dependent world.