They dated in the pager era, Lisa Ferguson says about her high school sweetheart and now husband, Benny. MySpace arrived after marriage. Somewhere between Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, they had four children.
“We've been together over 20 years,” Lisa says about Benny. “We had a lot of time growing with each other and understanding our differences and our likes. When we had kids, we definitely wanted to make sure that we stayed in constant communication about how we would parent.”
They had to work out their own digital parenting approach, too. For example, they know the passwords to their kids’ devices, but they don’t use them to snoop. They talk with their kids face-to-face more, so they can worry less about too much screen time. And when situations pop up—like a cyberbully incident with their oldest son, Tre’—they focus on one thing: How do we coach this child through this experience so he can stand on his own and be stronger on the other side?
“It's more of us getting out of the way to allow them to make mistakes,” Benny says. “Not so much protecting them from situations but helping them to grow through it.”
For parents like the Fergusons, raising kids in the digital age can feel like walking through a world of extremes. Expert advice varies, and while some study the benefits of raising kids screen-free, 42% of children worldwide use a smartphone in the classroom. Reports come and go, but most parents are just navigating their way through it one text at a time.
The Fergusons talk a lot about the kind of relationship they want with their kids. Benny is a business coach who specializes in shifting mindsets to get results, and Lisa is a music promoter and childcare business owner. They both want a relationship with their kids based on open, honest conversations.
“The house is set up so they're comfortable doing what they do,” Benny says. “So, it's odd if they try to hide—it's out of the norm. Doors are open and you can walk by without actually walking in on them and hear what they're watching and hearing what they're listening to.”
With four children at such different ages, the Fergusons have adopted a digital parenting style that works for everyone as well as one that’s unique to each kid. Here’s how they are handling each age range.
Talk it through and stay out of the way.
When an incident at Tre’s school led to some intense exchanges on social media, Benny and Lisa coached Tre’ through a cyberbully situation—and stayed out of the way.
Benny: “It was challenging because we didn't have a blueprint. We just kind of had an idea about who we wanted them to be as young adults and adults. So that stops you from saying, ‘Hey, let me protect him from this.’ You can't just protect them.
“We wanted to take him through it, lead him through it, so he would become bigger, stronger and have a broader perspective on the other side of the situation. And, you know, as rough as it was, that's what happened. And he became somebody that other people were gravitating to.
“Even if your kid isn’t being cyberbullied, talk to them, make sure that they know their worth so that nothing affects them. They're able to pull through it themselves. Just stay with it.”
Lisa: “We were able to talk with him and say, ‘Okay, well, who are you in this? Do you believe what this person is saying?’ And he said, ‘Well, no.’ And we talked a lot—I mean, a lot—going through that period of time.
“And he has just blossomed, grown, started his own business. I mean, he has no fear: No one can do anything or say anything to him that hurts him, because he knows who he is. So, that was an amazing feat that we had to jump through.
“As his younger brothers and sisters watched him go through it, I wanted them to learn: ‘Hey, I can stand up for myself, just like my brother did.’”
With cyberbullying, just turn the phone off. Reading the comments, it gets worse and worse, but if you just put the phone down and look at it—it's just a device. Then it really can’t affect you anymore.
Ryas, 11, and Kendrick, 13
Worry when they stop asking questions.
Benny: “With the guys, when I hear or anticipate that they have come in contact with sexual stuff at school, I go straight at it. I make an outline and I have a conversation and we completely talk about it. And it knocks out the curiosity—because they're seeing this stuff at school. So, when they can come to me and ask me questions, I know that they have reached a level of maturity where I don't have to worry about it anymore. “
Lisa: “Our specific goal for them is that we allow them to experience things that they are interested in. Again, it's that ‘ear shot’ kind of situation, listening in, seeing what they're doing. I like to just walk in and plop on the bed and ask, ‘Hey, what are you talking about? How do you feel about that?’ It's still that personal communication with them to make sure that I know what's going on and they're still comfortable showing me what they're doing and how they're doing it.
Be the parental control—but don’t control what she’s interested in.
Lisa: “When she's watching YouTube, I like to watch with her. I like to find out what she’s interested in. So, by learning what she likes about certain things, we can then go out—outside of social media or outside of YouTube—and find those things that she's interested in and do that in a physical sense, versus her seeing in a digital sense.
“I feel like having that listening ear is a better parental control than just leaving it to chance.”
What do the kids think?
When you ask the Ferguson kids if they can talk to their parents about anything, all four said yes. Why?
“Because I can trust them,” says Kendrick, 13. And Ryas, 11, likes knowing his parents will tell him to get off the phone if he’s been on it too long. “Because you learn you can restrain yourself.”
Sarai is just happy she can watch Collins Key on YouTube, because they make “a lot of pancakes but they're not the circle ones. They're action figures.” (She likes Wonder Woman.)
Tre’ recognizes that, as the oldest, he was the test case, and his parents have had a chance to tweak their style along the way. But, with the younger ones growing up, it’s getting a trickier.
“With my siblings, there's more technology now,” Tre’ says. “When I was little, the one thing I knew was Nintendo. That was it. Just the old Nintendo. But my little brothers and sisters, they have tablets and phones, so it's just a little different.
“But overall, I think my parents are doing a good job.”