Monthly Archives: August 2011

Should your teen be Facebook friends with their teachers?

Parenting in the new millenium – these is the kind of question no one needed to ask ten years ago.

There were fewer grey areas in the student-teacher relationship back then. Exchanging telephone numbers was clearly inappropriate. A thank you note dropped in the office mailbox was fine, as was waving hello in the local shopping mall food court. Aside from the occasional incident or rumour, it was pretty straightforward.

Social media changed things. It blurred the conventional methods of communication, making everything seem much less formal.  These new rules weren’t written yet, and relying on common sense wasn’t always particularly helpful but people mostly seemed to figure it out. Or maybe not.

A new law passed in Missouri makes it illegal for teachers to be friends with their students on any social network that allows private communication. This would include Facebook or Twitter. The idea behind the law, quite predictably, is to protect children and teens from predatory adults, but critics worry the law might actually prevent kids at risk from reaching out to trusted adults who could actually offer support.

It seems to me this is actually a much more complicated issue than the panicky rhetoric indicates. I never friended my students when I was a university faculty member, not because I worried about any risk I might pose to them or they to me, but because there are still meaningful divides between our private lives and our public lives. I didn’t need them to see my posts and photos of my kids any more than I wanted to know more than they cared to share in class or in conversation about their relationship woes, parties or trips to New York.

As my kids would say, it’s a case of TMI (too much information).

I don’t think I’m being naive or old-fashioned when I say that line between public and private is still meaningful. The line itself may shift with the times, but it’s still important, whether it’s between adults in a college classroom or kids and teachers in a high school. I had no issues with being contacts on LinkedIn (they were young adults counting on me for professional references, after all) or using email and the telephone to keep in touch. And after the semesters ended and students moved on, there were always a few who kept in touch and gradually crossed the line towards friendship.

But I don’t know many teachers of children and teens who cross that line. And I worry about making these things into confusing new laws. The Missouri bill specifically bans teachers from friending current and former students – does that mean students who’ve graduated are always off-limits? Can’t we just assume that most teachers and most parents will be on top of this? We never legislated teachers phoning their students’ cell phones. We haven’t worried about them texting each other. We didn’t make it illegal for them to send each other holiday cards (though I’m guessing few ever do).

So no, I don’t think your teen should be Facebook friends with their teachers, for all of these reasons and more. This should be a part of every school and school board’s media policy.  And general common sense about this would benefit from discussion and awareness-raising. This is a case where the adults involved really should know better. After all, they are protecting both themselves and their students.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject, whatever your perspective. Feel free to comment here or message me directly.

Making the most of the waning days of summer (or lessons learned from The Breakfast Club)

The back-to-school countdown in our house starts about two weeks before the first day of school.

This is roughly when the schools send out their information about class lists, hot lunch programs and school supplies. It’s usually a week or two after our annual mid-summer camping trip, and once we’ve finished washing, folding and putting away all those items, my mind begins to drift forward to the next set of looming responsibilities.

We try very, very hard not to let the impending start of school ruin the last bit of summer, but it can be hard. Our main strategy is to plan some really fun, special activities with friends, like amusement parks or waterslides. Trips to the farmer’s market. Dinner in Chinatown. Also some sleeping in, lazing around in pyjamas and swimming in the lake after dark.

Now that my older girls are preteens, I also make a real effort to get in some one-on-one time with them. When you have more than one child, it’s so easy to group them into neat categories. I often pair the twins together, because they are so easy-going and can seem very similar in their likes and dislikes. But they have very distinct personalities despite their identical genetic profiles, and really need to have that uniqueness validated. And my youngest assumes the role of the family fireball, grabbing the spotlight and thriving in it, but she is also so much more than that, and has different relationships with each of her sisters.

When you’re parenting, the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. We need to see past the labels, the thumbnail summaries, the established patterns.

This week I’ve taken advantage of the August downtime to host an 80’s teen film festival with a couple of their friends. First they watched Sixteen Candles, then The Breakfast Club. Since they are so enthusiastic, I’ve got Say Anything for tonight (“Mom, why is he holding that huge box radio over his head?” Try and explain ghetto blasters to the iPod generation!).

The reason I’m mentioning this is that I was once again by struck by that resonant line of narration from The Breakfast Club, “We think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions.”

The lovely twist to that film, of course, was that the characters (the jock, the brain, the criminal, the princess, the basket case) come to realize they saw themselves and each other that way as well, exactly like the adults who just don’t get it. In that one magic day of detention, they learn that they each have a bit of each other in themselves.

People are complicated. Multifaceted. It may not seem like rocket science, but this is one of the bigger revelations of growing up and it’s a familiar theme in young adult fiction of all kinds.

Seeing this movie again made me think about how hard we need to try to see beyond the labels. Especially in preteens and teens who are growing and changing every day, who struggle to see themselves as simultaneously similar to everyone else and unique individuals. We need to give them room to surprise us, to defy expectations, to be anomalies, contradictions. To try on different hats.

In these stories (and many other kinds of YA fiction), adults are generally depicted as one-dimensional, disconnected characters, incapable of comprehending the angst and emotional turmoil of the teens around them. They are stuck in their own adult funks, driven by their own agendas and the teens need to figure everything out on their own. Makes me think of incoherent voices of all the grown-ups in the Charlie Brown cartoons. I understand how this is a convenient plot device, and I also get why this disconnect would resonate with teens, but I see it as a challenge to go beyond. We need to work very hard to maintain that dialogue with our kids. Leave our agendas aside as much as possible. Listen instead of lecturing.

So in the last few days of summer, I’m going to spend as much time as possible with each of my three girls one-on-one, letting them pick the activities and drive the conversation. As they head off to start their own high school memories with friends they haven’t yet met, I’m going to challenge myself — and them — to look beyond the surface and let them talk about whatever crosses their minds.

As challenges go, this one is also a privilege. I’m really looking forward to it.

Everything in real time: how our kids see the world

Immediate. Spontaneous. Concurrent.

Everything in real-time. In order to understand how our kids experience the world, we need to understand this real-time reflex.

Real time in media isn’t a terribly new idea. Films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1949), 12 Angry Men (1957), and the amazing Run Lola Run (1998) follow events they occur in the same time frame as the movie. It’s a technique also seen recently in television shows like 24 and Rachael Ray’s 30 Minute Meals. You see it in YouTube videos, video games (such as Prince of Persia, Animal Crossing, Nintendogs).

But beyond mere entertainment, real-time means we’ve become accustomed to using our media as a literal window on the world. We think nothing of news that shows us things as they are happening: wars, revolutions, natural disasters and political intrigue. We demand — and expect — access to our politicians and celebrities on a constant, regular and intimate basis. We put regular folks with conveniently placed cellphone cameras who happen to be in the right place in the right time on the same par as CNN journalists. We’ve also turned the camera back on the Internet itself, watching the conversations people are having online into news (see CBSNews’ What’s Trending)

Our kids are growing up in a world where the minutiae of the everyday is blogged and posted on Facebook or Twitter or Foursquare. They know what their friends had for breakfast, where they are at this very minute and whether they are having a fight with their boyfriend. We adults may complain and worry about how this redefines privacy and trivializes intimacy, but that’s a moot point for them. This is the new normal.

Immediacy also means they see their pictures as soon as they take them, and have them instantly uploaded on their preferred social media tool. It means they know their SAT scores and marks as quickly as possible. It means that when they gamble, they prefer quick rounds of poker or scratch lottery cards to those weekly draws. It means that shopping has become a social media experience (check out Pose, Where to Get It and VIZL).

The real-time reflex means social interaction gets pared down to its bare bones. We used to accept a phone call in place of a formal face-to-face meeting as a time saver. Then email whittled down the social niceties of a phone call or formal letter even further. But our kids don’t often waste their time on emails or phone calls – everything is reduced to the shorthand of a text message. No greetings or sign-offs. No signatures or “how are you’s?” Just “lmk” and “ttyl” and “lmao.”

This isn’t meant as a critique, but simply an observation. It helps us understand how to parent and teach our kids more effectively. We don’t always have to adapt to this real-time reflex, but it can help us understand the cadence of their daily lives. You might you get faster and more helpful messages from your teen about where they are and what they are doing if you text them instead of calling their cellphones. And you might gain some insight into their stressors and anxieties by understanding how their lives are played out in real-time on social media.