“My friends are going to the mall alone — can I go too?”
All of these requests have one thing in common: freedom. They are each small increments of freedom from parental control. In each case there are potential risks; they all imply a level of trust.
As parents, we need to make decisions about what our kids can handle, and balance them with the things that can go wrong — and right. And when parents ask my advice on what the right answers are for many of these things at different ages, I suggest one overall guideline:
Freedom is a privilege to be earned through the demonstration of consistent, good judgement and behaviour.
That means that the child who regularly gets his homework done without a fuss after dinner should probably be allowed to watch TV (or play a video game or whatever is agreed). The child who makes healthy choices should be allowed to pack her own lunch for school. The teenager who checks in regularly when she’s out with her friends, respects her curfew and answers her cellphone when you call may be ready for additional incremental steps of freedom.
Each freedom suggests its own rules: the cellphone must be kept charged and answered when you call. It can’t be used in school in violation of school rules. Usage can’t exceed agreed upon limits for talking and texting. They need to review their text messages with a parent from time to time.
The teen who wants to borrow the family car needs to follow the rules of the road, keep it clean and gassed up. Never drink and drive.
And so on.
What about when kids break the rules? Because that’s going to happen. Testing limits is part of growing up, after all.
When my kids break the rules, we discuss what it means. Usually, there is some backpedaling on their freedom for some time: the iPad that isn’t supposed to be used after lights out gets put back downstairs in the kitchen charging station where it used to go. The weekly Facebook page reviews with mom or dad that have fallen by the wayside become a part of our routines once again.
And as they demonstrate good judgement over time, we continue to offer back those increments of freedom and independence.
Yes, it does sound like common sense. Most parents practice this in one form or another. But the critical thing is to explain the underlying logic to your kids. They need to see the cause and effect logic in their behaviours and privileges.
They also need to understand that if we choose to let them go downtown alone with their friends (or go on a date, or walk to school by themselves), it’s because they’ve earned our trust over time.
And since you know your own kids, you can help decide when they are ready for the responsibilities that come with each freedom. One child may be able to handle her own Facebook account at 12; another may need to wait until they are older. There is no magic age when kids are ready.
Those freedoms aren’t doled out like random rewards — they are their due for playing by our rules.
When my then 12-year-old twin daughters got their first cellphones last August, I was crystal clear about the conditions of responsible use, especially the ones about passwords shared with mom and dad, texts and messages to be subject to our occasional supervision.
It was the same deal with Facebook and other social networks. I don’t read their diaries or private written correspondence, but anything one of my tweens or young teens puts into digital format is a whole different story. They don’t yet have the judgement or experience to know how the words they write can potentially end up hurting them — or someone else.
We hear about these stories all the time: otherwise good kids who get into trouble because they don’t fully appreciate how texting or Internet use can be taken out of context, be modified without permission, get forwarded or copied to the wrong people or used against them. Or they share their passwords with someone they thought was a friend (but wasn’t). Or someone tags them in an unflattering picture. Or they post a video without their friend’s permission.
At any rate, having explained and established these rules, I naïvely thought we were all on the same page. As time went on and they showed consistent, responsible use of these communication tools, we’d give them additional small increments of the freedom they had earned. I thought I had it all figured out.
Turns out I was wrong. Each exercise of my supervision brought on more urgent protests, all variations on the same theme: “Why don’t you trust me?”
Why on earth? Why shouldn’t I trust them? More objective sources than their mother will certainly attest to the fact that they are genuinely good kids, mature for their age, top-notch students. They (mostly) help around the house and (mostly) do their chores.
So what kind of horrible mother am I, to put them through such invasions of their privacy? Am I excessively controlling? Totally neurotic? A social media-obsessed helicopter parent?
While all those things are possibly true, I’m more inclined to say I’m primarily a realist. Also, I’m a mother who also happens to have done a lot of research into kids’ use of technology. And high-risk behaviours. One who knows that effective parenting is more about establishing firm limits than about indulging their passionate whims.
I’ve always been a big believer in letting them learn from their own mistakes, of the value of natural consequences. Skinned knees and B minuses and all that jazz. But the stakes are much higher when it comes to mistakes made online – the consequences are potentially much more serious. I wouldn’t leave my 12-year-olds alone for a weekend, so I’m certainly not going to turn them loose on the Internet.
And you know what? Almost every time I review their texts or posts, I see something we need to discuss, or something I file away as a parental “need to know.” As much as they fight it, we’ve had some good talks, and learned from their own and others’ actions the finer points of texting and social media etiquette.
Just to be clear, this kind of supervision is not an overly frequent occurrence. In the year since they got their own iPads for school and cellphones for their personal use, I have done it less and less. I’ve mostly seen responsible behaviour from them, so I now allow them to use them in their rooms (doors open) and sometimes to even charge them there overnight (as long as they go to sleep).
It’s also not something I do in secret. I don’t sneak their phones away from them or read their Facebook news feeds when they aren’t looking. I do it with them, with their knowledge.
But if I ever had an inkling that something was truly wrong, that bullying or drugs or a health issue were involved, I would have no problem doing it without telling them. That’s why I need their passwords. And they know this. Failure to inform me or their father of their passwords means they forfeit the phones, the iPads, the Internet access.
So when they roll their eyes and say “Why don’t you trust me?” I have these five responses ready. Sometimes I only need to get to two or three and we can move on. Some days I need to repeat all 5 and they are still angry and annoyed.
I’m doing this because I love you. If I didn’t care, I would let them make terrible mistakes and get into trouble without any supervision at all. This response won’t get you any superficial recognition or appreciation, sort of like imposing curfews. But they will be secretly, unconsciously relieved that we impose limits out of love.
I’m doing this because you don’t yet have the developmental capacity to exercise consistent good judgement over your actions. You can explain teenage brain development until you are blue in the face (check out this excellent article for a quick primer on how your teen’s brain works), but they are unlikely to accept it. After all, they feel really mature, so what are we going on about?
I’m doing this because giving you unrestricted access to these powerful communication technologies would be like handing a 15-year-old boy the keys to a Ferrari. Most full-grown adults don’t fully understand the power of the Internet, so why assume kids will? I’ve made some of my own cringe-inducing errors on the Internet over the years, out of ignorance, carelessness or lack of tech savvy. There’s a learning curve here that educators and experts are only starting to appreciate. Facebook is the largest de facto sociological experiment in the history of humanity, and yet we don’t think much about recording all our intimate personal data for others to see. What will this mean to us in 20 years? What will it mean to our kids?
I’m doing this because if you know I am watching, you may be more careful and less likely to post the wrong things. Eventually, the self-censoring parental presence (the one that is currently whispering “I can’t post that – Mom and Dad will kill me!”) will hopefully be assimilated and internalized into their own voice of moderation (“I shouldn’t post that, it might prove embarrassing/ hurtful”). Actually, it’s interesting to note that kids eventually seem to forget their parents are watching, unless they go through the occasional exercise of reviewing their posts together.
So how long do you have to do this? At what age can you just relax the reins and let them have more privacy? The answer is that there is no magic age. You know your own kid better than anyone. The acid test is whether they have consistently demonstrated responsibility and good judgement in this area. Gradually step back as a reward. If they make a mistake or overstep their bounds, step in a little closer. Over time most kids quickly learn. But until they are old enough to show the kind of care these tools deserve, don’t fool yourself into thinking everything is OK just because you aren’t paying attention.
Because love and trust aren’t necessarily the same thing when it comes to raising our kids.
This isn’t just your usual boring, annoying reminder to participate in my quick parenting survey about kids and technology. That’s because the initial response has been so positive, and I’d like to share a few of the emerging facts BEFORE I urge you all to: 1) spend two minutes to complete it yourself (if you haven’t already) and 2) to please share/ repost it for your friends and followers.
One of the questions I ask parents was what their top concerns were about having their kids online. Now it’s important to bear in mind that all my respondents, since they found me through my blog, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or some other online source, are already at least somewhat comfortable online, and this may colour their responses somewhat. Nevertheless, their top 5 concerns jive pretty closely with what I’ve been hearing from parents in workshops over the years.
Personal information is really a huge concern, as it should be. Not only do parents worry about the privacy issues, but they are also concerned their kids may jeopardize their future job and social prospects with inappropriate posts now while they are young. Time is a huge issues, and helping our kids control the impulse to be online constantly is a difficult battle to win when most adults struggle with the same issue. Finally, dealing with sexual and violent content on the Internet remains a justifiable concern, as research indicates in desensitizes our kids to these things at younger and younger ages. There are other concerns listed here as well, and some parents were kind enough to share their own fears with me as well.
These results are fascinating to me, and I plan to spend a lot more time discussing them individually, but I need your help. The amount of data I’ve collected is a great start, but I’m still limited by what I can say until I get the numbers of responses up there. Please help me out by sending the link (https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/RWRparentsurvey) to your friends and colleagues, sharing it on your walls or Twitter accounts, or even putting it at the bottom of your own blog posts.
In return, I promise to write about the results and offer some practical suggestions to parents and teachers based on current research, best practices and whole load of common sense. Because as a mom of three pre-teens/ teens myself, I know how confusing it can be to stare at a lot of scary numbers. My goal is to translate those charts into practical steps that will make sense in your home, with your kids.
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RiskWithinReason is intended as a support and information resource. If you need counselling for your child, consider contacting a trained child psychologist. Your family doctor or CLSC can recommend one, or you can also visit Collage Therapies at http://www.collagetherapies.ca/en