We sent our baby off to her first day of fifth grade yesterday. Never mind that our baby is over five feet tall, brimming with that distinctive tween mix of confidence and curiosity. She hasn’t let me walk her into class since she started pre-kindergarten at four years old, but she always makes an exception on the first day.
I love that half-hearted squeeze of my hand when she sees her friends, taking off and leaving my holding the bag of carefully labelled school supplies. “Bye Mom!”
She never looks back; I don’t turn around until she’s out of sight. That’s what parenting is all about.
The bittersweet mixture of pride, sadness, relief that accompanies the start of a new school year is tempered for many parents by a concern about new issues, such as Internet safety and responsibility, and old issues with a new twist, such as cyberbullying. These are subjects that come up again and again in the hallways, carpool lines and anywhere that parents gather. Many feel unsure of themselves, as if the rules have changed. They see new pitfalls and dangers that didn’t seem to be there when we were kids.
They are both right and wrong. Digital technologies place new, powerful devices in our kids’ hands that can get them — and others — into more trouble than most of us ever knew at their ages. But the parenting techniques that we can use to keep them safe aren’t vastly different: education, moderation, guidance, supervision, encouragement.
Over the past few years, I’ve given many, many workshops on bullying, cyberbullying and Internet safety and responsibility to groups of parents at schools, community organizations, libraries, churches and synagogues. I work hard to empower parents with practical tips they can use to keep their kids safe and teach them responsibility, but I also make sure to reassure them that they are probably already doing most things right. Parenting is still parenting, and you need to trust your good instincts when you make decisions for your children. Complement that with some specific education and resources for keeping up to date, and you are doing just fine.
About five years ago, a parenting magazine for which I do a lot of freelance writing asked for my review on a safety product that had been mailed in to their offices by a PR agency. It was a wrist band that small children could wear around swimming pools, ponds and lakes. Immersion in water would set off a wireless alarm, letting adults know that their immediate attention was required.
Water is dangerous. Parents and supervising adults need constant vigilance. While any tool that seems to offer additional supervision would seem to be a great idea, I’m not convinced. These kinds of products can also lead the adults who should be watching to get lazy, to stop paying constant, close attention. To forgetting to latch the gate. Or turning away for one moment to answer the phone.
Things don’t have judgement like people do. Kids pull bracelets off when adults aren’t looking. Batteries fail. Connections aren’t made.
It’s too easy to let something else do the watching when it should really be us.
I think about this every time someone asks me about Internet surveillance software for their kids and teens. Like the pool monitor, our initial instinct is to say “Yes, great! Let’s watch them in every way possible to keep them safe!”
But it doesn’t usually work out that way in actual practice. If you are using SocialShield or UKnowKids or McGruff to remotely monitor your kids’ activities online, then the temptation is to relax and stop asking them so many questions. Maybe you don’t need to connect their Facebook page to your email account so you can get notifications. Maybe you don’t need to regularly sit down with them and review their news feed, or the text messages on their phones. After all, you now have a fancy dashboard that shows you who they are talking to, what sites they are visiting and what photos they are posting online.
You’re still missing out on something. As with the pool safety monitor, you are missing out on the direct connection to your kid. You are missing out on the shared processing of all this information and communication. The chance to ask them about something they posted in casual conversation, or to remark on the cool gif they made or funny video they posted. And because this direct monitoring puts you in each others’ faces from time to time (with all the eye-rolling, groaning and moaning this may elicit from your kid), they actively self-censor what they do on the Internet.
This is exactly what you want, right? You want them to pause before they click “send” or “post” and think “Will this freak my mother/ father out?” Because if it won’t freak you out, it probably won’t be mistaken for bullying, or sexting or potentially embarrassing material that may prevent them from being elected to office in 25 years. The hope is that eventually they will learn to internalize this filter. Which is when you can pull back and give them a little more incremental freedom.
A recent survey by Cox Communications found 34% of tweens said they lied to parents about what they have been doing online; only 18% of parents knew about this. Why would we want to put even more distance between us by watching them from afar? That’s a rhetorical question actually. I know the answer — because our kids hate it. A 2011 Pew Internet study found that monitoring increased the number of arguments between parents and kids. But while it’s tempting to hide behind monitoring software to avoid the conflict that results from asking your 13-year-old daughter to log into her Facebook account with you, it doesn’t accomplish much.
With all those fancy surveillance tools, it’s just too easy for kids to forget mom and dad are watching, because it doesn’t come up in conversation all the time. It isn’t in their face. They are lulled into forgetting. And since the object isn’t to catch them doing something wrong (or drowning, heaven forbid, to extend the pool metaphor) but to keep them safe, that’s not much good.
So don’t send me an email telling me that the pool safety wristguard saved your nephew’s life or some Internet software stopped a bullying scandal, because I’m happy for you. Really. I’m glad harm has been avoided.
I don’t think these services or objects are inherently evil. But I do think they are the easy way out. They are a job half-done. They make it too easy to keep a constant, honest, eyes-peeled, mind sharp watch on our kids, at least until they are old enough to watch out for themselves, whether they are at the pool or up in their room with an iPad.
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"What a crucial conversation, and what a talented speaker! Dr. Alissa Sklar’s presentation to Akiva School’s parent body was full of clear, relevant, down-to-earth facts presented in a highly engaging manner. No jargon, no scare tactics – just solid information and excellent advice. A no-risk program for parents." -Frances (Cooki) Levy, Head of The Akiva School ("The Power of Positive Parenting: Preventing Risky Behaviors for All Ages")
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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