Posted by: schooleducator | April 24, 2009

Smart Parenting in the Facebook Age

Throughout my middle school years, each spring on the last weekend of the school year, I traveled with my father down to Williamsburg, Virginia for a soccer tournament. Timing could not have been worse as this was the weekend before final exams. Along with my soccer gear, I tugged my numerous textbooks and notebooks so that I could review between games in our hotel room. This of course was not by choice, but my father demanded it of me. While my teammates traipsed off to Busch Gardens amusement park for an afternoon careening up and down the Rebel Yell, I sat in the hotel room with my father studying! At the time, I hated him for this.

But we would soon dig into the material and invariably my father would want to talk about history, one of his passions, and soon to be one of my passions. He would pick out a chapter in the book and we would just chat about the different meanings and he would quiz me here and there. Ironically, I don’t have much memory of any of the soccer games I played on those weekends, but the image of my father sitting on the hotel room floor flipping through the pages of a ratty old history textbook the size of the phone book is etched into my recollections of those weekends in Williamsburg.

Years later, as I entered the teaching profession, I reminded my father of those special bonding history study sessions. However, amazingly, he did not have any memory of those moments. In fact, when I mentioned it to him on the phone one night, his response was, “What are you talking about?” I responded incredulously, “What do you mean, Dad, don’t you remember making me stay in that hotel room in Williamsburg to study for my final exams?” His response: “I don’t remember that at all.”

As parents and educators, we often do not know what will “stick” with children. My father had no idea that he had created such a powerful impression on me in his insistence that I study with him. But, thirty years later, I can still recall the Williamsburg hotel room with crystal clarity.

The Facebook age demands that parents be present for their children. One child laments that his mother spends more time on her cell phone than in conversation with him. Another child sadly relays that his mother checks her email every second of the day, even during dinner. At Passover Seder just a few weeks ago my wife mentioned to me that one of the guests was checking his iPhone and texting throughout the Seder. I had not even noticed as I was sitting across the table from the guest. I’m not sure what Elijah would make of this.

The challenge parents face today is not wholly different from the limits our parents put on us thirty years ago. I had friends whose parents had Twinkies and Atari and my parents refused to succumb to such “vices.” I resented them at the time. Today, parents wrestle with whether to let their child get an account on Facebook. They dread the battle if they say no. And, they are not sure how to say no.

Author Harlan Coben, in a New York Times op-ed, “The Undercover Parent,” raises the irony with this parental paralysis: “Today’s overprotective parents fight their kids’ battles on the playground, berate coaches about playing time and fill out college applications – yet when it comes to chatting with pedophiles or watching beheadings or gambling away their entire life savings, then…then their children deserve independence?”

Schools need to help parents find the language to use to speak to their children about limits. Parents feel alone. Some resent the wave of technology sweeping their children out to sea, while others simply are at a loss as to how to engage a conversation with their teenager, who, naturally and developmentally, is pushing away from them to be more independent. One student states this sentiment perfectly: “I would prefer if my parents minded their own business. My email is my business and they have no right to it.” However, other students see the value of parental involvement: “I feel very safe online. My father taught me very good Internet strategies when I was very young, so I feel very comfortable when I’m on the Internet.” This child’s dad should be celebrated for having the conversation about safe Internet use when his child was at a young age. It is important that parents create the culture at home at an early age. The longer they wait, the more difficult it is to draw clear boundaries and the more push back they will receive from their child.

Surprisingly, counter to the stereotype of the out of touch parent, parents are plugged in to their teen’s online life. According to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 65% of parents check to see what websites their child views and 74% know whether or not their child has a social networking site profile.

Legendary Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight used to say that if the chemistry teacher at IU was making an impact on a student, and he was struggling to reach that same student, he would go talk to the chemistry teacher to find out what’s working. Parents need to do the same. They need to swap stories, both of success and failure, so they can find the right catching point with their child. Schools can help gather best practices from parents and provide strategy sessions with relevant, provocative scenarios to role-play. They can hold parent evenings, and create online forums for parents to vent their frustrations and seek practical solutions. But, as Harlan Coben says, “Parenting has never been for the faint of heart.”

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