"Parenting is not for the faint of heart," novelist Harlan Coben writes. Let's face it: parenting is really hard, especially when parents feel that "a vast and frightening internet culture is hijacking their kids," as New York psychologist Ron Taffel notes.
Too Big to Know
The Internet knows no boundaries. That's why parents need to set limits for their kids. Easy to say, hard to do, and especially difficult if parents have to do this on their own. Schools need to create a 360-degree communication loop with parents about how to navigate the digital landscape.
This year's group of fifth grade students (now entering the stream of 'tweendom and preparing to step into the potentially perilous middle school years of sixth-to-eighth grade) was born in 2001. They are the 9/11 children with the 9/11 parents, who have endured the discomforting, unsettling, unpredictable and disorienting changes of the last 11 years, which include economic meltdown, global unrest and an altered role for the United States in the world. Evident in these changes are two lightning rod books dealing with "non-American" views of effective parenting: Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting. Instead of internal confidence and composure, these 9/11 parents are looking elsewhere for advice, questioning their own values, approaches and certainties, and wondering instead if China and Europe have the solution to raising children in the post-9/11 world.
Schools have taken on a more significant, all-consuming role in helping parents find the right language to communicate with children, especially in the digital realm. Instead of shirking this responsibility, schools need to embrace the opportunity to more effectively and creatively communicate with parents, helping them make sense of the "Too Big To Know" world of the Internet, as Harvard professor David Weinberger has described it.
Here are starting points for schools to communicate to parents:
- Start early, when your child is in third or fourth grade. Don't wait until later. It gets much harder to set and sustain boundaries when kids are in middle school.
- Use a microwave timer, agree on a time limit (20-30 minutes) and stick to it. Kids pay attention to what you say you'll do and what you actually do.
- Use one device at a time and have your kids do the same. If you are watching a family movie, make sure all family members are fully engaged in the movie, and not texting or checking email.
- Have a Cell Phone Computer Curfew (CCC). Agree as a family or with a group of families on a set time each night to shut down devices. This could be at 9 PM and could be called "9CCC."
- Review email and social network settings as a family to make sure adequate privacy boundaries are established. Remind your child that life online is "public by default, and private through effort."
- Check and recheck search histories (even if your child knows how to clear the search history).
- Discuss media creation vs. consumption. Kids need to understand and monitor their use of digital media and distinguish between creating and consuming. There is a difference between playing Xbox and making an iMovie.
- Recognize that digital media is social. Playing Minecraft is a social experience and offers engagement. Just because your child is on a screen does not mean that they are not interacting with their peers.
- Text and email as a family so that your child sees you modeling appropriate language and information sharing on electronic devices.
- Have your child teach you about new applications and programs. Play the novice, and allow your child to be in the driver's seat.
- When setting up passwords, discuss how to create a strong password. New research supports the need to have 12-character online passwords instead of eight. CNN reports the findings of Georgia Tech researchers who explain that 12-character passwords are the new way to go.
- Be open with where you stand on safety and privacy. Have your child place their passwords in a sealed envelope. Tell your child that if you become worried about their safety, you will open the envelope and look at their accounts.
- Be up front with your child that you will read and check their email, in the same way that you will be sitting next them in a few years when they learn how to drive. Make it clear that you are there to support and guide your child as he or she learns how to email and text.
- Talk to the parents of your child's friends. Agree on a set of norms to be used on play dates and sleepovers. If you are uncomfortable with your child seeing a PG-13 movie or playing an M-rated game, tell the other parent. Better to be open in the moment than frustrated later.
Testing the System
What happens when your child commits a transgression online? Again, schools need to proactively step out and frame talking points for parents:
- Keep calm.
- Maintain an even tone of voice.
- Honor the mistake. With middle school kids, you actually want them to misstep when the stakes are not as high as they could be later on, especially given stories like the recent Rutgers University Tyler Clementi case. When mistakes happen, recognize that important learning can take place.
- Ask your child what the appropriate consequences should be. Inevitably, kids are much harder on themselves than adults are and tend to be.
- Create the 360-degree communication loop. If the transgression involves other students from your child's school, call the school, even if the transgression occurred outside of school hours on the weekends. The school wants to know, as online incidents play out offline at school.
Parents need to hear consistent, safe messages from schools. Parents have one data point: their own child. Schools have hundreds of data points over years and can frame and reframe developmental stages, the spectrum of normal behavior and reminders about the journey. Here are some key, general messages to share regarding how to parent a middle school student:
- Be patient and have faith with the process. It takes time to help kids at the middle school age work through tricky social situations and scenarios. The school is there to support you with this important work. Give the school a heads up in an email or voicemail if you need help figuring out the landscape and thinking through how to have the conversation at home and at school.
- Relationships matter. To give kids at this age emotional safety, it is important that they have a trusted adult in their life. That can be a parent, a teacher or a coach. That's a key question to ask your child. Who is the trusted adult in his or her life? We don't want kids going underground to build their own culture away from adults.
- Community matters. Schools and families are a community, and by partnering, they can help kids navigate the transition into early adolescence. It can be a rocky path at times. The more schools partner with parents, the more the kids will know that the adults in their lives are working off of the same page.
- Don't ride the roller coaster. Be calm and present with your child, but avoid being drawn into the emotional ups and downs that come with this developmental stage. Listen to what they need, and be there for them.
The 360-degree communication loop between home and school is key to ensure healthy growth for middle school students and parents. In the post-9/11 world, it is critical for kids to see all of the adults in their 360 circle working and communicating together to foster healthy learning spaces at school and at home.