You have to be friends with your kids, but not embarrass them. Step Three
While most of my posts to this point have been very up beat, positive and happy, telling you all the wonderful things your kids can do with tech and why you shouldn’t worry, this one is going to be a little different. My message to you todayisn’t negative, just cautionary, and it goes like this: When I allow my child to have access to any site or app that has social aspects, the one rule they have to follow is “You Have to Friend Dad”. In return, I promise them that I will NEVER embarrass them online. This is critical to the agreement. As a parent I was surprised to learn that basically EVERYTHING I do is can embarrass my teenage daughter.
There is no exception to this rule for either of us, and there is no room for compromise. If I am their friend, I can see everything they post (except kids private or instant messages, which like it or not, are not easily available to parents). I also see everything their other friends post publicly or comment to and this is the real value to me here. It is very easy to gauge appropriate behavior, to know which ones are amorous, which are mean and if there is anything I need to intervene in. I don’t feel that is is prying or spying or being in any way less than scrupulous, however, when I am always their friend, they temper what they say, and that is a good thing. It helps them think before they post. Everyone on the internet could use to do that more often… Also, even though they may fight against it at first, because of my second part of this rule, they quickly find it is not that big of a deal and often even forget that I am there, until we have something we need to discuss, then we discuss it in person, not online.
When my first child was about 9 years old and just starting to go out onto the internet, I put a sign on the wall that had just 4 words: PRIVACY DOES NOT EXIST . I didn’t write this to scare them or to be cynical or give myself an excuse to invade. I simply wanted everyone in the household to always be conscious of the fact that between device cameras, microphones, Siri, Alexa, Xbox One, photos, videos, GoPros, traffic cams, security surveillance, drones, and the people around us with all their own sets of these same devices there is nowhere, ever, that you are one hundred percent certain that you are private. Simply look at the news. Emails that are deleted are found again. Photos that are abandoned are hacked from the cloud. Even the ethereal media messages like Snapchat are saved on a server and though you think they are “there and gone” they are still searchable and open to subpoena by a court. Nothing is private. It is in the news at every turn and it seems more fair for me to teach them all from the start that these dangers exist, than to console them after they do some unforeseen damage. Don’t get me wrong, I am not encouraging them to give up privacy or freedom, but instead to understand from the start that part of the contract that we have with the internet is that if you upload it, it isn't private anymore. I also encourage them to stay aware of their digital surroundings and be mindful that any friend or colleague could simply screenshot that direct message and post it, therefore not private. If others are not mindful like we are of the contents of the photos and videos as I have taught my kids to be (refer to my last article, step 2), you easily could end up in a compromising or less-than-flattering position somewhere in someones background, and that still is public domain. I taught them not to be paranoid, but ever mindful, of their own life and how others could display it, and of the others in our own posts, as I mentioned in my post about oversharing.
Next, lets consider the second part of the rule, I will never do anything to embarrass them online. Now it would be easy for any dad to say, “I will Never Do that to MY child!” and be sincere, however, most dads don't understand one significant factor, Dads are embarrassing. Period. Allow me to explain.
When I was younger and not a parent yet, my mother would receive in the mail every so often a Readers Digest which, if you remember that publication, you know it was a small format magazine sent thru the mail with excerpts from other columns, summarized books, and guest editorials and articles. I would often read it, about once a day… long before taking a smartphone to the restroom was a thing. Of all the things I read in it, one article stayed with me to this day and has often come to mind as I have been a parent. I have tried several times to find the article on the internet and have found other people referring to it, but I have never found the article itself, so to the best of my memory it went something like this: A man was walking thru the mall with is tween daughter, every so often, he would begin singing quietly to himself. Each time he did, she would scold him for doing it, proclaiming that his singing in public was such an embarrassment that she may actually die! What if her friends saw him doing it. She would be mortified. The writer went on to detail the incidents, and how, over time he would often threaten to sing in public to get her to comply with rules, near the end of the article strongly encouraging parents to never underestimate the power of public embarrassment as a parenting tool or punishment. At the end of the article, it was signed by Billy Joel, the Piano Man, a man who’s singing in public made the money to take that embarrassed daughter to the mall. A man who at the time was selling out shows and had strangers standing in line, just to hear him sing in public. My take away from this story: Anyone, anywhere can embarrass their daughter, without trying, even doing things they are good at, properly. Period. There are no exceptions.
Why do I bring this up. Well, even though I have used threat of public embarrassment as a teaching tool more than once, I would NEVER do it online. The internet is a big wonderful scary place full of great and terrible things. I am trying to be my child’s mentor, their guide on the web. To be taken seriously in that role, I can NOT be a threat to them online.
How do I do this, simple, I never post anything on their page. EVER. I never hit the ‘like’ button on their posts or photos. I tell them I like them, in person, to their face, but I never click on their stuff. I know that if a professional singer can mortify his kid with a song, there is NO WAY my comment, like, smiley or whatever no matter how innocuous, will be taken the right way. If I comment or like, or heart emoji anything their friends can see, it will be wrong. This is not because my kids are bad or mean or critical, it means they are kids and I am a parent and I can NOT be cool. It is impossible. Period. I don’t make jokes on their page or leave witty remarks. If you want to understand more, just search “Dad Jokes” on any browser. There is an internet full of them and young people the world around cringe when dad says something ‘Dad Joke’ish. While I am happy to tell my kids corny jokes at home, or in the car, I never post them on any site that attaches in any way to my kids account. I log in, check their activity, see what is new with them, glance at some of their friends posts, and log off. I take the same approach to being my child's friend on social media that I do in camping or backpacking. Leave No Trace. This doesn’t mean I am being tricky, or sneaky. I happily discuss things I find in my child's social feed with them in person. And when they get annoyed by that, I remind them that we are having the conversation because I really do care and we are keeping it between us, not chatting it out on the social web where it might embarrass them. Also, I strongly urge you to remember that while it is easy to get comfortable with them and it may seem OK to be more of a pal online and it seems to be OK, it wont. You only get one chance with this rule, if you never say anything, do anything or post anything that can come back to haunt them, then you can always say that you will never embarrass them, but as soon as you post a single thing, a single word on their page, a single thumbs up or smiley, they can then claim you are killing them and be justified. I will not offer this as an explanation often, but in this one case, TRUST ME.
One other thing to remember is that on many platforms, if you directly refer to someone in a post on your own account on social media, it can instantly link the post to their account in some way. So be smart and respectful of your children on your own Facebook page, your own Instagram, Twitter, or whatever. On your own account, you have a touch more freedom, but always remember that even if you don’t tag their account directly, you are often one click from some other user tagging them in your post or even the social sites own system making the connection for you, so be kind and mindful of their feelings, never be harsh or critical of them online, even on your own page. As they get older, also hold back the gushing love for them online. Praise them discretely, stay vague and always leave yourself plausible deniability on your own posts. This doesn’t mean to not praise your kids, of course not, but remember as I have said in the past, do it in person! If your kid does something great, if they write the winning essay, or sink the final shot at the buzzer, whatever it is, yes, mention it on YOUR OWN page, but give them a proud nod and walk away from it online. You may come off as cold to people that don’t know you, but who cares, there is no award for parent of the year. Instead, grab your kid, hug them, clap for them, rejoice with them. Let your praise and approval explode for them IN PERSON. It will mean much more to them than a Facebook post and it will not be as embarrassing to them a year later when their newest friend sees it on your child's page and mocks them for it.
When it comes to the OTHER things you post on your social accounts, even the things not about them, even your reaction to someone else, or a media person, or some joke or thought or belief or whatnot. Before I post anything ever, I alway reread it, think about how it sounds, how other people will hear it, take a few min and read it again. If I wouldn’t say it to my kids teacher or my local clergyman, I don’t post it. I don’t post mad and it don’t post my reactions to other peoples posts. My personal rule is if something I am about to post is questionable as an example to my kids, I try to error on the side of caution and skip it. Again, this is something that I wish many more people on the internet used more often. Too many people have the right to remain silent but not the ability. Sometimes the best things to say is nothing at all. Always remind yourself that you are a mentor, an example and a teacher all the time. Your children will look at what you post, and so may their friends, so in the same way we are teaching our children to be good upstanding members of the digital world, you have to live that example for them in everything you do also. Like I have said so many times, tell them, but also show them by example as you do. Live your lesson for them and in front of them all the time even when you think they are not watch, because they are…
Now does this mean that I never embarrass my kids? Heck no, I am still Dad. I most likely embarrass them all the time in public in person, but for the most part, there is no permanent record of that, so later if they try to use that against me, I can just deny it. Here again is the danger I warn of above. “If it isn't written it isn't said” is an important concept to keep in mind, but conversely, if you do it on the internet, YOU DID IT. Forever it is recorded somewhere. This is an important thing to remember as you parent your children in an online environment, and it is also important for you to remind them of it. Once it is online in any form, it is there somewhere forever and no matter how much you pay or pray or wish or scrub, it can always pop back up somewhere else at any time, but it usually waits for the very worst time to do it…(this goes directly back to my step 2, not oversharing…)