It Does in Fact Take a Village
In 1996, then-First Lady (and now presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes a Village, in which she argued that the raising of successful, accomplished children is a task that requires the commitment and contributions of our entire society. The book acknowledged the central role of parents in rearing children, but argued that all of us benefit when society supports parents in this critical endeavor.
That has never been truer than today, when our children are increasingly being raised by a global communication village over which parents have little practical control. The social and media forces shaping your children are manifold and relentless, and it takes a serious level of commitment to provide an effective counterbalance.
As parents, we do have the advantage of nearly exclusive input during each child’s most formative years. One way to extend that period of primary influence is to actively recruit the help of neighbors and the parents of your child’s friends. Make a point of discussing the issues raised in this e-book with people who will be supervising your child when you’re not around, and figure out where your household values overlap or differ.
Even in the most close-knit communities, it is unlikely that every household will be perfectly uniform in their values or their level of supervision. But the more conversations you can have with neighbors and friends about your concerns and expectations, the easier it will be to recruit their help in raising your child (and theirs) in a responsible and safe manner.
A significant part of any village or community, of course, are the schools that the children attend. Virtually all schools have an acceptable use policies, so take the time to get a copy and read what it says (and in fact, you were probably required to sign a copy when your child started the school year). If your child’s school doesn’t have an acceptable use policy, then raise the issue with the school administrators or the school board, and use this e-book as a guide for drafting one.
Another reason to discuss these issues with neighbors, friends, and school officials is that various members of the community will have different skills and experience when it comes to technology. Technical knowledge spreads among kids even faster than cold germs, so a collaborative approach is often the only way to keep up with them. I strongly recommend forming a parent tech support group that can meet periodically to discuss the current hot technologies, new concerns, and ideas for acceptable use that can be generally enforced.
Choosing Reasonable Consequences
Regardless of how many conversations and Family Acceptable Use Policy (FAUP) negotiations you have with your child, and regardless of how conscientiously your village helps to supervise him or her, it is inevitable that your child will violate one (or more) provisions of your FAUP. When that happens, you’ll be confronted with perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of parenting: punishing transgressions. Few parents are enthusiastic about meting out punishment, but unfortunately, it’s often a necessary part of the educational process (not to mention the fact that personal and parental credibility are often at stake).
As with every other aspect of the FAUP, the time invested in discussing possible consequences with your spouse and your child (or children) is time well-spent. It’s harder to come up with reasonable consequences on the fly, particularly when your child has done something that is embarrassing, upsetting, or downright infuriating. Sorting out the range of potential consequences ahead of time not only gives your child some idea of what to expect, but also frees you from the possibility of speaking too hastily and having to backtrack later when the punishment proves to be disproportionate to the offense.
Another benefit of sorting out possible consequences ahead of time is that it gives you and your spouse the opportunity to figure out what punishments you are willing to endure yourselves. If you tell your child “no TV” for the rest of the day, does that make dinner prep that much harder? If your child has his or her laptop taken away for some reason, will you let him or her use your computer to do homework? Loss of a cell phone for a day or week now means that it will be more difficult to get in touch with your child, or to communicate about sudden schedule changes.
Figuring out whether the punishment should be tied to the device that was part of the problem, or should involve the loss of some unrelated privilege (sports, social events, etc.) is precisely the type of decision that should be made by all of the individuals involved (unless, of course, your child is still too young to be an effective participant).
There’s an intrinsic logic to the idea of regulating child electronic behavior by taking away a device when it is misused. Many parents feel that’s a necessary tool for teaching consequences and the boundaries of proper behavior. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that GenI is passionately attached to its devices. For many if not most teens and pre-teens, there is no discernible difference between the wired world and the so-called “real” world. As a result, any punishments that involve the loss of use or restriction of access to cell phones or social networks will be met with tremendous resistance, if not outright evasion.
Obviously, situations may arise in which such drastic measures are necessary. But it’s worth taking a long, hard look at alternatives that may successfully teach the necessary lesson without isolating your child entirely from his or her peer group.
Hopefully, the cumulative effect of many years of conversation and ongoing supervision will prevent the most severe problems. But again, the key to minimal conflict and rational decision-making is effective advance work.
Fewer “Friends,” More Parents
The need to periodically enforce the provisions of an FAUP underscores one of the central themes of this e-book and of Cybertraps for the Young: that in today’s hyper-socialized world, kids have all the friends (and more!) than they need. What they can’t easily find online are parents or other trusted adults who can help them with their development, their decision-making, and their maturation.
A primary goal of creating an FAUP and periodically negotiating revisions with your child is to remind them that you have a unique role as their parent, and that on occasion, you are called upon to do things that few if any of their friends will do: use discipline and consequences to teach valuable lessons. (Admittedly, peer groups impose their own forms of discipline, but the values being enforced are not necessarily in best interests of your child — or any child, for that matter).
The ongoing process of discussing your household values, your rules of conduct, and the consequences for violation will help your child to create an ethical framework that will serve them both online and off. It will give him or her a strong foundation that will survive the inevitable changes of technology.
It is painful and frustrating to have to punish transgressions, particularly when the punishment makes your own life at least temporarily more difficult. But in the long run, fulfilling your unique role as a parent in your child’s friend-filled but not necessarily friendly world will be the best gift you can give to him.