How to be a Plugged-in Parent
Your kid's energy seems to shift to a new website every week. She has new friends and you can't keep track of all their names. Though you try to ask what's going on, you want to give her some independence. But is she being as safe, smart and kind online - as you believe she is in person? And if she were being bullied, would she tell you?
We all wonder what our children are like in this complex digital world -- and whether we can you possibly stay connected to them considering we have trouble just connecting to WIFI in the airport.
Well, we can, and we don't even need a web guru to do so. Every generation has its gap. Even with technology, parenting is still parenting and kids are still kids. Being a plugged-in parent isn't just about electrical sockets -- it's about being familiar with your child and his life. Here are some tips from our experts on how you can stay connected to your children in this high-speed socially savvy universe.
Get Back to the Basics: Staying Connected Where it Counts
- Continue to foster a relationship with your child. As Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy. D., Care.com's Parenting Expert, observes, "It's so important to have a relationship with your child from as early on as you can because as kids move on into that peer age group, they develop their own identity and tend to turn to their peers for support. This is healthy. But you want your child to feel comfortable turning to you too -- and not just as a last resort." Hang out with your kids. Let them drag you to movies. Drag them places too. Just have fun, Dr. Ludwig advises.
- Don't take fine for answer. "How was school?" invariably elicits a dismissive Fine from your child. Try being more specific to get them to open up. Ask: Who did you sit with at lunch? Who did you play with at recess? What did you draw in art class? Then it won't seem strange when you occasionally ask more targeted questions like, Do you ever notice that others are left out? Picked on? Does this every happen to you? Just remember that this is supposed to be a conversation. If it feels like an interrogation, it probably is. Dr. Joel Haber, bully expert and author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life, says, "My feeling is that parents can always create a way for kids to talk to them if they just keep it light."
- Experiment with different times to talk. After a full day of classes and activities with friends, your child just might not be in the mood for a long conversation, much less a heart-to-heart. Rather than forcing one every afternoon or evening, test out other times and places, like the weekly car-ride to Grandma's, as you tuck him into bed, or after she wins her soccer game on Saturday afternoon.
- Bring bullying to the dinner table. Initiate a casual conversation about bullying at least once a month. Start the conversation with recent news coverage, personal experience, or a scene from a movie. Then ask if your child has ever seen similar behavior at school. If you are open about bullying, your child will see that it's an unfortunate, but natural, part of growing up rather than a unique and totally humiliating event. Dr. Haber notes that this openness makes children more willing to come to you if they are bullied.
- Raise upstanders, not bystanders. Whenever and however bullying does come up in conversations at home, encourage your child to take action. Instead of focusing on confronting the bully -- which can be scary and dangerous -- urge your child to support the bullying victim. First, help your child empathize with the victim by asking how he would feel if he had been the target. Then suggest that he do something nice for the bullied child, whether it's eating lunch together, alerting an adult or simply saying, "I wish I could have helped."
- Be a role model. "Kids follow more what their parents do than what they say," notes Dr. Haber. We're all human. So we're all imperfect and we all use some bullying behaviors. Sometimes we gossip. Sometimes we have cliques. Sometimes we start rumors. It doesn't mean we're all bullies all the time, but most of us are bullies some of the time. Own up to it. Then when you catch the behavior, take advantage of the moment to teach your child a lesson. Talk about it and admit that it's not cool behavior.
- Create a network. If there are adults in your child's life, you may find that he/she feels more comfortable talking with them. Ask a babysitter or aunt if she's noticed a change in behavior. Check with the mom of her best friend to see if she's heard anything strange. Create a network of people who care about your child - and whose children you care about - and offer to exchange information.
Supervised Web Surfing
The digital world mirrors the real. For kids, it's like one huge playground, where they innocently flirt, share secrets, get help with homework -- and bully. While cyberbullying seems new and scary, Dr. Haber contends that it's the same bullying you encountered growing up. Now it's just moved online.
You supervise your child at the playground, but sometimes while reading a magazine, talking to friends, or reading emails on your phone. You don't stand over her shoulder or eavesdrop on all of her conversations. Dr. Haber suggests you try to have the same approach online: be present, but relaxed.
Here are some tips to help you know what your kids are doing online:
- Discuss the site rules. If your kid uses social media, you should understand how it works. Create a Facebook account and, yes, friend your child, but also friend your own friends. In other words: use it. But as a parent, take it one step farther. Read the terms of service and acquaint yourself with the privacy policies of different sites. Sit down with your child to explain and discuss them. For example, does he know that any content posted to the site will belong to Facebook - to use royalty-free if they choose? Or, that children under 13 are not permitted to have accounts? Most sites today also have no-tolerance policies for bullying or inappropriate content. Users caught engaging in this behavior can be permanently banned from the site.
- Monitor that technology. As Dr. Haber observes, "Technology is not a right. It's a privilege and a responsibility." When bringing new technology into the home, parents should reiterate this maxim. Your child should understand that you won't spy on him, but you will have access to his computer and his cellphone -- in case you need it. Befriend him on Facebook. Follow him on Twitter. Read his blog.
- Ask about his privacy settings. If your child alters his privacy settings to exclude you, don't attempt to circumnavigate the obstacle. Talk to him about how he uses the technology and why he doesn't want you in that space. Remember that your kid should have a private life. If his reasons are fair and you have no reason to suspect that he is abusing the technology, let him have the privacy. He'll trust you more, assures Dr. Haber.
- Establish rules of use. Tell your kids that while it is never okay to tease or gossip other children, malicious words can't be erased online - and are easily spread and "overheard." Set other rules about photos, language, and privacy settings as you see fit, given your child's age and personality.
Regardless of how you go about online privacy, Dr. Haber suggests you just make sure your child understands that "you don't want to be mean or hurtful to people online just like you don't want to be mean or hurtful offline."