What happens when one of your kid's friends is doing something inappropriate with social media or the Internet? Having that "uncomfortable conversation" may not be fun, but looking out for each others' kids is good for all of us as parents.
Like it or not, your kids’ world is a Digital World. But just because they can operate the devices doesn’t mean that they are prepared for success. Let’s remove some of the misconceptions about kids and technology, and make a commitment to mentorship around the issues of digital citizenship.
The Mentorship Manifesto is a declaration of our responsibility to teaching digital citizenship to our kids. As parents, teachers, school leaders, or administrators, mentorship is the single most important commitment we can make to our kids.
The digital world has changed almost everything we do, and parent-teacher communication is no exception. You probably have more access to your child’s teacher than you ever did—and certainly more than our parents did. More access and more communication can be a great thing, but it comes with some hazards too. New modes of communication means new etiquette and new expectations.
For instance, a common issue is expected response time. You reach out to the teacher, and you don’t hear back right away. But how long is “right away,” exactly? People’s communication habits vary. So you send another message. Now it has potentially escalated into an issue—when it really didn’t have to.
Some teachers communicate their preferences and state an expected response time. But every teacher is different and many won’t state explicit preferences. I often recommend that schools protect teachers from this by having an expected response time as a part of their policy.
Everyone has a responsibility to one another in learning the new rules: Parents, teachers, and school administrators too! But let’s focus on what we as parents can do to set a positive tone and foster a good parent-teacher relationship.
- Start with empathy. Your child’s teacher has a difficult job—one that is often underestimated and under-appreciated. There’s new educational technology, new standards, new testing—all of which take time for your child’s teacher to learn and integrate.
- Let the teacher choose mode of communication if possible. Communication will be much more free-flowing it you make it as easy as possible for the teacher. Respect her communication preferences. If she prefers e-mail to phone, then e-mail it is! Of course, there are times when only face-to-face will do, but try not to pressure your child’s teacher about the way things “should” be done.
- Help if you can. Teachers are often under-resourced and overburdened. Are you super tech-savvy? Maybe you can support the class web page or blog. Your support is not only a nice gesture—it can help the whole class!
- Teach boundaries to your child. If your child is old enough to e-mail the teacher herself, then the child should also be aware and respectful of these boundaries and expectations. Just because you and your child can e-mail the teacher, doesn’t always mean it is a good idea. Before you (or your child) e-mails the teacher, check that the question can’t be resolved another way. If your child didn’t write down the homework assignment, is it available from a classmate or the learning management system? Your child should not make a habit of e-mailing the teacher instead of writing things down or knowing how to look things up. For more on how boundaries can help all of us in the digital world, check out my book: Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World.
- Have patience. The learning process can be difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes your child will breeze through a subject with great ease, and other times it will seem like a never-ending slog. Don’t blame the teacher…If possible, dig into the homework assignments with your child. Then, if you can see things are taking far longer than homework policies state, do communicate the specifics with the teacher so you can collaborate on a solution.
- Know the teacher’s tools. Is there a digital version of the textbook? Does the textbook—or the homework—require Internet access? If so, how much time? These are great questions to ask the teacher, so that you can mitigate distraction during homework time. If you know this, you can set up unplugged time for homework, or partially-plugged time (computer or tablet not connected to wifi).
- Adhere to school rules. Don’t make life difficult by sending your kid to school with devices when they are prohibited by the school. Despite good intentions, it will likely create a classroom issue. You may have a good reason, such as an urgent family matter or a particular health issue. If you need an exception, ask the school first.
- Too much access to communication is not always the best thing. Lots of schools now let you check your child’s grades on quizzes and tests as they are posted. Unless you are managing a particular struggle, this much access to information may cause more stress than it is worth! Same thing for texting your kiddo during the day to “check in.” If they aren’t supposed to be on their phones, don’t make it hard for them.
- Don’t assume the worst. Unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, you can trust that teacher’s intentions are good. If they are not responsive by email they may be dealing with their own family crisis, a grading tsunami, etc. A completely unresponsive teacher does present a challenge that you may need to address with the school, but someone who doesn’t answer an email right away may be in the middle of reading your child’s essay, attending a professional development workshop, or eating dinner. Assume the best about your child’s teacher, not the worst. It goes a long way.
New technology and new methods can have an amazingly positive effect—if we handle them the right way. It’s all a great opportunity for us as parents to get more involved in our kids’ education. To be generous, to offer support to our teachers, and to do so with a light touch. It’s easier for the teacher to collaborate with you to solve problems when you approach communication thoughtfully, and with empathy.
Please share your most positive experiences and any challenges in the comments! How did you fix it? Do you have any best practices to share?
Devorah Heitner, PhD is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive and Survive in Their Digital World and the founder of Raising Digital Natives a resource for schools and families wishing to cultivate a climate of digital citizenship.
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As technologies evolve, so do the rules of etiquette. While you might be confident about teaching your kids etiquette in the real world, you may feel that it’s more of a challenge in the online world. It takes some time to learn the new rules, and they seem to change every time a new platform emerges.
As I mentioned in my last post, our kids are more isolated from adult communication today because so much of our peer communication takes place in a private, not public, setting. Email or text messages are sent and received out of “public” view, leaving fewer opportunities for kids to get etiquette cues from you—or other adults.
There’s another layer of complexity, too. Just because you exist in social spheres like your kids do, it doesn’t mean that the rules are the same for them as they are for you. So what can you do to learn the rules, together with your child?
Shrinking the scope
Where do kids learn digital etiquette? Though social media is a worldwide community (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), kids are getting their social training in much smaller communities (home, their friends, in the classroom). In many ways, social media at home or in-class blogs are ideal spaces to learn about social media etiquette, and can serve as great training wheels. It offers an accepting environment where a knowledgeable adult can help kids understand when they make communication errors, and help kids make repairs when they offend one another or miss important cues about how to respond. A community where people interact both online and offline is a great way to learn the new rules of digital etiquette.
“Friending” is a huge pressure for kids. This pressure can lead them into making poor decisions. For instances, they often feel that they have to agree to “follow” or “like” something, even if they don’t. Kids I’ve interviewed say that they are really difficult and uncomfortable to NOT accept a Friend Request or to ask a peer to take down (or untag) a photo.
What can you do to help? To open the conversation, you can say, “I got a Facebook request today from someone I went to high school with—but we barely even knew each other.” This gives you the opportunity to let your kids know that it’s OK to ignore the request—that they have a choice in the matter. To be more prescriptive, try giving them an informal limit on the number of people that can follow them initially. Instagram works well as a model for this. This will teach them how to be selective about their social sphere.
Sharing social circles
Surprise! Your networks are already connected. You have to remember—and respect—the ways that your own network indirectly corresponds with theirs.
For example, if your 8-year-old has a crush and you think it is cute, you can share the story offline with your best friend (out for coffee, for instance) without too much risk of embarrassing your child. But if you share the same story online (Facebook or e-mail), you risk wider exposure in unanticipated ways. Not only that, but your kids are learning from your interactions. Your mistakes today could become their mistakes in the future.
What can you do to help? Ask their permission to share. Whether it’s pictures of your kids or news about them, get their permission first. It shows them very clearly that they have control over their social space. Treat anything that enters their “Friend World” as THEIRS—not yours. Even oblique references to their social dramas should stay out of your Facebook feed. Even in person, this is a good rule. It pays to respect privacy. But the online world is more volatile, and you certainly don’t want your teen’s first bra or awkward crush to be community news.
Their friends are not your friends
I can’t emphasize this enough—don’t “friend” your kids’ friends. At least don’t initiate the connection. Nothing annoys kids more than this. They need to feel some control over managing these relationships, and you don’t want to take that feeling of control away from them. But what if your child’s friend “follows” or “friends” you first?
What can you do to help? Again, ask your child directly. This can be tricky territory, so give them some control over it. Keep in mind that their world is different from yours. Some kids change friends quickly, though they don’t always dump the digital connection—even when they don’t sit together at lunch anymore. Adults can relate to this, but the pace and churn of adult relationships is generally slower. Whether or not your kid allows you to be friends with one of their schoolmates will give you an indicator of how important that relationship is—and opens a door into their world for you. For instance, if your child tells you 6 weeks from now that you should “unfriend” someone, you have clues to her social life that you wouldn’t see otherwise.
Their teachers are not your friends–or theirs
Maybe this is obvious, but don’t “friend” their teachers, occupational therapists, camp counselors, or youth group leaders. These connections belong to them, not to you. For example, your child spends 6 hours a day with her fifth grade teacher. There’s little ambiguity that your child hold the primary relationship with her teacher, even if you are friends outside the classroom.
For the most part, your child shouldn’t be connected on social media with these folks either. Do you really want to kid to see everything his karate teacher posts to Instagram?
What can you do to keep boundaries clear and appropriate? The biggest complication is when who holds the “primary” relationship is ambiguous—when your child’s guidance counselor or teacher’s aide is already your friend. Just be cautious and thoughtful.
Another note about teachers and social media: Many schools get worried that parents are discussing teachers online, or posting anonymously on Great Schools or Rate My Teachers. Sites of this type can be useful for a more honest, parent-level opinion. But comments can drift towards the extremes. And “Rate My Teacher” is feedback that is totally out of context. Consider if you would want anonymous, public rating of your work.
The bottom line: take it offline. Especially when class placements come out—talk in person. And model appropriate boundaries and non-gossipy behavior for your children.
Being “friends” with your teen
The best way to help your child manage these issues is to be close to her—in the same spaces. But if your teen agrees to “friend” you, (or if you make this a condition of being on social media) take this show of trust very seriously, and be a good friend. Don’t make yourself too present. Don’t be seen or comment too often. Don’t share their news before they do (or at all.) Don’t be surprised if they find it “creepy” that you brought up something that they shared, even though it was public.
What can you do to help? “Like” the things you are safe to like. Or talk about it face to face. Find an opportunity to remind them verbally that you saw something on their Instagram feed, which will serve as a gentle reminder to your child that you are part of her “public.” As Danah Boyd points out, kids share to their own concept of a public, those readers, friends or followers that are on their minds at the moment—or the ones sharing a particular experience. The danger lies in that they are probably not considering their whole network every time they share. Lurk more and say less, unless of course something you see demands your attention.
Etiquette is always evolving to accommodate new communication technologies. In spite of this, we can mentor our kids to behave thoughtfully and empathetically online and offline.