Making a Stand: Not What We Wanted For Our Children

In an effort to teach our older children about the joys of democracy, I have taken them along with me in the past elections as I have exercised my right to vote. As I have done this, I have explained to them that by casting my vote, it then allows me to have my say in decisions made by a government I chose to vote against. “If you don’t vote…..don’t complain” has been a much debated mantra in our household. I accept that in a democracy, the majority (or those who can create a majority in the case of MMP) are there representative of the number of people who voted for them. They have the louder voice, so any resultant policies are reflective of the ‘majority’ of New Zealanders who have voted for them.

Something I struggle with immensely though, is when I hear the term ‘parents’ used by the current Minister of Education. The Minister uses the label ‘parents’ when justifying the various education policies implemented in her current term. ‘Parents’ tell us they want to know how their children are doing at school; ‘parents’ want plain-English in school reporting; ‘parents’ need to know how to support their children’s learning at home. Minister Parata almost assumes a ‘speaking on behalf’ role of all parents in New Zealand. And yet, I didn’t cast my vote in National’s direction. But apparently Minister Parata knows what I want for my children. Her loose use of the term ‘parents’ sweeps me up (last time I checked I was one of those) into this group.

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And yet what if I disagree? What recourse have I got, as a parent, to not have government policy have a detrimental effect on my children? As parents, we have made a conscious and informed decision about the schools our children go to. Finding the right ‘fit’ for our kids. But most recently, there have been policies, such as the introduction of National Standards, that we would also like to exercise our parental rights around. And yet, legally, we cannot prevent our child from being measured against these standards. Schools are required to use assessment data to measure my children against the government-imposed standards.

So today, as parents, we took the only other option we could in exercising our parental rights. While we cannot stop our daughter being compared against a standard, we can ask that this information is not included in her upcoming mid-year report. We can also ask that any information regarding the standards are not shared with her directly. We do not want her defining her learning into ‘above, at, or below’. Instead, we want her knowing what she can do, and what she needs to do next. It’s as simple as that.

Our letter is detailed below. As parents, whether we voted this government in or not, we still have some options when it comes to the well being of our own children. The Minister may feel she has a mandate to speak on behalf of all ‘parents’……but she does not have my permission to speak on behalf of my family. For those of us who object to this, we do still have other ways to exercise our individual responsibilities to our children. Here is just one simple way we can do that.

Letter To Our School Principal:

“We are very supportive of the work *** primary and in particular **’s classroom teacher does to meet the individual learning needs of **. We value, as parents, feedback received regarding **’s current learning levels and suggestions for her next steps in her learning progression. However, we do not value having ** placed next to other peers her own age in a comparative format to determine whether she is making progress satisfactory to an arbitrary standard. The National Standards, in their current form, do not factor into account the many facets of our daughter’s ability to learn, her strengths and weaknesses, along with her far more valuable talents such as measures of her creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking and social skills. It does also not measure her true happiness and engagement in the learning process. It is these skills that, as parents, we value most importantly, and not where she fits next to other children her own age, or whether or not she is meeting a ‘standard’.

Because of this, we now request that future reporting to us regarding ** learning progress be devoid of any reference to the National Standards. Furthermore, we request that feedback given to ** regarding her progress, either verbally or in written format, also make no reference to the National Standards. We welcome any correspondence from the classroom teacher that gives us information regarding her current learning levels, and suggestions for her next steps. We also do not want to add to the already enormous workload classroom teachers are under and are quite happy to simply have current reporting templates left blank in the areas mentioned.

Once again, we appreciate all the work the staff, including the classroom teacher, do for our daughter’s learning. She is enjoying all the opportunities afforded to her by attending ** Primary School”.

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Micro-Managing or Lessons in Life?

For those who have followed Cheeky Kids for a while now will recall that, at times, I share my own parenting experiences as I journey through parenthood, minus a manual, script or even direction signage. While in recent posts I have been concerned with the current education reforms in New Zealand, and to be perfectly selfish, the inevitable impact on my own children, I wanted to return to my roots in this post reflecting on my current parenting experiences. In particular, my experience in having a 15 year old son……

One of the hardest teenage phenomena to keep ahead of is the influence of peers in the way your teenager behaves and operates. To have some influence in this, we decided long ago that our son would not visit, or sleep over at another young person’s place before we had met them, and they had been at our place. We have kept with this as our son has moved into his teenage years. So this weekend we had the experience of having one such friend stay-over, with eye-opening results.

To have another young person in our house who has never been taught that you say please and thank you, that you look at someone when they talk to you, that you don’t try to operate a laptop and headphones at the dinner table while eating, and that you, at the very least, say thank you for staying over at the point of being returned home. That you actually communicate with those around you, at a very minimum. Don’t get me wrong…..I don’t expect this kid to divulge his life story or future ambition…..but for this young person to be so socially disadvantaged when in another persons house had me quite concerned.

Concerned for my own son……thinking that he held this other boy in such high regard. But I was swiftly reassured that our son, too, was concerned with his friends behaviour. We had not even reversed down the boy’s driveway after dropping him off before I was asked (with nervous glance) ‘so what did you think of …..?’ Our son knew. I didn’t have to do any ‘teaching’ of difference…..I merely had to remind what our expectations were if he were visiting another persons’ home…..or even just talking to another human being…..and the lesson was done. By the time we reached home, my son was planning to contact the friends we suggested may be ones more appropriate to see in future.

We do realise that this could have gone differently. That our son could not have seen the inappropriateness of his friends behaviour, and that we would have had to prepare to monitor his friendship with this kid for a longer period of time. That we would have had to carefully mitigate any damage done with their interaction. It is a hard job as a parent to have any influence over a 15 year old. And as every year comes round that influence becomes less and less. So what underlies a parents influence as they mature? What lives in them, as you, their parent, become less influential in their decision-making and social interactions?

The answer came to me when I stumbled across a recent TED talk on the evening following this experience. Jennifer Senior presented at TED recently about the modern day phenomenon in parenting that is anxiety. Anxiety that we are doing it right, doing it wrong, not providing this and that for our children. But ultimately, our biggest anxiety that our children, heaven forbid, will not be happy. Because isn’t that our job, as parents, to have happy children? As a result of this never-ending quest for children’s happiness, we become lost in the search for what will work, what won’t….what is right and what isn’t. We view each situation as a potential risk or reinforcement to our child’s happiness. And in doing so, we often lose sight of the person we are guiding our child to become. Many parents understand that education is the key to our child’s future happiness…..so we work hard to support them in their learning, monitoring homework, attending appropriate meetings at school, ensuring our teen is doing their study to pass their exams etc. But that is not enough. We then worry about what other skills they may need in life, so children get signed up for after-school activities, such as rugby, ballet, piano and so on. We worry about children’s diet, (what to do if my child eats non-organic, or doesn’t eat their vegetables); about children’s health, about children’s social skills, the list goes on. The point is we worry. We micro manage, instead of keeping an eye on the big picture. All of these worries are valid….but perhaps are indicative of anxiety gone too far. For now, we are told by every parenting ‘expert’ out there what good parents do and don’t do. As Jennifer Senior suggests, there is a book for everything to teach our toddler, short of disarming a nuclear bomb.

What did my experience with my teen’s peer reinforce to me? That my child’s happiness is not dependent on whether we continue to allow him to be friends with another boy with such vastly different social skills to our son. We could be so focused on his happiness that we allow him to liaise with this peer without regard for what he may learn in the process. My child’s happiness is more guided when we return to the basics of parenting. It is by focusing on the good old fashioned stuff that has worked for centuries in parenting. Values of life. What is really important. That you treat others with respect and that you will be respected in return. That respect means saying please and thank you, it means looking at someone when they talk to you, it means being respectful of another persons home when in it, and ultimately it means respecting your friend by respecting their home and family. That that is the value of friendship.

Values are even more important than our child’s happiness. For if we, as parents, can impart values that will serve our children’s future, then surely this will ultimately lead to their own, intrinsic happiness….rather than relying on others for some external sense of satisfaction? And really, if we, as parents are so focused on our children’s happiness, then it is the way of values that will ensure our own happiness in a job well done.

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It Must Be That Bad

People who work in education funnily enough move in similar circles.  Its as if, I would imagine like others in service industries (eg Police, Nursing etc), you find out that the person you have just met at a social function is a kindred spirit – they walk your walk everyday as you negotiate your way around the ‘system’.  In fact, I can identify most, if not a high percentage, of my friends either are, or have been teachers at some point when we initially crossed paths.  If not teachers, Education Advisers, or Psychologists.  We automatically connect, as if we are a family of sorts.

Most recently, these connections have highlighted for me several common themes through our conversations.  Firstly, the conversations usually start with the heavy workload, the stress, the late nights and the feeling that no matter how much we do, it is never quite enough.  Then the conversation progresses to policy impositions and ultimately National Standards and how it is directly impacting on the ability to do the job we once were excited to do.  For those of us who are parents, there comes a third component to the discussion.  Given that my younger children are just starting out in the school system, the chat inevitably returns to the age old adage of how I view school for my own offspring.  And this is where I have made some startling observations.  My teacher friends are worried.  They are genuinely concerned for the well-being of their own children within the education system.  They work hard to try to select the most appropriate school for their child to attend – often having to drive past several other schools to ensure this happens.  They liaise closely with the school staff in order to ensure the impact of such policies as National Standards, larger class sizes, clear reporting etc doesn’t filter down to mean their child has a negative experience of school.  And more recently, the teacher/parents I have spoken to have all categorically stated that if they could they would choose to home-school their child. That they felt their child’s emotional and mental well-being was at risk in some schools because of the pressure schools are now under to conform to the government’s policies.

You know it must be bad if teachers, given half the chance, would choose to home-school their own kids.  For teacher/parents who have children who find school somewhat challenging – albeit socially, emotionally or academically – the current policy direction will require the school to label them and make them fit in a box.  These boxes are labelled ‘at’, ‘above’ or ‘below’.  As a teacher/parent I am highly concerned that my children will be put into boxes that they just aren’t ready to be fitted for.  My daughter will fit in far different, colorful, weirdly shaped box from that of my son, who might fit a more industrial, toughened and security-enhanced box.  Each box is different, and I am loathe to see my children labelled at such a time when they are still forming their own self-identity.  For children who find school a challenge, their ‘below’ box will follow them around and haunt them.  It will come to define them, and despite all they do, (and all the work their teachers will do), they will struggle to get into another box that far more epitomizes their uniqueness, creativity, problem-solving ability, independence, responsibility and craziness.

So as a teacher/parent, I would raise my hand to have my children out of this system.  And it would seem, so would many others I speak with.  They see learning as experiencing, making meaning, doing and exploring – not always having to meet a benchmark to prove one’s ability to learn.  Learning should be happening consistently in the life of a child – making meaning from experience.  As such, children don’t need to be boxed in and limited to a range of criteria determined by someone that will not walk their path in life.  The knowledge they seek will be relevant to their life experiences and as such cannot be measured.  So, as a teacher/parent, I feel it is that bad.  I do not want my children categorised and ranked, given a number or a grade.  I want them having experiences, making connections and engaging in motivating learning.  And it would appear, at this time thanks to current government policy, the  New Zealand education system is struggling to offer this to our children.

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Little Eyes Watching Mummy in the Mirror

I am probably not the only woman on this planet that has an unusual obsession with my weight and body image. Actually, it’s mainly my body image. I know this, because at one brief point I reached my ‘goal weight’ and yet found I was still unhappy with my body image. There were still aspects I was not happy with. But I reached my goal weight in time for my wedding – I proudly did my victory dance in the changing rooms as I put on my size 8 wedding dress and even now look back on my wedding photos with pride.

And then of course I became pregnant, and my battle started all over again. Now you may wonder why this topic on Cheeky Kids? Is this another whoa is me story about a Mum who is struggling to lose post-baby weight? Quite the alternative……as from tomorrow I am embarking on a process of ‘reverse dieting’. As I looked around for yet another approach to seeking the ‘perfect body’ I came across an Australian trainer advocating the need for women to eat real food and the right amounts of it for a healthy balance. To actually eat more calories, not less. As I shared with her my story and my 1200 calorie, 6 day-a-week training approach, she suggested I was not eating enough for my body to operate in a healthy way and that I was causing metabolic damage. She asked for how long I had adopted this approach in my quest for my ideal body image. I had never considered this, as to me it was just what you did. Eat less, exercise more. But it would seem I had been doing this for a rather long time – at least 7 years or more. And the proof of success of this approach clearly lay in my stagnant body measurements.

So tomorrow I embark on a process of increasing my calorie intake and reducing my high level of cardio exercise regime. The problem is, I enjoy the feeling of a hungry tummy. A rumbling tummy to me means I’m losing weight. A full tummy makes me feel fat. Ive got so used to missing meals, avoiding yummy foods, saying no to delicious delights all in the name of weight loss, that my body has accepted this is what it will operate from. And in the process I have suffered other side effects noted in a metabolic-resistant or damaged state – lethargy, anaemia, hormonal imbalance and so on. I have simply been damaging my body.

But if this was just about me then, quite honestly, I’d probably continue to keep going round and round in my under-eating/over-training cycle. But this is not just about me. I have a beautiful daughter who, without realising it, is learning from me what it means to be a woman. And so far she has watched her Mum head out almost daily to pound the pavements in her spandex. She has seen her Mum prepare meals for the family and not eat them herself. While enjoying a family ice cream trip, she has seen her Mum do the ordering, but not the eating. So what has this all taught her? That grown women provide for their families, but miss out on the delights themselves. That they exercise madly. That they don’t have a balanced love of food, exercise and life.

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We have been very careful in our family to avoid words that relate to body image in a derogatory sense. When I explain why I am off for my exercise I make the links between health and longevity of life. I jokingly say I want to meet my great-grandchildren one day, and to do that I need to have a healthy heart. And to have a healthy heart means regular exercise. We talk about healthy food and sometimes food, and the health benefits, not the aesthetic impact on ones body. But I have failed to realise that my actions are screaming much louder than my words. I am failing to provide my daughter with a model she can hang her own thoughts and beliefs on in the battle against the world’s obsession with the female body image.

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I want my daughter to be different than I. As parents, we work hard to nurture her spirit, her creativity, her character and her confidence. I would not want her, in 30 years time to be having the same battle I now face in reassessing my relationship with food and my own self-image. I want it to be a non-issue for her as she confidently moves through her life – happy in her own self-image, healthy and happy. So, tomorrow, the foundation for this will begin construction. I begin my own journey, so very conscious of the little eyes watching.

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Parent Power

My 14 year old becomes 15 in less than a week. This is somewhat of a horrifying thought, as it only reminds us of how little time we have left with him to guide, teach and advise him on the ways of being a responsible adult. So when life lessons arise, we work hard to ensure every moment is utilised, as he inches one step closer to adult responsibility.

What makes this difficult however are the parents of his teenage friends. For some reason, many parents feel that as their children become young adults, they can loosen up and shift roles……becoming more friend than parent. That they don’t need to worry about consistent boundaries or maintaining the role of ‘guide to life’ and ‘wisdom council’. Instead they try to become a cool parent, for fear that their child will turn away, angry, mad or embarrassed to be in the same room as them. And in adopting this approach to their teenager, they then have to assume the same role with their child’s friends – because it is the friends that influence the final seal of ‘approval’ from their child. If their friends hassle their child “Man your olds are stink” or “oh my god is that what your Dad said….” their popularity ratings decline and the likelihood of your child ‘liking you’ decreases.

Which is what raising a teenager is about right? Them ‘liking’ you? Not in our household. We have decided not to look at the micro steps our teenager will take from age 13-20 years. We have our sights firmly focused on the young man he will be at age 25. The strength of character, moral compass and set of values that he will have to give him the resiliency to move through the adult world successfully. Which then allows us to make parenting decisions that will (and there’s always the fingers-crossed clause) assist him to get to this point. Our latest goal is to have him understand money does not descend from the heavens at any given time. That if he wants money for his mobile phone, or movie tickets, or lollies or the latest clothes, he has to do like everyone else and work for the money. We began this process early in the year by suggesting that if he wanted a fun, exciting summer holiday he would need to begin the process of looking for a job. Easier said than done in today’s employment climate. Lessons are continuing to being learned around gaining wilful employment. We have provided him with many opportunities to earn money doing labour around our property. We pay well and are somewhat flexible employers. However we stick to our bottom line, if the job isn’t completed to our satisfaction, you don’t get paid.

So when our teenager negotiates his taxi fare (aka Mums car) out to a friends beach house for an invited stay, we agreed to his terms. Lawns were to be mowed and bedroom was to be spotless. An employment contract was entered into. But when the time came for us to keep to our end of the deal, we had no option but to decline the taxi ride. Lawns had been left too late in the day and with the rain arriving could not be completed. The bedroom had not been cleaned. Instead, he had chosen to watch movies ‘putting off’ the jobs till the last moment. This is a current theme of life presently…..putting off for another time. And yet the look of shock and disdain that came when he was informed the taxi ride was not happening still surprised me. He genuinely thought that he could continue the approach and ‘finish it later’ as he had a deal with his mate to head to the beach. We had no choice but to stick to our guns and decline him his ride. We compromised and advised him that if we saw a change in his attitude and the jobs were completed by the following lunchtime, he had one last chance at the taxi ride. But he had to pull finger and show a change in his focus.

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But this is where it gets tricky. I then had to advise the mother of the said friend at the beach. I was simply delivering the message that, providing the jobs were completed, my teenager would be arriving later than expected for the visit. I explained we were trying to grow a responsible work ethic and the value of integrity……something which was lost in translation as she conveyed to me that her son would be ‘guttered’. I had to continue to apologise for the inconvenience and reinforce what we were trying to teach our son. At no time did I receive a ‘good on you’, or ‘I understand completely’, or ‘absolutely, you do what you need to do, we can wait’. Instead it became about how she was going to keep her disappointed son happy for an additional half-day.

Where has Parent Power gone? What has happened to parents having each others’ backs? This is a tough gig. There is no rule book, no user manual. We are required to make calls in split seconds with minimal information, that can influence the character and integrity of our future adults. We need to support each other, rather than the fragmented, each-to-their-own approach that is so common these days. What concerns me is that as my son moves towards the teenage experiences of driving, parties, girls and alcohol who are the parents of his friends that I can trust will have my, and consequently, his back? Who will be the parents that will ring and say ‘hey have just heard our boys planning ….. we need to address this with them’? Sadly, I can’t count too many of them on one hand.

Parents need to be a team – they need to be that collective village that raises our children together. And it begins with knowing that you can’t be your teenager’s friend. As the parent it is your job to make the hard calls when they don’t have the developmental, emotional or moral ability to. They may be bigger than you (my son now towers over me), but they haven’t got the years behind them to allow them to make decisions that may be life-impacting. So being their friend isn’t the reality as the parent of a teenager. Being their advisor, chief of staff and moral compass is. Friendship comes when they have matured into the wonderful adults you worked so hard to create in their formative years.

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Separated Families at Christmas

For many Christmas is a time of relaxation, good food and good family company. Finally a chance to catch up with loved ones after a busy completed year. But for others it signals a logistical and emotional nightmare, as shared contact between separated families is managed. If a negotiated plan is not in place, disagreement and conflict between ex-partners can cause Christmas to be a time of anxiety and frustration, in which inevitably the child is caught in the middle of.

So how can this situation be managed and the stress minimised as much as possible? I can only share our experiences in managing this time with my eldest son’s biological family. When I first became his step-Mum, there was no formal plan in place for the care of him over the Christmas time. Furthermore, his birthday was two days after Christmas, which made it an even more concentrated time of anxiety, as it felt like we had to have a highly concentrated period of contact with his biological family than we would normally have. This said, initially, my husband would simply agree with his ex-partner to her requests, in order to keep the peace and avoid any unpleasantness for our son. But this also meant that our son did not experience Christmas with one half of his family, which was a significant loss for him in terms of his childhood. So, as many parents would try, we began to look for a middle ground……a way to carve up the day so that it had some air of fairness and so that our son could feel he was experiencing how both sides of his family celebrated the day. This was always a cause of great stress in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day. What was deemed ‘fair’ was always from varying perspectives, and when having to deal with an ex-partner with their own agenda, this made for a worrying time. It created conflict between myself and my husband, as we debated how to manage the communication around the time. And this was before we had even begun our holiday!

Despite plans being agreed to, the greatest source of stress was the inevitable contact with my sons biological family on the day. Where most of the year we tried to void any concentrated form of the family, suddenly we were having to collect our son from a place where the entire family had congregated! We all had to be nice and pleasant at the point of pick up……despite the preceding disagreements and arguments from throughout the year. It was all about ensuring our son didn’t cotton on to any animosity between his loved ones.

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What made the pick ups and drop offs even harder, however was dealing with the ex-partners inability to be on time. More often than not, we were spending much our Christmas Day waiting. Waiting to have lunch as we waited for our son to arrive and be apart of it…….or waiting for our son to get his things ready as we picked him up, despite knowing of the time we were due to arrive. Or waiting for a phone call to pick up our son which came an hour or two hours after the agreed time. A relaxing Christmas did not seem quite the same. Instead we always had one eye on the clock……and a knot in our stomach knowing we would need to be managing contact at some point in the day.

Another trickle-on effect in having to manage contact between two separated families over this time, is the limitation this puts in being able to travel away to visit other family out of town. In the initial years of becoming a step-parent, this meant if I wanted to spend time with my husband, son and young daughter, it meant my parents had to travel to us, and not vice versa. They lived a five hour drive away and we were not able to do what many families could by saying ‘we’re spending Christmas away’ this year. It became 3 families to juggle….not the usual two. And it was the third family that would have the most to say if they got to miss out on seeing their son/grandson over this holiday time. And while I tried hard for it not to bother me, it did. A family I would have nothing to do with, or nothing in common with, other than my love for their biological son/grandson, were dictating to me when I could see my own family at Christmas time. While I didn’t make this an issue to anyone on the outside, it certainly stewed and stirred on the inside!

The best thing we ever did as a family was create an agreement thought the Family Court. For most people this is a daunting thought – to go to court. But as someone who has come out the ‘other side’ I could, without a doubt, state I would do it again. This process resulted in a very transparent and fair agreement on the arrangements for both Christmas and birthday contact…..and went further to ensure other holidays, such as Easter, long weekends, Mothers Day and Father’s Day etc were explicitly understood. And there were inevitable consequences if one or the other party refused to follow the agreement. Yes, it was expensive, and yes, the stress was excruciating. But what followed was far less stress over the time that mattered.

A further preventative strategy we employed to avoid the anxiety at the point of picking up and dropping off our son was to ensure we were the one doing the transporting. We offered to drop off AND pick up. This meant we footed the bill for the petrol, and the time spent in a car on Christmas Day…….but it also meant we had control over the time. We were able to minimise down our ‘wait’ time, as we were not left wondering when our son was ever going to arrive. And when contact was particularly strained between my husband and his ex-partner, we employed the assistance of family members who were happy to do the drop and pick up for us. We chose family who we knew would not engage in conflict or would not be confrontational, and that would, at all times, be mindful of the ears and eyes watching the change-over. Someone that would ensure our son would continue to be protected from adult conflict. (This usually meant someone of whom the ex-partner was a little intimidated by). All we then waited on was a text to say he had been collected and was on his way. We could breathe easy and look forward to the remainder of our Christmas Day.

So if you find yourself having to manage these additional stresses at the holiday time, it is well worth looking into creating a more formalised and structured agreement between the parties involved. When it is clear and spelt out on paper, it is far less likely to be argued with. If you find yourself having to wait or be inconvenienced unduly, try to become proactive, offering to do the transporting yourself. And in a worst-case situation, look for support within your immediate family – have someone available to assist with the pick ups to minimise your stress, and ultimately any trickle-on effect to your children. These are just some ways we have found got us through potentially stressful moments over the holiday season when managing separated families.

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Teenagers Online: How to Manage Social Media Invasions

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Our household would be fairly reflective of a middle-income modern family today when it comes to the amount of technology available to us. We have two TVs, mobile phones for Mum, Dad and teenager and business owned laptop and iPads. On top of this my teenager was recently gifted his own laptop, for the primary purpose of completing school assignments. We are very proactive about how technology is used and monitored in our household, as we like to consider we are fairly ‘modern’ and tech-savvy parents. We have basic rules. No TVs in bedrooms. If laptops or iPads are being used, they are used in the communal areas of our house for all to see. Time spent on the technology is limited, and the devices are certainly not activated in brilliant and wonderfully sunny days! We are attempting to teach our children (including our very quick 4 year old who knows how to ‘swipe’) that technology is merely a tool and not the complete way of life. That technology does not replace the basics of good old face to face social interaction. And that talking, laughing and appreciating each other in our family is more important than eyes glued to a screen.

Our biggest amount of work, as many parents can appreciate, is the way in which we monitor and manage our teenagers use of social media sites. Of course our younger children do not have an awareness (yet) of Facebook, Twitter, tumblr and other such sites. But it seems every week our nearly-15 year old is wanting to access the myriad of applications on his smart phone that allow him to have more and more ‘cyber-friends’. So our concerns around who he is socialising with, what he is being exposed to, and how to keep him safe at a time of his life when he is particularly impressionable are compounded with the inclusion of such social media sites.

The first thing we decided as a parenting team is that there is no such thing as our son’s right to privacy online. We agreed to him having a Facebook page, on the provision that we knew his password and that all his notifications came to our email address. If he didn’t like it, he didn’t have the page. He knows that at anytime we can intercept messages and read things on his page (we are his Facebook friends too). We could have simply denied him Facebook, but with the proviso of having access to the page, we felt we would be in the best position to walk alongside him and support him in understanding online-etiquette. Some would argue this is an invasion of his privacy. We rationalised that if he was prepared to put things online, then they were not subject to privacy. We were not sneaking into his bedroom and reading through a diary hidden away for only his eyes. He was sharing things on a public forum, and as his parents we had a responsibility to ensure what he was sharing was appropriate and safe.

By having access to our sons facebook password, we were then in a position to work with him to adjust his privacy settings. This is where as a parent talking with our teen was imperative. Many parents not experienced with social media sites plead ignorance and therefore abdicate responsibility. Instead we decided Facebook was here to stay (until the next big thing) and it was our responsibility to teach our son about the audience he was prepared to share his daily life with, as well as the potential dangers for him in doing just that. We continue to have many discussions around who sees what is on his page and the long term footprint he is leaving in cyber space. What seems to work at the present time is utilising his interest in girls. We ask him to consider the possibility that one day his future father-in-law may want to see who his daughter may be preparing to spend the rest of her life with! Or the very real notion that a review of his profile page may be the deciding factor determining his employability with a future employer.

It is our responsibility as the parents of a teenager to firstly accept the invasion of social media into the daily lives of our children. Given this technology is here, we cannot assume our children know how to behave appropriately using this form of communication. So what do we do for our children if they don’t have the skills to behave in a new social context? We teach them. We talk to them, assisting them to make connections between our family values, expected behaviours and how to use the social media in a responsible manner. And then we monitor their online behaviour, with their full knowledge. Because being a teenager, he falls down lots. He makes bad judgments and struggles to see past the present day to any future consequences of such choices. So we assist him to see these, keeping his behaviour in context and viewing it as yet another learning opportunity on the path of life.

They say parenting is one of the hardest jobs a person could ever undertake. And I’m pretty sure this was said pre-social media. Now, it’s just got a whole lot more complicated!

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