Marybeth: Five questions about kids and media
This week I gave a parenting talk based on my book Bringing Up GEEKS (Genuine, Enthusiastic Kids): Protecting Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-up-too-fast World.
If you don’t know about the book, it’s based on my belief that today’s “culture of cool” has changed the way kids grow up. Rather than enjoying innocent childhoods while developing strong, authentic characters, today’s kids can become cynical—even jaded—as they absorb the dangerous messages and harmful influences of a dominant popular culture that encourages materialism, high-risk behaviors, and a state of pseudo-adulthood. My alternative to the culture of cool? Bringing up GEEKS.
The book and my parenting talks are meant to inspire parents to free themselves and their kids from cultural conditioning while instilling in their children truly important values.
One of the rules for implementing a geeky lifestyle is to shelter kids from our media-saturated culture. Not easy when simply walking through the mall means a confrontation with a larger-than-life poster of naked teens, sans heads. Thanks, Abercrombie, for objectifying America’s youth!
Just about every parent I know wrestles with the ubiquitous media monster. Here were five questions that came up at this week’s presentation that you may also be struggling to answer…
1. How much time on Facebook is too much?
The mom who asked this said her 13-year-old daughter is online literally all the time. When these parents insist she hand over her iPod Touch or laptop (which they did recently upon discovering inappropriate and unkind messages on her Facebook), she gets anxious, depressed, and “impossible to live with.” FYI: This is your first clue that your kid is spending too much time on Facebook!
Keep in mind that the Kaiser Family Foundation says American kids spend roughly 7.38 hours a day engaged with various media – more if you count “multi-tasking” (surfing the net while watching TV, for example). I’m going to go out on a limb and say every waking hour is too much time online.
My answer to the mom’s question: Own the fact that you have allowed this to become such a big problem. Tell your daughter, “I regret that we didn’t supervise your media usage better and now you have inappropriate expectations about how to use it. But because I love you and want what’s best for you, I have to make a change in our media consumption…” Then set a standard you can live with (an hour a day for social media – after all the homework and chores are done – is plenty!) At night, collect all the devices that connect to the web and replace with a brownie, a book, and a bath. There’s more to life than Facebook, and as parents our job is to teach moderation in all things.
2. How can I make my middle school son accept our rules about video game usage?
The mom who asked this question missed the first part of my talk on assuring that our homes are structured around proper parental authority. Otherwise known as, you’re the parent – take charge! Accepting house rules about video game use – or any house rule – is a reflection of a child’s respect for your authority. This mom’s problem was more fundamental than getting her kid to agree to a specific rule. He’s challenging her right to make and enforce any rule.
The trick in this situation is to demonstrate to the boy that things go better for him when he obeys the rules and does so in a cooperative manner. Once you’ve made your policies about video games crystal clear, the onus is on you, the parent, to enforce the rules consistently. Rules about gaming are fairly easy to enforce. If the kid doesn’t comply, simply unplug the thing and put it in a closet where he can’t get to it. Bottom line: He uses the system according to the house rules, or we don’t have a system at our house. (NOTE: The simpler the rules, the better. If you make them too complicated, you can’t remember them!)
3. My husband is naturally suspicious of our 15-year-old son and wants to keep close tabs on his Internet usage. I am more trusting and feel we should only monitor him if he gives us a reason for concern. Who’s right?
You both are! God, in his wisdom, gave children mothers and fathers because we play very different parenting roles. Typically, dads are suspicious and a little wary, while moms are often overly-trusting and a little naïve. Children need both of these approaches to make them do the right things.
It’s a good idea to sit down with your teen and say, “You are one lucky kid! Dad is taking charge of making sure you don’t make big mistakes while using the Internet, while I’m here to answer any questions you have and help you navigate through social media in positive way.” And of course, you should be monitoring his online presence at least enough to know he’s acting responsibly and safely.
When it comes to the question of trusting children, my gut reaction is always, “Why would you do that? They’re children!” But then I harken back to my first job in the Reagan White House and the brilliant philosophy that fits in both parenting and nuclear proliferation: Trust…but verify.
4. How do I tell a friend that her parenting is now too different from mine for our kids to hang out at her house? I’m OK with them being at my home, but she’s become way too permissive.
This is a toughie. It seems we all have friends with whom we “parallel parent” for years, thinking we are just alike on so many important issues, and then one day you discover the mom you thought you knew so well just rented “American Pie” for her family movie night. You’re like, “Wait…what?”
Step one: accept that people’s priorities change as their kids get older and many parents who seemed to be making decisions similar to yours will start to make choices you can’t support. It’s OK to still like these people! But it will change the dynamics of your friendship and that of your kids.
Step two: Keep the issue specific to a particular event our outing. Don’t say, “You’ve changed and you no longer share my values.” (Friendship killer!) DO say, “I think we’ll skip that movie. I’m not comfortable with the content for my kid.” To review: Don’t judge; do impose your values on your decision for your child. That’s what your values are there for!
5. What do I do if I discover offensive content on my child’s iPod?
Take it off! The messages in today’s music lyrics are not benign!
For example, studies show that kids who listen to degrading sexual music lyrics begin engaging in sexual behaviors at younger ages than kids who don’t listen to that stuff. Really, how does it benefit kids to listen to lyrics that are misogynistic, glorify violence and drugs, and are filled with vile profanity?
But how would you know if that stuff is on your kid’s iPod? You have to listen to it! (It’s OK to dance around the kitchen when you do this. We all do.)
Every so often, you absolutely must grab that music player and pop in the ear buds and take a stroll through your child’s playlists. You may not understand the words to the songs. That’s OK. You can go to www.lyrics.com to find them. But then you won’t understand what some of the words mean, so you’ll have to go to www.urbandictionary.com to figure it out. When you do, you’re going to be scandalized!
Believe me, I’m no prude. But we need to help our kids develop some standards around the content that they’re feeding into their heads and hearts.
Remember: From a Ken Burns documentary to MTV’s Spring Break series, all media is educational media; it’s all teaching something. Your job is to figure out if the media content your kids are consuming reflects the values you’re trying to teach in your home and instill in their hearts and souls.