Long ago in internet terms, a tech blogger, Janell Burley Hoffman, became briefly famous when she wrote a post about “giving” her son an iPhone for Christmas, along with a contract he had to sign to keep the phone.
I became aware of Hoffman’s post when it went viral on FB. Usually those who shared the post would add a statement something like PARENTING U R DOING IT RIGHT!!!!
Yeah, not so much.
The contract was a list of rules, most of which aren’t terribly out of line; but the first two knocked me back.
- It is my phone. I bought it. I pay for it. I am loaning it to you. Aren’t I the greatest?
- I will always have your password.
Another, less popular post, caused more debate. Kim Hall, who blogs about her faith and her family, wrote a post addressed to “the girls” her teenage sons were friends with, in which she counseled them about their inappropriate behavior (which included being girls on FB, basically). The opening paragraph to this post set off my alarms:
Dear Girls: I have some information that might interest you. Last night, as we sometimes do, our family sat around the dining-room table and looked through the summer’s social media photos.
Later, Hall makes it clear that this is a regular practice – that her family meets frequently to look through her children’s FB, and that she blocks any of her children’s friends whom she feels are behaving inappropriately.
And then there was this guy, Tommy Jordan, whom you may also remember: he shot up his 15 year old daughter’s laptop, because he had read a comment she had written complaining about him. (Note that to get to this comment, he had to hack her FB.)
This sort of parenting strikes me as not just intrusive but destructive (and not just of laptops).
Consider Janell Burley Hoffman’s rules for her son and his iPhone.
With Rule #1, Hoffman tells her son that he has no right to property.
Rule #2 is even worse – this tells her son he has no right to privacy. In the name of teaching him manners and keeping him safe (or really, I guess, “pure,” since other rules deal with what her son is allowed to search for and read on his phone) Hoffman is denying his personal autonomy.
Granted, Hoffman might argue that her son is not autonomous. He’s thirteen, dependent upon her for everything. However, feeding and housing someone does not give us the right to treat that person like a possession.
Also, I have no doubt, Hoffman fears for her son’s character and his safety. By monitoring his activity in this way, and by holding the threat of confiscation over him, she hopes to keep him safe and encourage him to behave well. These are laudable goals. It is her method which is misguided.
Hoffman makes the same mistake our other two parents make: by removing any hope of privacy or autonomy from their children, they believe they will teach these children to behave well.
In fact, though, what are they teaching their children? That nothing, even their own hearts and minds, belongs to them; that those who have power over them can and will intrude anywhere, and strip away anything, however important it is to them; and that this sort of intrusion and elimination of boundaries — this kind of control over others — is correct behavior.
It is significant that none of these children are very young. They are all adolescents, between 13 and 17. This is an age when young adults need both privacy and autonomy. Without it, they cannot try out various ways of thinking and acting. As David Dobbs notes in his article “Teenage Brains,” risk-taking behavior, along with the ability to interact freely with their peers, is an essential part of how an adolescent becomes an adult.
The desire to keep your child safe forever is a powerful one. But first, it cannot be done.Your child, especially your adolescent child, is going to have access to the internet, and to the great world beyond your dining room table. A snooping parent may not find objectionable material on the kid’s iPhone; this does not mean the kid has not been accessing data the parent might find objectionable. Kids have friends; friends have access. Also, most kids know more about technology than most parents these days. That contract only looks unbeatable to parents.
Second, children need to grow up. You should not stand in the way of that. In order to learn how to handle the world, children have to be allowed to have experience in handling the world. And your children do not need you back-seat driving every move they make or word they speak. (Would you read your child’s diary? Listen in on their phone conversations? Then why would you read their email?) Children need a space apart from parents, where they can practice adulthood.
Will they get things wrong? Of course. Will they access sites you might not be entirely happy about? Yes.
This last, I agree, troubles the modern parent. Thanks to the Internet, truly appalling porn and other graphic information is available to anyone now. Further, some parents worry about internet predators preying on their kids. While the idea is scary, these predators are not actually very common; and the best tactic for keeping your kids safe is not, in fact, spying on them or stripping them of their autonomy, but educating them.
We got my kid her own computer when she was ten. She’s had internet access since then, runs her own webcomic, has online friends and communities she frequents. I do not know her password. Nor do I want to know it. Do I worry about her or what she might encounter online? I do not.
First, we talk, often, about what kinds of actions are and are not okay on the internet.
Second, when she encounters something that disturbs or upsets or enrages her, she talks to me about it. This is the part that I think more authoritarian parents sometimes miss: giving you child autonomy, respecting your child’s rights, does not mean that you stop parenting. In fact, in my experience, in means you parent more, given that rather than training your child (like a dog), you are raising your kid to be an independent, thinking adult.
Parents who violate their children’s privacy and autonomy find out very quickly that their children don’t trust them. (With good reason – would you trust someone who violated your privacy and abused your autonomy?) Children who don’t trust their parents are not likely to come to them when they run into trouble, either on the internet or anywhere else.
If you want your children to use the internet and other technology wisely and well, teach them how to do that. Give them those rules: the rules about how to behave online, and what never to do, and why.
Parenting is not about policing our kids. It’s not about being “the bad guy,” or proving how tough you are, or that you’re the boss. It’s about raising children to be independent, to be free and critical thinkers, to be competent adults.
That won’t happen so long as we treat them like they’re incompetent possessions.
(Photographs and images by Mark Burgh; by blakeburris at Flikr; and by Dr. Giovanni Dichiro on Wiki Commons.)