Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wrong Answer. Parenting in the Age of Facebook

A New York Times tech blog featured the following question and answer:
My 13-year-old daughter signed up for Facebook without my permission. Should I be a grinch and make her quit or get over it and just let her keep her account?
(Answer)Rather than crack down on her account, this could be a golden opportunity to help your daughter begin learning how to safely navigate social networks and the Web.
While the article goes on to describe important ways to monitor your childrens' Facebook accounts and activities (and I totally agree that you should insist that your children "friend" you, as you have not only the right, but the responsibility to know about your child's online behavior), the answer doesn't address the fundamental question.
From the question, it's unclear whether the child asked for a Facebook account, and the parent said no, or just signed up on her own. Reading the post, I get the sense that it's the former. If this is true (and this post will assume that it is), then my answer to the question is that the parent must "be a grinch" (notice how guilty the questioner feels) and make her drop the account, at least temporarily.
We have a simple question of discipline. A child asked a parent for permission to have a privilege, and the parent - justified or not - said no. It really matters not whether the kid wanted to stay over at a friend's house, attend a party or open a Facebook account. What matters is that after getting an answer she didn't want, the child proceeded to defy the parent and do it anyway. (Typical child behavior. Nothing shocking there.) But what the child needs most at the moment, is discipline. She violated a rule, and a direct answer from a parent. Relenting now sends the message that it's OK to ignore the parent's wishes, and if you go ahead and violate what the parent says, the parent will feel "like a grinch" and allow the behavior to slip.
I think there's an important point in the question that parents often miss. Discipline stinks. No one likes punishing or disciplining a child - whether the child is four, and bursts into to tears, or fourteen, and gives you an eye-roll that only a teenager can. But, as much as they hate the discipline, they need it too - and even crave it. Because discipline gives our children a sense of security and limits. It sends them the clear, powerful message that their parents not only care, but will fight them to ensure that they do the right thing.
Most thirteen-year-olds' friends are all on Facebook, sharing the minutia of their lives. I don't really have a problem with allowing kids to have Facebook accounts, as long as a parent follows the advice in the column.
But, if I was the parent in question, the violation demands punishment. I would tell the child: "Yes, you can have a Facebook account - in two months. And hopefully, the next time you ask me for something, instead of doing what you want when you don't get an answer you like, you'll come back to me, discuss it, present your side of the issue and we'll be able to reach a reasonable solution."