There is nothing like middle school to fire up the angst engine… for parents. Sure, sure… my daughter was nervous the first week worrying about what she would wear and doing her hair and trying out for volleyball but, 10 days into the school year it has already eased up for her. The anxiety I am talking about belongs to the mothers. The topic discussed during time outs in the bleachers and in phone conversations out of earshot is not the contents of our pre-teens’ backpacks, but the content on their social media sites.
Eager to fit in, they dive, head first, into conversations and connections that they label as friends without an understanding of where it might be leading. We want them to be leaders in the classroom and community by expanding their sense of the world and in this era, that will include growing their list of followers.
It’s a lot to take in. Every new way for her to reach out could become a new reason for me to freak out, so I thought it was a good time to have a conversation about social media. I follow my daughter’s accounts and monitor her activity, but I have found that revisiting the topic on a regular basis keeps the channel of communication open, helping to prevent a blow up when her phone is blowing up. And, as I always do on things like this, I needed to make sure my experiences were in line with my expectations of her, online. So, before I made another post – or boast – I took a scroll through memory lane.
It’s so easy to get caught up in it… the draw of creating content for social media to fill my feed while handling the mundane tasks of feeding my family and myself. Privacy settings and private moments are a perception-as-reality talk that had to start young with her because as the youngest of 4 children, she watched as I learned right along with her older brother and sisters, the ins and outs of apps that can bring online attacks, as well as online attachments.
As an interior designer, I use social media to grow my business by crafting a story around photos of the results. As an advocate, I use the platform to inspire curiosity and conversations about change. That is all information that I send out into the world and delight in the feedback I get. But as a mother, I have to remain aware that the paths I send my children out on lead back home, even the virtual ones.
Facebook and Instagram are great for sharing my daughter’s everyday moments with her siblings and family members that aren’t a part of our every day. And it is so much fun to keep in touch with friends and former classmates. It is so useful to stay up on traffic conditions and school activities schedules with so much information available at a touch.
On the surface, it seems ideal. But there is nothing superficial about raising children so what it comes down to are our ideals. I first wrote about this in 2016 in a blog post entitled “…on selfies and self ease” on my website MamaBearings.com and I revisit it, now, to make sure I am following my own lead. At the time, my daughter was 9 and while she was not yet on social media, I knew it was coming. I wrote:
“In this world, in which, literally, we hold ourselves at arms length to fill a phone with selfies, shouldn’t we focus, instead on holding close what we hold dear to fill our hearts with self ease?”
Self ease comes from self acceptance. Acceptance that only comes from introspection and awareness and understanding of who we are, as humans. Self knowledge, as adults, that can only come when we are willing to bring the shadowy parts of ourselves into the light. That won’t get many likes on Facebook so who cares if I edit and filter and smooth the lines above my brow to mask the worry behind my eyes? Well, I do. Because self assurance, for a child, is built on unconditional love and how I talk about myself is the first message my daughter ever got. Now that she can read the world around her as well as my page, whether it’s for my profession or personal life, what I show to people online must line up with how I show up, in person, to her, at home.
In that 2016 post I said, “This form, for me, has been about finding balance between what I allow in to my life, as fuel, and what I put out — knowing that it might be fuel for others — especially for my children.” My kids range in age from 29 to 12 and bringing a child up in this world and getting them to adulthood is a constant stream of un-photogenic life events that does not translate well to a live-streamed event.
So, more important than the number of follows on Instagram is how I follow my intuition. A better gauge of what I am teaching in real life is my middle-schooler’s social skills and whether she is able to make friends at school. Regardless of what is on my news feed, my adult children feed themselves. Like, literally. Because they have learned, by watching me, that a self-centric focus on what lights us up — and gets lots of likes — doesn’t pay the light bill.
It is the ongoing paradox of parenting… to teach my daughter to not worry about how she looks, I have to think through how I look to her. I have to remind her that she will be judged at face value by others while being a reminder that people are more than what they post. Our imaginations want to jump to conclusions and animate a one dimensional picture into a full story that may or may not deserve a leap of faith. Classmates with large followings become celebrities, of sorts, whose reputations can be compromised with a click. There is a depth and breadth to relationships that virtual reality cannot come close to and the only way to lay it out for her is to model how to lay down the phone and make friends… real ones.
As a 7th grader, she has a phone and a school issued iPad and so it is safe to say she is more at ease with technology than I am. Her history is already beyond what I could ever have imagined as my future at that age. So, how do I teach her not to be too quick to judge AND not to be too quick to trust what she sees “out there”? Well, by being trustworthy, in here. In the heart she can feel in my hug rather than the heart she double taps on a screen. In our home rather than on her home page. By not making a snap decision about her based upon her snapchat. To see her strength in our face-to-face connection that is never affected by whether we have enough signal for FaceTime.
The other day one of those mothers in the bleachers told me that my daughter had opened a discussion with a new school friend about how her social media posts didn’t really sync with how cool she was in person. And that with coaches and teachers and anybody being able to view her photos, it could hurt her reputation and even disrupt her participation on the team. Her new friend listened… and as I listened to this report, I was content, at least for the moment, that what was solid had sunk in.
Her actions say more than her device based activity report and are a reminder that when I am confronted with a story of her, I should look first, to what I know of her. Then, and only then, we can explore how best to project – and protect – her best self.
Clients and careers, vacation spots and backyards, big family dinners or quiet evenings out — the circumstances surrounding our lives WILL change. How we respond to them — as well as how we portray them to others — is the only thing we can control. She and I will both make mistakes… but as I turn the pages of my old photo albums or scroll through online ones, what I hope comes through is not the content on my site but whether or not the content of my character is anywhere in sight. Because my children have read it their whole lives, my history is also theirs. Where they go with it is up to them. I hope it always leads them home to me… even if it’s just for a chat, for real.