Do Digital Parents Really Need to Barf Rainbows to Connect With Their Kids?

Image courtesy of Snapchat. Inspired to post by student participants at digcitsummit.com

If you think the internet is full of hateful, awful people who say mean things, you’re right. But if you want to change all that — you’ve got to connect to the good out there. And connect your children to it, too. It’s time to create a culture shift — one where parents actually have a clue about what children do, see, say and learn online. It’s time to be the digital change.

It’s happening already. A few Saturday’s ago at Starbucks, I found myself watching a Dad navigating Snapchat with his kids, a tween son and daughter. He was clearly trying to bridge the digital divide. As I waited for my coffee, I could see him pick up his smartphone and send something to his son, who, as far as I could tell, cut and pasted said ‘something’ and then forwarded it to his sister. Her phone ding-ed and she smiled, looked at the text and then walked around the table to show her Dad: Look! Isn’t that the cutest thing ever? It was a cartoon with scripty 70s letters that said ‘I Love You.’ I think it was Peanuts. Maybe you should send this to Mom! he said. It was like a game of digital ‘telephone’. (If you’re old enough to remember that game, well, that’s why you’re reading this piece.)

For me, the whole exchange seemed a little bit too scripted. I don’t think I could have pulled it off. But DigiDad stuck to his strategy: He checked his ego at the door and went in for the connection: I am having trouble with Snapchat. Can you help me? he said.

He had made his kids the authorities, while still limiting any negativity, ignoring the massive eye roll his son gave him when his sister moved seats to share her Dad’s screen. After gracefully explaining a few of the finer points of Snapchat, she whispered: Now send one to me! They were at it for about 10 minutes and when he looked up and saw the time, he was clearly pissed off at himself. Let’s go guys—now—or we’re going to be late for soccer — my bad. His daughter offered to Google-map the route. His son said he would text the coach that they were on their way. There were no lectures or lessons — in fact he had successfully ‘flipped’ their roles. As digital natives, they helped him navigate the morning as if they were in control.

I knew the guy and caught up with him outside: Nicely done, I see how you work, I said. Later, I texted him: But now what? I have to act like my kids’ friend to find out what’s up online? No way. I’m the parent.

Over dinner that night, I recounted the Starbucks story to a fellow mom. As if! I said to her. As if! we could all just take up Snapchatting and Instagramming like knitting and canoeing at family camp. Cue Snapchat rainbow barf. She tore Digidad apart — saying over and again:The reality is it’s a mean, mean world out there. Adults are mean, and kids are following suit: They’re downloading illegal music files, plagiarizing papers and using their cell phones in class to cheat during tests. That’s on campus. Outside of school, they’re bullying each other with nasty comments online and begging girls to send them one, just one, naked photo. DigiDad and his Snapchat coffee date seem like a joke by the time I got to bed.

The next morning, I started in on my son: You do know that everything you put online is forever, right? He nodded. You do know that every comment you make online thousands of people could be reading. He nodded. And then he asked: Wait, I can’t get a do-over? You don’t have a magic Mom wand to fix all my mistakes online just like you do in real life? Funny. Very funny. You’ll make a great unicorn someday, kid.

That’s when I had an epiphany. I have always said that being a parent is a participatory sport. If you’re doing your job as a parent, your kid knows right from wrong in the real world—and they know to apply the same rules as digital citizens. Real life and digital life—they are pretty much equals for kids today.

While I will always have the time or energy to stand up for someone online, I don’t have the will to try to out-position and out-maneuver my kids. I am inspired to learn from them, to laugh with them, and to protect them if they do something risky or stupid, just like they might in real life. Personally, I’d rather learn to barf rainbows, play Minecraft, share podcasts and create awesome Instagram feeds of places we’ve traveled together than disconnect them from the rest of the world.

Digidad is looking a lot more heroic again. If there are more people out there like him, there will be a culture shift — keep the faith. Break the internet with rainbows and kindness every day. Be the digital change you want to see.

Be the digital change. #digcit #digidadsunite