If you’ve ever been at a playground around 6:00 on a Wednesday night, you know it means that you are with at least one hungry, tired child. The person I ticked off had two. He was trying to wrangle them off the playground and into his car, which is when I decided it was a good time to speak my mind about a sticky situation at his workplace of which I had only a rudimentary understanding.
In my defense, I really was trying to do a good thing. The man I accosted was a teacher at our neighborhood elementary school. I had heard that due to an unfortunate series of events, morale was low and teachers were disheartened. I was trying to suggest a path to a solution but my message was ill thought-out and poorly delivered. Not surprisingly, he misunderstood my intent and I was left feeling frustrated and embarrassed.
That incident got me thinking about online (and offline) communications. If I had been as unclear on Facebook or Instagram as I was in person, it is likely I would have been blocked or unfriended either right away or after a lengthy back and forth in which we both went unheard. In person, I read his non-verbal cues, shut my mouth, walked away and emailed an apology later.
Isn’t this one of the things we fear the most when we allow our kids access to social media? That they will start or engage in ugly exchanges that spiral out of control with names called and (virtual) punches thrown? That they will inadvertently hurt or be hurt? Or worse, that the cuts will be intentional?
If it’s so easy for me to make a misstep as an adult with lots of life experience behind me, isn’t it almost certain our kids will struggle? How do we teach our kids to be responsible, respectful citizens of the cyber world? And how do we protect them from the (sometimes anonymous) online cruelty when it is directed at them?
A great place to start is with the new book, Kindness Wins by Galit Breen. Breen, a freelance writer, mother and former teacher is, as she says, “madly in love with social media.” And so, when her daughter started hinting that she’d like to be able to connect with her friends on Instagram, Breen was initially excited to share her knowledge. Then, she thought about it more. What exactly would her child encounter online?
Last year, Breen experienced this firsthand after she wrote an article about her marriage for the Huffington Post. She included a wedding photo in the article and was taken aback by the comments the article received that she wrote the follow-up article, “I Wrote an Article about Marriage, and All Anyone Noticed Is That I’m Fat” that appeared on xojane.com. The Today Show and Inside Edition picked up the story.
Breen says that experience, along with her daughter’s plea for accounts on Instagram and Pinterest, started her thinking about how we should teach our kids to behave online.
As I have written on this page in the past, my kids are active on social media. My daughter has accounts on both Instagram and Pinterest. My son is on Instagram but does most of his online communication through gaming websites. I check in with them occasionally but just as I know that my middle graders have friends I’ve never met, so do I realize that I can’t be on top of their every online move. Which makes it even more important that I feel some level of confidence that they will acquit themselves appropriately when I am not looking over their shoulders.
Luckily, each chapter of Kindness Wins “covers one habit to directly teach kids about how to be kind online.” Habits include: Remember There’s Someone on the Other Side of the Screen, A Picture is Worth a Thousand (Nice) Words, and Anonymous Isn’t An Excuse: You’re Responsible for Every Word You Write Online.
Lessons like these aren’t so different from how we teach our kids to behave when they are face-to-face and clearly, if I am any indication, bear repeating no matter our age or the situation.
Chapters conclude with one resource for further reading, two discussion starters (one to have with peers and one to have with kids), and three bulleted takeaways. Then, at the end of the book, Breen includes two Kindness Wins contracts--one for peers, a sort of “I have your back if you have mine” agreement and one for kids detailing expectations for their online behavior. I personally will be printing these out and posting them over each of our family’s computers and possibly pasting them to my forehead.
Although Breen touches on some of the many ways social media can be used to manipulate and hurt others, her main message is that social media, used with kindness, respect, and some thought, can be an exciting and fun communication tool. She helpfully suggests ways for kids to turn potentially hurtful situations into opportunities for additional kindness. So, for example, if a child is asked to vote for or against a friend, or #rateme, they could respond instead with, “I can’t pick one, I love them all.”
Breen puts the impetus on us as parents to advise this course of action and, more importantly, to give our kids the words to practice and use so that when they encounter these issues online, they are prepared. Again, an exercise that has value in many more situations than their online conversations.
Kindness Wins gives parents new to the social media game a shortcut. It gives parents of social media savvy children ideas and tips for conversations to have (or have again) with their kids.
It also gives parents the confidence to know that though social media might be new territory, kindness, courtesy, empathy and respect aren’t.
It gives parents a reminder of how we should behave online ourselves. And most interestingly, it suggests ways to (gently) call out friends or online contacts when we encounter unseemly behavior, or an honest mistake, in a conversation thread.
The evening after my playground gaffe, I agonized over my explanation and apology to my friend. In the end, I can only hope that, as with the Kindness Wins contract, I was able to find words that were “kind, necessary, and true” and that I was able to accurately imagine how he would receive my message.
Communication in any circumstance is hard. Kindness Wins is a welcome and indispensable reminder of how to do it to the best of our abilities.
Kindness Wins is available on your Kindle or in paperback through amazon.com.
Follow Beth Meleski @bmeleski on Twitter or @bethmeleski on Instagram. Or you can follow her on her regular route in Ridgewood, NJ where she can be found driving carpools or going to the grocery store...again.
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