As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?
I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.
Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.
As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.
I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my gay children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):
1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.
2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.
3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.
4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.
5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha—sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.
6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children— not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.
7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi—she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.
8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu—to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.
There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.
Parenting in all generations has had its’ challenges, however in today’s digital society it has created a new world of parenting concerns—in addition to offline parenting. It’s back to school, and our children’s digital devices and online access is only going to increase in the coming days. How do we keep up? It is all about what happens behind the screens and offline parenting that is important.
It’s a fact, having “the talk” doesn’t only mean about the birds and the bees anymore. Before any child is handed a keypad of any kind, parents should discuss; digital citizenship, cyber-safety, how to report online abuse and above all your child needs to know that having any type of tech gadget is a privilege—not a right. If they abuse this privilege, there will be consequences. Having a family Internet safety contract in place is recommended.
Be very clear on your consequences and always follow through. It is important that your child know that as a parent you will be monitoring them. This way there are no surprises, it isn’t about not trusting them, it is about their safety and well-being.
Monitoring verses snooping
Your child’s safety is a priority. Monitoring is parenting. When safety trumps privacy, snooping is your last resort.
As I mentioned in an earlier article, many teens don’t tell their parents they are being bullied online for a variety of reasons. This can cause for emotional scarring that is unnecessary if addressed early.
You may notice behavioral changes such as:
- Secretive and withdrawn
- Change in appetite
- Changing friends
- Failing, underachieving in school
- Sadness and signs of depression
Keeping up with the latest digital trends
Kids and teens are usually ahead of their parents when it comes to apps and tech trends. An open dialogue with your kids is better than spying and snooping. This starts early with a genuine interest in their digital lives.
The truth is monitoring systems and parental controls are only useful to an extent. This is why it is imperative that your child is taught digital awareness offline so that when they are faced with difficult situations online they are better equipped to handle them. This is not to discourage parents from having monitoring programs in place, but you have to face the reality that especially teens are cyber-savvy and will find ways to escape monitoring systems. This is why it is so important they have cyber- skills to make good choices when you are not around—digitally.
New apps and social media sites
Just ask! Make it a habit to ask your kids if they have downloaded any new apps lately – or what their favorite sites are. Learn about their digital lives and where they cyber-surf. Make this a frequent conversation.
Want to find out more? Ask your child’s friends or your friends kids for the latest app or social media (networking) site they have joined or downloaded lately. Engage in a conversation of why they like it and what it offers. This will give you an idea of where other kids are hanging online. It’s amazing how much your child’s friend’s love to speak to parent’s—other than their own!
After SnapChat the big trend is the disappearing message apps that are saturating online stores and becoming increasingly popular with users of all ages.
It is not about the app, it is about having the knowledge to click-out when you know you are in a dangerous or risky area online or situation. We often hear about websites, such as CreepyPasta, only after there is a tragedy.
The fact is, although the site might not be where we want to have our kids lingering, it’s not the site that harmed the teenager. It’s the choices the teens make. It goes back to offline parenting.
Parenting our children offline is what will give our children online character and social behavioral skills online to make better choices when they are surfing cyberspace on their own. This includes decisions to download appropriate apps and use social media sensibly.
Friends, family and cyber-mentors: Share and share alike
The best tip for parents for online safety is keeping your offline communications open. Discussing digital safety, cyberbullying, online scams, password security, new apps, new sites and all things tech should be part of your family conversation same as how was your day at school or your summer camp adventures.
It’s a fact, most teens and parents are attached to their technology. I am confident there is something everyone can share at the dinner table about the Internet whether it is new website or app they learned about that day. Become each other’s cyber-mentor.
Let’s not wait for national headlines to have a conversation. Let’s not wait for another youth suicide to talk about the digital world.
Keeping up with technology is almost impossible, but keeping up with our child is not only possible – it’s necessary. It’s all about making it your priority—be sure you have several family dinners weekly and have those tech talks often, they are important to get behind the screens of your kids!
The following is the third in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.
Summer camp is not only a time to meet new friends and people, your children will have memories and experiences for a lifetime. Many will want to capture them in photos and videos – especially in today’s digital world.
Sharing your summer experiences with friends and family is expected, however when it comes to the World Wide Web, precautions need to be taken.
Over-sharing is a common mistake that many people of all ages make on social media.
Prior to posting videos, talk to your child about things they need to consider before posting each photo and video:
- Setting-up a private group for their camp group viewing only
- Double checking their privacy settings
- Thinking about who is in the photos/videos? Will they mind their picture on a social media site?
- Sharing selectively
- Creating an online photo album entitled 2014 summer camp
The Teens and Screens survey revealed that many young people are still over-sharing personal information. This is a very serious concern that parents need to discuss with their tweens and teens. For example:
- 50% posted their email address
- 30% posted their phone number
- 14% (which is 14% too many) posted their home address
Although 77% said they understand that what is posted online is public and permanent, they are still risking their keystrokes by sharing personal information.
Listen up, 80% of teens and tweens have had conversations with their parents about online safety.
So where are we losing cyber-ground?
We have to lead by example.
Studies have revealed that parents are the number one influence on their children. You may think they aren’t listening to you; they are and more importantly they are watching you.
Many parents are over-sharing.
As parents monitor their children online, kids are snooping on their parents – virtually. Have you thought before posting your pictures and comments?
What some parents share online:
- Party pictures that you would caution your kid’s not to post
- Swimsuit pictures that may not be appropriate for public viewing
- Personal family conflicts that could be embarrassing to your child
- Online contention with a friend (when threads turn ugly, and a parent engages in it)
- Mixed messages or quotes such as, “If Box Tops for Education were on wine labels, my kid’s school would be rich!”
- Sexual innuendos, profanity and content that simply is not what parents should be modeling as digital behavior
- Dating escapades of single parents
Using the excuse that you are an adult is not good enough. First and foremost, you are a parent. Your keystrokes matter. Your actions speak louder than words. Watch this important video:
Raising smart cyber-citizens start with parents. As I’ve said before, digital citizenship is a priority in today’s cyber-world. It will determine your child’s future, from their college to their employment and possibly their relationships.
For a final thought, keep in mind, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
- Clean-up your friends list on your social networking sites
- Keep an open digital dialogue open with your child
- Less is more. If a photo seems questionable, don’t risk it. The 15-minutes of views is not worth years of humiliation – convey this to your child and remember it for yourself
- Think about how your children will view what you post before you post it
“You’ll see, he won’t want to leave in the end,” my wife, Cynthia, said. “He’s going to have the time of his life.”
“Not if his soon-to-be bunkmates see him crying?” I replied. Cynthia and I were in the process of putting our son, Jonah, on the bus to Camp B’nai Brith (CBB). CBB is a little more than an hour drive north of our home in Montreal and the plan was for Jonah to be there, if everything went according to plan, for three weeks. It would be, by far, the longest he’d ever been away. All we could do was speculate—and we figured to do a lot of speculating in the next twenty-one days—on how he would fare.
Incidentally, Jonah wasn’t the crying boy. In fact, our son headed straight for a seat at the back of the bus as soon as we arrived at the drop-off point. I didn’t even have a chance to hug him. I had to mouth my “have a great time!” through the tinted glass of the closed window. In return, I received the most cursory of acknowledgements. As if he was saying: “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Cynthia, however, boarded the bus in order to get a proper good-bye. She insisted Jonah hug her. I got on the bus, too, to watch and glimpsed something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on my fifteen-year-old son’s face—the hint of a blush. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and one of that complicated disorder’s mixed blessings, in Jonah’s case anyway, is obliviousness to embarrassment. This has served to make Jonah a uniquely sweet, open-hearted individual; it also means he can miss signals from others, emotional signals he’d be well-served to pick up on. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we were sending him to sleep-away camp. We hoped he’d learn to understand other people a little better, pick up on their cues.
Meanwhile, the crying boy, who was twelve or so, was also oblivious—to the pleading of others. And a lot of pleading was going on. You could barely make the poor kid out from behind a gesticulating crowd of relatives. Still, I could see his head shaking vehemently and hear his spluttering voice. He was repeating the words: “I’m not getting on the bus.” The more he cried the more relatives seemed to gather around him, all trying out different, often conflicting strategies, to reassure him. Eventually, a SWAT-like team of CBB counselors appeared and did an impressive job of liberating the reluctant camper from all that overwhelming love and concern. Their mission was clear: they were going to get the show on the road.
We’re “helicopter parents,” research studies and thinky magazine articles are always reminding us. When it comes to the parents of special needs kids, like Cynthia and me, this is an especially tone deaf judgment, but it’s kind of a slam at most parents when you think about it. In the case of summer camp, in particular, who can blame us for projecting onto our kids a little of our own childhood experiences? For Cynthia, this usually means remembering how “interesting” (the quotes are hers) summer camp was. For me, it means wondering how I would have fared at camp seeing as how I never went. My guess is I would have cried myself to sleep nightly. Then again, maybe not. Fortunately, the camp cliché persists, especially for worried parents, about how the kids who make the biggest fuss about going end up not wanting to leave. But that doesn’t make those childhood complaints any less real or any less eloquent. I have a friend who came across an old letter she sent to her parents from summer camp when she was probably seven or eight. It began with a description of her day and proceeded to a detailed list of grievances. She signed off with this lawyerly appeal: “Please consider my case.”
Camps nowadays are good at considering the concerns of parents, at least. CBB does a wonderful job with its daily online postings of dozens and dozens of photos. I search for Jonah, first, of course, relieved to find him hanging out with his fellow campers in the pool or playing basketball or out in a canoe with one of his counselors. But after I’ve assured myself that it looks like my son is having a good time, I can’t help looking at all the photos. There are kids waving, hamming it up for the camera, others lost in play. The photos convey camaraderie and mischievousness and, most of all, a spirit of fun. So much so I wish I knew more about each of their personal stories.
“That’s him?” Cynthia said the other day, glancing over my shoulder at the super-slow slide-show I was watching on my computer. I looked for the latest picture of Jonah but didn’t see it. “No,” Cynthia added, “the boy who refused to get on the bus.”
She was right. It was him: in his floor hockey gear, smiling widely in one shot; with a wide circle of new friends surrounding him in another shot. He was the happy camp cliché personified: he looked like he never wanted to leave.
In partnership with The Jewish Week’s “The New Normal” blog, FJC is pleased to present a series of blog posts featuring a range of different voices sharing the power and benefits of Jewish camp for those in our community who have disabilities.
We have all heard that Jewish summer camp is one of the most valuable experiences a parent can give their child to ensure a strong Jewish foundation. If you think of it as a construction project, the footings beneath the foundation is community and together, this community builds the foundation they share. As each child grows into an adult, the shared experience of community-building in a Jewish context continues to strengthen his or her Jewish foundation.
But the Jewish child with disabilities who cannot have a summer camp experience is left with an unstable foundation or worse; no Jewish foundation. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I live with the fear shared by all parents of children with disabilities: Who will be my child’s community when I am no longer here to provide it?
At age 11, we began sending our son to overnight Jewish summer camp with his younger sister. A condition of his acceptance, we contracted with the camp for a one-on-one aide who slept in the cabin with our son and shadowed him as he moved with the mainstream campers. Each year it became more apparent that our son lacked the social and life skills his cabin-mates had developed and lacking these skills in a mainstream environment, our son would not be perceived as a full participant in this community.
Though we had resisted the model of separating campers with special needs from mainstream campers by cabin, at the urging of our rabbi, I contacted the director of Ramah Wisconsin’s Tikvah program when our son was 14. In describing the program, the director explained that every year since his arrival, the Tikvah program had become more integrated with the greater Ramah community. To my surprise, he suggested we keep our son in his current camp for another 2-3 years, at which time he believed Ramah would be ready for him.
After much discussion that included Ramah staff traveling from Chicago to our home in Minneapolis, our son left for his first summer as a Tikvah camper when he was 17. Tikvah campers are connected to Machon (campers entering 10th grade) from which a select group are chosen by staff to be paired with each Tikvah participant as their chaver (friend). Four weeks later at visitor’s day, I observed that the culture of the camp was one of acceptance, regardless of ability, with staff and campers embracing everyone in the Ramah community. With his chaver, our son participated in both typical camp activities and special programs for the Tikvah-Machon group.
After two years, our son moved into the Atzmayim (vocational) program where campers live in dormitory-style housing and focus on social skills and life skills development. Ramah staff trained our son for his job in town and also provided a job coach, ensuring he always felt like a productive member of a professional team. Five days a week, he had to prepare himself for his work day, beginning with prompt attendance at morning services, dressed for his job in town.
As a guest last summer on a non-visitors day, I witnessed my son as a full participant in the rhythm of Ramah, comfortably engaging with campers and staff and taking responsibility for his personal care with a conscientious focus on his summer job at the local grocery store. I also saw my son embracing Torah study and discussion about a myriad of Jewish topics, which made him feel so proud to be part of this Jewish community.
Now 21, our son is completing his final summer as a Tikvah/Atzmayim camper. Looking back, I can honestly say that each summer we witnessed significant social and emotional growth, along with life skills development; all of which has contributed greatly to his self-confidence. Through these programs, our son was given a safe, nurturing Jewish environment in which to grow and develop on all levels. Through Ramah and its culture of acceptance, our son was able to experience community-building in a Jewish context and after five years, he leaves with a solid Jewish foundation.
The following is the second in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.
Cyberbullying is a concern for all parents. We can’t be with our children 24/7 and the fact is our kids spend more time in cyberspace than they do with us. The most common form of cyberbullying among tweens and teens happens with cell phones. We need to equip them with the knowledge to handle cyberbullies and prevent them from becoming victims.
Since your child either just came home or will be coming home from camp soon, let’s be sure they are well-prepared to know how report online abuse and, most importantly, know they can come to you if they witness it or are a victim of cyberbullying.
Going back to the study of Teens and Screens that I referenced in my last post, in 2014 cyberbullying tripled. 24% of tweens and teens lack knowledge on what to do in the event they witness online abuse or are a victim of it.
According to Cyberbullying Statistics for 2014, 52% of teens report having been a victim of cyberbullying. Sadly, only 33% of those victims have reported bullying to parents or another adult. A recent European study showed that over half of teens view some level of cyberbullying as a normal part of online life. By having open and frequent face-to-face chats with your child about digital citizenship, hopefully we can eliminate this opinion of cyberbullying.
First we need to understand why tweens and teens don’t tell their parents.
1) Fear of consequences: Your child’s online existence is a critical part of their social life. With all their friends online, being excluded would be devastating them. They don’t want to risk you banning them from their friends and their digital lives.
2) Humiliation and embarrassment: Our kids are human and have feelings. Although some kids portray a tough persona and believe they are invincible, deep down everyone feels hurt by cruel keystrokes. Your child may fear looking stupid or weak. If the incident gets reported to their school or camp, will they be able to face their classmates and campers? Imagine the horror of a child hearing from peers after being bullied that they somehow deserved it, brought it on themselves or should have just toughened it out rather than be a snitch.
3) Fear of making it worse: We have taught our children well so they understand that bullies are looking for attention. By reporting the incident of cyberbullying to a parent, your child may fear it could anger the bully and make matters worse for them online. In some cases bullies will enlist more online trolls to cyber-mob your child. Of course the child’s dreaded fear is his or her parent reporting it to their school or camp and more people knowing whereby they become a possible target in the future.
Building a strong digital relationship with your child:
1) Speak openly about cyberbullying: Communication is key to helping your child understand that you are their advocate not only offline, but online too. Talk to them about cyberbullying prevention and remind them of the basics such as:
- Never engage with online bullies
- Never give out passwords
- Never try to seek revenge on a cyberbully
- How to block bullies
- Save evidence of cyber-bullying, especially if you have to report the bully to a school or camp
2) It is not their fault: Being a victim of a cyberbully is not their fault. Remind them you are not going to judge them or blame them. Assure them that you will not revoke their Internet privileges or take away their phone if they are cyberbullied. As I mentioned earlier, the Internet is an important part of their life so if they feel threatened that it will be removed, they may believe it is easier to be bullied and emotionally tormented. We don’t want them to be feel this way, it is not healthy for anyone to have to tolerate.
3) Listen: Communication is also a two-way street. Be sure you hear what your child is saying. Many victims say what helps most is to be heard — really listened to, either by a friend or an adult who cares. Hopefully that is their parent. Cyberbullying may not be physical, however the emotion scars can be deep. Listening to your child respectfully can start the healing process. Never diminish their feelings and let them know you are their advocate.
I didn’t expect to cry when I picked my kid up from camp.
When I dropped him off at the bus? Totally. I skulked past the more experienced parents doing the hora in the parking lot as the bus pulled away, got into the front seat, shut the door and started crying.
But when I picked him up, I expected it to be all sunshine and happiness.
And it was.
But there was another component to it.
See, I mistakenly expected to get back the same kid I sent to camp. And I didn’t. And that made me cry tears of happiness.
This kid was taller. His hair was longer. He was definitely dirtier (“This IS my clean shirt!” he said as I pointed out that the shirt he was wearing looked a lot like he had cleaned the bunk floor with it before putting it on.). But I don’t sweat the small stuff, and that is all small stuff.
My son had changed for the better.
When he took my husband and I to see his favorite spot at camp, he wasn’t quite sure he was going the right way. Without any prodding, this nine year old went over to a teenager and her family—people he’d never seen before—and politely asked them for directions. That was maturity. That was impressive.
But in addition to the maturity, there was something else that I couldn’t quite pinpoint at first. As we kept talking, though, it made itself evident bit by bit. It was in the Hebrew words, naturally sprinkled through his speech. It was in the joy with which he demonstrated the hand signals that corresponded to the Hebrew song they sang every day before lights out. It was in his questions about what is going on in Israel now, and what we can do to support the Jewish state. And it was in his descriptions of the camp gathering for Kabbalat Shabbat by the lakefront, and when he spent part of the car ride home demonstrating that he now knew Birkat Hamazon by heart.
My son was happily, joyfully proud to be Jewish.
I’m not saying this was a sudden change—I like to think he was already proud of the identity we built for him at home. But it was different: going away to a Jewish camp had given him the opportunity to make Judaism his own—a key and critical part of himself, who he is and who he will become. At camp, he could grow, physically and emotionally, and as a Jewish individual—the person he will be and develop for the rest of his life.
My son came home from Jewish camp a taller, more mature, joyful Jew. And I couldn’t be happier.
The following is the first in a three-part series on how to help safely navigate the world of social media with your kids from Sue Scheff, a mother, author, parent advocate, and expert in internet safety education.
Do you consider yourself a savvy digital parent? While your kids are away at camp during the summer, it can be a great time to get caught up on learning about the cyber-lives of youth today. The more you know, the more you can better communicate with your kids regarding their digital lives.
The results of a recent 2014 study by McAfee titled, Teens and Screens, should be a wake-up call for parents. Some of the staggering findings include:
- 59% of tweens and teens engage with strangers online
- Cyberbullying has tripled, yet 24% of the respondents admitted they don’t know what to do in the event of online abuse
- Tweens and teens are still over-sharing their personal information, with 14% admitting posting their home address
Exactly what do you know about your child’s online life? Most know about cyber-safety 101:
- Limiting screen time
- Telling kids to never give out passwords
- Parental settings/controls and monitoring kids’ and teens’ social media activity
- Being kind online – explaining to your kids to think before they post
- and other common cyber-security issues
This is all very important, but let’s look at some issues you may not have considered.
Some virtual friends are actually strangers.
At camp your child is meeting many new friends and people. They will be expanding their social networking circles and it is fun learning about new people and their lives.
What your child needs to understand is that there are restrictions. When they come home from camp and jump on their Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking sites to add their new friends—that it should be limited only their real friends from camp.
What does this mean?
Many kids can get distracted into friending or adding people that are friends of friends—and before they know it they are connected to hundreds of people they don’t really know and have never met. Why is this not a good idea?
The main reason: your child’s future is at-risk.
Your child’s digital image is their future. His or her online reputation will be what determines their college and employment future. 98% of employers now say they will run an Internet search on an applicant and 77% of those with a negative online presence are not invited for an interview. College recruiters are reporting the nearly the same statistics—they are putting your child’s name through an Internet wash-cycle, and how it spins out will determine if your child secures a spot at a college of their choice.
What does this have to do with a virtual friend that is actually a stranger?
Adding people to your friends list that you don’t know in real life is not a smart idea for anyone, especially kids. Since you really don’t know them well or their online behavior, you risk them lifting photos, manipulating them and re-posting them on sites you may not approve of. They may use your comments out of context, or worse—you may upset them and they might create a slime campaign with your name.
What to do? An action plan for parents.
When your child arrives home from camp this summer and starts chatting about his or her new friends, it is a great opportunity for you to put your digital parenting hat on. Your child will probably keep in touch with these new friends through social networking, which is a benefit of our social media, however let’s discuss friending—now.
This is a perfect opportunity to also have your child clean out their friends list of others they possibly don’t really know. Especially if you have a teenager that will be applying to college soon— explain the reasons for this. This is not about you not wanting them to have friends, but in reality these aren’t friends—they are virtual strangers.
It is hard for children to understand this, as adults we learn with maturity that our friends are a reflection of who we are. We have to start instilling this into our children. Explaining to them that they don’t want friends that are making them feel uncomfortable because of what they post or if they don’t contribute positive content.
Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are full of people that they probably won’t miss. Unfriending is really painless. Visit www.JustUnfollow.com which will will let you know who isn’t following you back —or even inactive followers – on Twitter. That is a great start.
Safety is always a priority. Be an educated digital parent.
There is definitely an amusing sub-genre of literature to be found in the letters kids send home from camp (anyone interested in a book called “Sh*t My Kids Write From Camp”? Drop me an email). Let’s just say that it is fairly clear that we no longer live in an epistolary society in which people pour out their thoughts and feelings on tear-stained pages. I mean, I did as a kid, but we have clearly established that I am a freak.
No, instead we live in the era of the tweet, in which children seem to think that three sentences, tops, can distill the essence of experience. And sometimes, surprisingly, they can.
I asked my friends who are parents of overnight campers for their favorite camp letters received from their children. None of this, note, was ever mentioned in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. Here are some of my favorites:
“Our bathroom smells HORRENDOUS. If you could please send Febreze Thai Dragon Fruit, I would love camp even more.” (Parent notes that said aroma is discontinued.)
“OMG Lebron went to the Cavs. Could you throw that poster of Lebron away. Love you.”
“Where is my package?”
“Dear Mom, I have no time to write.”
“I will miss you.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t take a picture with [sibling] because his poison oak is very contagious.”
“Dear Mom, you forgot to pack me a toothbrush. Can you bring one on Visiting Day?” (Note: Visiting Day = four weeks from date of letter)
“I have good and bad news. Good news is I found my lost flip flop. Bad news is in chess I lost a pawn and a knight.” (This was the entire letter)
“I learned how to light a fire with a lighter.”
And, my personal favorite:
“Dear Mom and Dad, Your last letter was too short. Love, David.”
Later this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches. It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational. Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”
I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”
Measuring Jonah’s mixed feelings can be tricky. Jonah has autism and he can have a hard time making it clear how he’s feeling. Cynthia and I know him well enough to read between the lines of his sometimes off-topic conversation. But we also look to his behavior for unspoken clues. The other day, for instance, my sister, Marilyn, and I took Jonah shopping to pick up some of the extra clothing he needs for camp. When he and I got home we showed everything we bought to his mother and then I put them on his bed so he could put them away as he does with all his clothing. We’d bought some pretty cool t-shirts and shorts so I figured he’d want to wear them till he left for camp in a few weeks. The next day though I couldn’t find any of the things we’d bought. I looked for them in every drawer. I quizzed his mother. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked Jonah where all his stuff had gone.
“In my bag,” he said.
“What bag?” I asked.
“The one for CBB.” And, indeed, there they were. All stuffed into one of the gym bags he will be taking with him to camp. It seems he can hardly wait.
His keenness is reassuring. Never more so than last weekend when Jonah, Cynthia, and I visited the CBB’s pre-camp Open House. Jonah was happy to see everyone, including counselors and staff he didn’t know. If my son has a philosophy, it’s cornier than mine but a lot more, well, inspirational. Summed up, it’s something like: “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he was really excited to see the counselors who were at CBB for his shorter stay last year. In fact, he seemed to have nicknames for all of them. “Hi, Quiet Wyatt,” Jonah shouted to one young man, who shouted back, “Hey Jonah, great to see you back!” He hardly looked like the quiet type, which was what made the nickname funny, of course. “Max and the Yaks” was what Jonah told me he calls the fellow who runs the camp’s circus program.
Jonah loves animals, especially unusual ones, so when he met his unit head, Mike, the two immediately hit it off, discussing animals from Mike’s native Australia. I volunteered kangaroos and received a look of disappointment from both Jonah and Mike. Mike seems to have had his fill of kangaroos as the iconic but hopelessly clichéd symbol of his country. Instead, he provided Jonah with a great deal of information about the platypus. “You know it’s one of the only mammals that lays eggs,” Mike said. Then he told Jonah it was from the small family of animals known as monotremes. “Like horses are equines and cows are bovines?” Jonah asked. “That’s right, mate.” Mike seemed to know just how to talk to Jonah, which was reassuring. Cynthia also found out that in Australia he was a teacher and had a class of kids with autism. Driving home, I already felt my feet warming up. Jonah and I also brainstormed about nicknames for his newest stranger/friend. So far, though, we’ve only settled on what Jonah won’t call him—Kangaroo Mike.