I read some texts on my 11-year-old son’s phone and I’m horrified. His friends (boys and girls) are into way more than they should be at this age – or at least it appears like that is the case. There are some references to sexual acts and talk about other kids’ body parts. How do I handle this one?
First of all, I want to commend you for being on top of your child’s communications. Our children are growing up in a new age where phones, texting, and social media are the norms. Some schools are even using phones in the classrooms now because they are so ubiquitous. I think we have to adjust our parenting and be involved in a way that our parents never imagined. Social media and smartphones have definitely changed the landscape. It is a new world in terms of communication, and it is up to us as parents to help our children learn how to navigate this world. And even though it looks very different, many things have remained the same since we were growing up, like peer pressure, child development, and boundaries. Let’s take a look at some options you have.
If you feel your child is involved in communications that are not appropriate for his age, I would encourage you to take action, but first, take a deep breath. Your child is at an age where being treated with respect is paramount. Nothing will come of raised voices in anger or an hour-long lecture. Make sure you are able to express your concerns calmly, and be prepared to listen.
What is your child’s side?
Adolescents have a strong desire to fit in with their peer groups. In fact, developmentally, it is important for them to grow their identities separate from their families. Your son may have been trying to fit in and may be uncomfortable with the material being shared on the text messages. When you talk to him, your calm demeanor will allow him the opportunity to share that concern with you and be open to hearing some suggestions of how to handle it. Or the opposite may be true: It may be that your son is the one who began the inappropriate sharing or is an active participant. Why are your son and his friends engaging others on this level instead of more age-appropriate discussions about sports or pop culture? Chances are, they just want to appear more grown up than they really are, but it is important to explore their reasons.
What should parents talk about and when?
Once you have had the chance to establish some “whys” (why the texts occurred, why your son participated), it is now time to have two different conversations. One about sexuality and one about texting/phone rules. In terms of sexuality, talk honestly with your son. Discuss your family values and talk about respect, for his body as well as others. Educate him on puberty and what is happening to his body, as well as the bodies of his classmates. Also, talk to him about privacy, boundaries, and respect. It is natural for kids his age to be curious. Has he had any human development classes at school? Do you have any books that could support these conversations? The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable your son will be. Clearly, he is already exposed to some information. Your job is to educate him on the facts and to share your family’s personal values and beliefs. Ignoring the situation, being angry, or being uncomfortable about the topic can send confusing messages to your son.
Next, have a clear conversation where you establish the rules for having a phone, texting, and social media. Here’s a good general rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t say the statement to the person, you shouldn’t type the statement to the person. Being behind a screen isn’t an excuse for being mean, inappropriate, or rude. Prior to talking with your son, think whether or not you want to review his text messages, what types of conversations will you step in on, and what you will do if you learn private or personal information about someone else through your son’s phone.
Who deserves privacy – and how much?
Your parents were not privy to all the conversations you had as a teen. Should you be? Some parents believe that reading through text messages is the same as reading through personal diaries or listening in on phone conversations. What parameters, if any, would you like to put in place about checking text messages? Kids often share texts with others they may not even know – a friend of a friend. Or their numbers may be added to a group text with people they don’t know. Should you be monitoring those communications? It is up to you as a parent as to how involved you are. And this involvement may change as your son matures.
I would strongly encourage you to be up front with your son about your plans – you never want to betray your son’s trust or try to catch him doing something wrong. Tell him very clearly if you will be randomly checking his phone, checking it nightly or if you view the phone as yours and he is simply using it as long as he follows the rules and therefore, you have the right to see everything in the phone at all times. Encourage him to tell his friends that you monitor his phone. What if you read a family secret about your neighbors that was shared by a child, but not intended for you? A tangled web can quickly be woven with adolescents and their phones. My best advice is to be transparent and to remain open to adjusting the rules as you go.
Do you have a family phone policy?
Finally, review your family’s phone use in general. Does your son need his phone all day every day? Should he only have it for certain times of the day? An essential rule is to have a docking/charging station separate from bedrooms. Screens before bedtime can be disruptive to sleep patterns, and playing games or watching videos for fifteen minutes can quickly morph into an hour. Remember, limiting access to phones is just like limiting access to TV, gaming stations, or a landline.
As your son matures, more conversations will be required around phone use. This is our new normal. Remain open, calm, and transparent, and let your son know you support him and want to help him make good choices. It’s a new world, and we need to help our kids learn how to navigate it.