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Good people, bad people, and the rest of us

The other day when we were talking to our kids about interacting with other people online, we came up against a problem that we face over and over as parents:

Concern #1: We don’t think it’s healthy for our kids to view the world as some horrible scary place they should be afraid of interacting with.

Concern #2: On the other hand, horrible scary things happen out there every day, and we want our children to have basic tools to deal with things that might come their way.

How you balance those concerns pretty much sums up your view of what your role as a parent is.

I tend to spend a lot of time standing in the middle of the seesaw, trying to keep it level. I did let my kids walk around the neighborhood alone when they were little. I didn’t prime them with horrible stories about mean people and what they will do to them. I did tell them that it’s OK to question the motives of adults they come into contact with.

Mean people R us, some of the time

A challenge for parents is to develop a consistent approach to how we deal with danger in the world, especially potentially dangerous people. What I came up with translates pretty well to the online world as well:

Premise #1: There is a small number of really terrible people in this world who want to hurt others.

Premise #2: There is a small number of really saintly people who will never hurt anyone or anything.

Premise #3: The rest of us just do our best with what life throws us.

I’ve never been terribly concerned about Premise #1, to tell you the truth. If you want your children not to be hurt by an adult, you’d do well to choose a partner who won’t hurt them because that’s who’s most likely to do it. If there are other people in your life who might hurt your children, do your best to change your life so that you don’t interact with those people.

Stranger-on-stranger violence is rare enough; stranger-adult-on-child violence is really quite rare. It’s also generally not possible to predict, so you can’t live your life assuming that everyone is out to get you.

Since you can’t reliably identify the saints amongst us, Premise #3 is where things get hairy. The fact is, sometimes we human beings don’t behave as well as we should. One of the situations in which we behave less well than normal is when we feel anonymous. Those who live in tourist towns, like me, can tell you without hesitation that people are less polite and leave more garbage lying around when they are at outside of their own community.

Our online lives have offered all of us a certain measure of anonymity and distance from the people we interact with. Even real humans that we see in the real world gain a certain amount of psychological distance online. People put things in email they’d never say to someone’s face. Facebook generates mini-scandals and lots of hurt feelings every day.

Do your best, keep trying to do better

So when we’re talking to our kids about taking care of themselves—in the “real” world or online—we’re more concerned about that huge number of people who are simply doing their best. We’re concerned whether our children are conscious of their own behavior and how it might affect others. And we’re concerned that another child that they met online may not have the same guidance from the adults in his or her real life.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible that the child they met online is actually a 34-year-old serial child kidnapper. It’s just that when I worry about which values to impart to my children, I put fear of someone running a red light and hitting them in a crosswalk way ahead of any of the more headline-worthy ways to get hurt in this world. It’s hard to resist the headlines (not to mention the Amber Alerts shining above the highways) and just plow forward with a hope that our kids will do OK for themselves in the world.

I think that open communication is the best way to do that. Each of us has to make a decision about where on the seesaw we want to stand, and then decide to be OK with that decision, no matter what happens.


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Posted in Parenting, Psychology.

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