My son Bailey, age 14, a freshman in high school, got an text message from a girl who is friends with Bailey’s date for homecoming dance. The girl told him that his date is only going with him because she feels sorry for him. The message went on to say that Bailey shouldn’t think he’s “all that” and not everyone likes him as much as he thinks they do. It didn’t even stop there. It said he must be some sort of loser because he often sits in a group of girls at lunchtime. There was more, but you get my drift.
To me, Bailey’s mom, he is a fun-loving, silly sort of kid who loves people of all types and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He had forty-five kids at his bar mitzvah last year, all of whom looked like his good friends to the adults watching. He tells me he has friends in the orchestra where he plays violin, and friends on the field where he is currently playing JV football. However, this is my view of him – I have to remember that I have no real idea who he is at school and how he acts there. He’s so generally happy at home that it leads me to believe he’s a fairly well-adjusted teen. Maybe he is a bit cocky at school – or overly dorky – or something else that I don’t even know. It’s not my business to know every detail of his social life. I’m just glad he has a social life for me to ignore.
When I was a fourteen-year-old girl, I didn’t have such a bright social life. I was overweight and decidedly uncool with glasses and weird clothes. I used to write letters to various kids at school who would not tease me per se, but would rebuff my efforts to be friends.
Here’s the difference: I would leave the letters in stacks on my desk at home and then every so often I’d re-read them and ball them up for trash can. If I wanted to communicate with anyone for real, I had no choice but to do it over the phone or in person. I don’t pretend that kids being mean to one another was invented in this young generation; I just think it’s a lot easier to press the “send” button on a nasty text or email than it was for me to send a pen-and-ink letter. In a way it was harder for my mom and dad to find out what I was up to when the door to my room was closed. There wasn’t a mobile phone on which they could snoop into my texts and emails. There’s a sometimes-blurry line between privacy and needing to monitor the behavior of young people.
HOWEVER, the day after this message, I learned that my son wasn’t so innocent in the whole matter. It turns out that though the girl started it by sending a bunch of messages trying to tell him that his date doesn’t like him in “that” way, Bailey got mad at her for saying it, and called her email antics “bitchy” and that’s when she sent him the mean message. Learning about Bailey’s role in the exchange changed my perspective pretty quickly. To my husband and me, this was the perfect opportunity to discuss communication skills in general. As parents of these young teens, we have to take some responsibility for teaching our kids right from wrong. But it goes deeper than that; we have to teach them about the power of their own words, both oral and written.
When he first got the message and I thought it was in a vacuum, I counseled Bailey to delete the text, the equivalent of balling up paper into the trash can. It’s gone. But then my husband sat Bailey down and told him that enough was enough. This use of go-betweens and texting was inappropriate at best, hurtful and harmful at worst. His best course of action, we told him, was to talk to the girl he is taking to the dance. He should be as nice to the girl who was texting him as he always was and he should sit exactly where he wanted to at lunch. Then he should open a line of communication with his date, who clearly knew about the conversations. And you know what? He did. Bailey told us that he and both girls decided (over lunch together) to just forget the exchanges ever happened. At the end of the day, I was proud of the way he handled himself, even if he didn’t start off so well.
Bailey, my husband and I learned a number of lessons from all of this. We live in a society that over-shares. We have to tell ourselves to “think before you tweet” in our social-media-driven world, and though we have to give him a modicum of privacy, as Bailey’s parents, it behooves us to monitor his communication tools.
However, the number one lesson that Bailey learned is the power of direct communication face-to-face with his friends as opposed to listening to third-party opinions, writing emails and pressing the “send” button too quickly. There is no substitute for looking a person in the eye and speaking with him or her.
Kids today are learning to hide behind texting, emails and social media (and don’t get me started on the grammar issues inherent therein) so they don’t communicate directly. While I’m sorry it took a lousy experience like this to teach Bailey the lesson, I’m not that sorry it happened. I only hope we all learned something along the way.