Why We’re Keeping our Kids Offline

Part I: When my partner and I decided to have children together, we talked about a lot of things. We discussed breastfeeding and sleep training. We were both on board with trying to breastfeed, supplementing with formula if necessary and agreed that we’d be open to sleep training if it felt right. We discussed the last name – that one wasn’t quite as easy as we were not married and regardless, I’d be keeping my last name. Still, we agreed that we wanted the kiddos to all have the same last name (he had a daughter already). Plus my last name doubled as a first name for our son. This makes for very confusing airport trips, but a meaningful moniker for the kiddo. Then we got into the really tough conversations – what to post on social media. 

J is what you might call a “private person.” He has a dozen friends and does not want or need any more. His idea of vacation is a cabin in the woods with no outside contact. He doesn’t have social media and routinely cleanses any sporadic mention of his name from search engines. Poor guy went off and linked up with me – an aspiring writer with a couple websites and multiple social media accounts. My life is more or less an open book – one day hopefully a literal one. I find sharing to be a path to connection and I find connection to be cathartic. As a runner I’ll spill my deepest fears and shame to anyone who happens to share my pace. As a writer, I’ve publicly retold stories of my biggest regrets and failures. 

Naturally, my partner wanted no posts of our children on social media. He had safety concerns – valid ones for sure. As we looked towards a new life as diplomatic nomads, these risks would increase. Did we really want photos and details of our kiddos’ lives out in the open like that? We also understood that, by design, my social media is pretty open and public, so it’s not like I’ve personally vetted each connection. On the other hand, knowing that we would be moving frequently, away from friends and family, we also wanted to keep our kiddos close to their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. 

Ultimately we settled on sharing photos and videos, without faces, for three reasons. First, the security angle. As I work to increase my online presence, the risk to those in my life also increases. If not from malicious actors, then by big data companies with advanced AI and FR technology. Much has been written about that, so we’ll leave those reasons to the tech experts. 

Second, as a mother feminist of at least one boy, consent is going to be a major theme in our house. There are the obvious reasons, those that speak to my responsibility as a feminist and boy mom to raise young men who understand that they are not entitled to all the things that society subtly or not so subtly tells them they are. I want to teach my children the power of empathy, of understanding and respecting others’ rights, needs, and wants. But there are less obvious lessons I’m trying to both impart and reinforce for myself here, lessons that center on the idea of control – both possessing and sharing it. If I want to strike that balance of teaching all my children the power of their own agency, while also the importance of sharing control – I have to model it.

 When I first started co-parenting my partner’s daughter, I remember her preparing for her shower, digging through the vanity drawer for the perfect hotel soap (I had a collection from my transcontinental run and various travels). I nonchalantly told her to hurry up, stop playing in the drawer, and get in the shower. A few minutes later I heard her rummaging through the tiny plastic bottles. I was irate. I could feel the anger rise up in my throat. She didn’t listen. She didn’t comply. She was openly defying me. How dare she. I pivoted on my heels and headed to the bathroom to dominate, to exert my authority, to re-establish my control. 

Luckily common sense struck me before I could utter my first angry threat. Why did I care? She wasn’t making a mess (even if she was, it’s soap, it literally cleans as it makes that mess). She wasn’t wasting the water. She wasn’t even running late for anything. I didn’t even really care if she was in the drawer, it was a directive issued without thought. My only reason for the anger was that she didn’t do what I told her to do. I wasn’t controlling her. “Shit,” I thought to myself, “I’ll need to unpack that.” 

I, like so many others my age, grew up in an age where good parenting was so often equated with control. Parents were, and are, complimented on how well-behaved, how controlled, their children are. Children who obey are “good kids,” babies who comply are “good babies.” Those who don’t are, well bad, and bad kids are reflections of bad parents. I never questioned this philosophy, never stopped to think about the implications or harm it might cause – for kiddos and parents. The stress, guilt, and shame that comes when you engage a loved one not with care for their growth and development, but with a quest for power. 

Control is closely related to consent. To respect and require consent from someone else is to share control with them. To give or rescind your own consent is the first step in claiming control for yourself.  Control, like anything else, needs to be balanced. It’s not just a philosophical argument, it’s a practical argument too – balancing control isn’t just moral, it’s effective. I know this. As an international relations scholar who concentrates on the ideas of power, I’m familiar with both the utility and limits of coercion, force, threats, rewards, persuasion, and appeal. I’ve even written about how those apply to parenting. As a relatively new mom, I can see the role of control in the parent-child relationship. I see how my son wants to control certain aspects of his day – what he eats, when he puts down the remote, what toy or book he wants to play with. I’ve read the books and articles on how putting control at the center of a parenting strategy can lead to, at best, adversarial relationships in the future, often during the years in which children need the support of their parents the most. At worst, this controlling approach to parenting can lead to emotional and psychological damage that reverberates through the next generation. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for lawlessness among my children. It’s my job as a parent to help guide and shape my children’s values, not to mention provide for their health and safety. Kiddos’ brains are just not developed enough to be given carte blanche to make all their own decisions. Not to mention that as their parents, their father and I are members of the family as well. I’m not giving up all my control or consent to these little buggers either. Sometimes I just can’t watch another episode of AGT. But in some things I want to make sure my kiddos feel in control, empowered, and safe. And allowing them to consent to and control their own presence online is an easy way to reinforce these ideas.

I don’t know what exactly that looks like for a mom-blogger and writer. I’m not sure how much of their personal lives and stories I’ll want to share with the world, but a lot is going to depend on what they’re comfortable with – and until they can tell me that for themselves, I’m going to have to err on the side of under sharing. I will just have to save the embarrassing photos for their wedding days and first dates – just like our mothers did. 

Part II, our third reason for not sharing, coming next week…

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