A few weeks ago, my teens and I sat at a table covered in a rainbow serape at a crowded restaurant called Fiesta Mexicana, chomping on chips and salsa, all with our eyes glued to our smartphones.
It was a typical scene played out at restaurants throughout the developed world: Parents with their teen children, all paying attention to tiny mobile devices, seemingly unaware of their surroundings or each other.
Except at that moment, those tiny mobile devices were connecting my family in ways that inspired conversation, laughs and deeper understanding.
Not even exaggerating.
Years ago, I was one of those parents. You know, the judgmental ones.
The ones who felt all superior because of their “no electronics” rule at all meals. The ones who visibly scoffed at the other parents whose children’s eyes were glued to their phones in public.
But I’ve learned. Age (and experience) has brought me to a place of far less judginess (and yes, I just made up that word).
Because, and here’s the crazy part: I wholeheartedly believe social media makes me a better parent.
You read that right. I truly think being connected to social media with my kids (emphasis on that last part there) gives me greater insights into my children’s lives, character and interests.
Case in point: That day, at that moment, we were all taking turns with online quizzes.
And perhaps I should begin by noting: No, it was not “Which Doughnut Should You Eat Off Your Boyfriend’s Penis.”
Instead, it was this far tamer Zimbio quiz: “Which Frozen Character Are You?”
Hey: We have a 2-year-old in the home as well. Stop being all judgey.
So as we learned that I’m Anna, my daughter is Elsa and my son is Olaf, I also learned other things.
Like that if one of my kids’ friends is having a bad day, one of them delivers a hug, while the other makes him/her laugh.
Like the fact that we ALL put “family” first in a list including “myself,” “friends,” “family” and “people in need.”
We talked through every response. We talked about what to do when a person is hurting — and I even learned that one of my children has had not one, but TWO friends talking about suicide, which inspired an even deeper conversation — both at that time and much later.
We talked about favorite characters from the Little Mermaid and what that represents, we talked about the fact that there are times when putting yourself first takes precedence over putting family first.
(Because, let’s face it, they’re teens: There are times when they should put themselves first. Just not always.)
So there we were, at Fiesta Mexicana, taking an online quiz and learning abundant shit about ourselves.
Dodging judgey glances from those around us, who were clearly scoffing at my obvious “electronics allowed” policy.
But hey: I learned that both of my kids — ages 13 and 16 — still believe in magic.
So there’s that.
And I loved that.
My day job is working as a social media consultant for multiple clients. And something I advise all of my clients to do is to authentically connect with their clients.
Because social media is a tool that allows for connection.
I’m living proof. My kids are living proof.
I’m still not on board with SnapChat — despite the fact that I have the world’s best interns this summer working for my company, and they say there are uses for the app beyond sexting.
I don’t get it. But I’m looking into it, much to my teenagers’ delight.
But I do get that on Facebook, my almost-16-year-old “likes” every single update I post about his 2-year-old sister.
I see that my daughter uses Instagram as a place to shout from the rooftops about her love of soccer and being a general badass.
I love that I get a text from my daughter asking if she can use a “bad” word in a pin on Pinterest.
Thus begins a conversation about the fact that social media will constantly follow them in their lives, that they will someday be investigated by potential employers based on their social media presence, the idea that their social media identity becomes their “brand,” and so on.
Social media is their reality. I can’t keep them from it. And to be honest, I’m not being a good parent if I do keep them from it, because it will end badly.
And here’s an example (you knew I’d have one, right?).
When my kids were little, I refused to allow them to have guns of any kind. Because I don’t believe in guns.
So when it came time to have squirt guns, we called them “squirters” and only bought the ones that didn’t really look like guns.
So what happened when they started having play dates with peers who brought out “squirt guns” shaped like — *gasp* — GUNS?
They. Were. OBSESSED.
They made guns out of everything from that moment forward. Their cheese sticks. Their toothbrushes. Their Gogurts.
Everything was a gun. Because guns were forbidden.
So my philosophy changed.
Embrace it. Learn it. Begin a conversation with “it” as the impetus.
Social media can be a horrifying thing.
It can be used to belittle. It can be used to bully. It can be used to subjugate.
But we as parents have to not let that happen. Know the passwords. Check the accounts. And engage.
Gregory Peck — I mean, Atticus Finch (spoiler alert: before he became a racist) said this: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
I think that’s the key to parenting.
Walk around in their skin. Truly be there, where they are. And they are on social media.
Because that’s how their social circles interact.
So we must be there, too.
Engage with them. Even in Fiesta Mexicana while snacking on salsa (the “hot” version, by the way, is AWESOME).
Use social media as a tool to connect with your kids.
I do. And it works.
My soccer-loving badass Elsa-ish daughter, my laugh-inspiring part-time suicide counselor Olaf-ish son and I (the sassy-but-optimistic Anna of the group) are living, breathing examples.
And stop being all judgey. Because social media is not the devil.
Ignorance about social media?
Now that’s the devil.