By kindergarten, most kids know the difference between “nice” and “mean.” They still know it by the time they get to middle school. And all high school students can tell you how awful it feels to be treated unkindly. And yet, kids are often disrespectful to their peers and their parents.
Why this disconnect between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right? Part of the explanation is the fact that our children are growing up in a Culture of Cruelty. That sounds harsh, but we can’t change what we don’t see. Consider what passes for entertainment in the media. It’s often mean-spirited. So are many of the conversations we have at the office, on the sidelines at the game, and in the teachers lounge. Character assassination in public discourse is pretty much the air we breathe. So are put downs, gossip, and snarkiness. The resulting pollution is a hazard to our well-being. It’s also a huge problem for parents who want to raise nice kids who do good in the world.
Our kids are good kids. They really are! But they are also constantly challenged by the less-than-compassionate standards of their peers with whom they are mind-linked 24/7. Today’s t(w)eens suffer from status anxiety at levels no other generation has endured. This compels them to do whatever it takes to fit in, including things they are not particularly proud of. Despite these challenges, we can teach our kids to be people with good intentions and social courage, i.e., the ability and the will to do the right thing.
Adults who live and work with kids often give lip service to the importance of teaching young people to do the right thing. But how much actual teaching is being done at home and at school? If we don’t prioritize character development, we’re failing our kids. We can do better.
Here is a simple way to get the ball rolling in the right direction:
1. Talk with your child. Have a friendly conversation about the concept of a “pecking order” in the animal kingdom. Maybe you’ve observed two dogs or two cats at close range. Often it’s clear which animal is “dominant” or “bossy” and which is more submissive. Talk about how there can also be a pecking order amongst people. We usually feel uncomfortable when we are on the bottom, getting bossed around. But when we’re not on the bottom, we don’t often give much thought to those who are.
2. Listen to your child. Ask your son/daughter about who is on the bottom at school. (Even kids as young as second or third grade have a keen awareness of social strata.) Ask, “Why do you think s/he’s on the bottom? How do other people treat that child? How do you treat him/her? What might happen if you stood up for that child?
3. Challenge your child to be a hero. Encourage him/her to shake up the pecking order by standing up for someone who needs a friend. Take the challenge yourself!
4. Follow up. In a week, have another friendly conversation with your child and share what happened on the challenge. Discuss whether you want to keep the challenge going.
We parents are gardeners. We plant seeds and nurture those seeds through conversations, modeling, and real world experiences. Of course, we are not our children’s only influencers but we can provide the tools they need to do the right thing, online and off. Whether they actually step up, is their choice. But at least we’ll know we’ve done our part well.
Tweens are at a great age to begin learning how to become critical consumers. They have the ability to think about things from someone else’s perspective and they’re growing in their desire to become more independent thinkers. Both of these are important skills in learning to think critically.
To be a critical consumer, tweens need to understand that advertisements and marketing are about selling them something. Even their favorite TV shows and computer games are filled with persuasive messages to either keep them interested in that particular form of entertainment or to get them interested in something else that the same company is promoting. Any form of media is also promoting the worldview of the creator. This doesn’t make marketers and media producers evil, but it does mean that whenever we’re engaging with their content, we have to understand that they are trying to persuade us to adopt their point of view and value system.
A good way to help your tween understand this is to talk about specific examples in their own life when they have tried to get you, a sibling, or a friend to do something. Ask them questions like how they went about convincing that person, what arguments they used, did they appeal to their emotions? Once you’ve been able to identify a few specific strategies that they’ve used to try to get someone to do something, then you can start drawing parallels with how marketers work. Marketers want us to buy their product or watch their show. How do they go about convincing us that we should? They try to appeal to our desires to be cool, to look good, to have friends or do fun things. Ready to try it?
Watch this cereal commercial together and ask the following questions:
1. What words do we hear? What are the people in the ads, the songs, and the words on the screen saying? Jot down the words and put a check by them if you hear them more than one time.
2. What are we seeing? What visual images are being used to sell the product? What activities are the people/cartoons/animals on screen doing?
3. What is the theme of the advertisements for this product? What is the overall message that a child would walk away with? Come up with one sentence that starts with “If I buy _____________, then I will ______________”
This activity gives you and your tween the chance to critically deconstruct an advertisement. Instead of just mindlessly watching, they now have the skills to critique. And, once you’ve done this a few times with your tween, they’ll begin to think of media and marketing from a new perspective. They will be empowered to really think about the meaning behind messages sent by advertisers. This is the heart of being a critical consumer!
It’s also important to help your child to learn to deconstruct and critique the media that they consumer, from TV shows to movies to songs. Like commercials, media is created from a certain worldview, not in a vacuum. The person who created our child’s favorite TV show may have a vastly different worldview than you and your family. It’s fine to explore those worldviews, as long as both you and your child understand that this is what you’re doing. For example, the gender stereotypes that are presented in entertainment targeting your tween may promote very different ideas about what it means to be a boy or girl than you do in your own home. It’s important for your tween to be able to notice that, think about it critically, and then make a decision about what they themselves believe.
In an activity similar to the one that we discussed above, you can watch a TV show or movie with your child and practice being critical consumers together.
1. First, ask yourself a few questions about the target audience: Who does this message come from? Who is the target audience according to the developer? It’s important to really understand whom the target audience is in order to determine if the product/program is appropriate for you or your child.
2. What message is being sent through words, music, images and stories? What about the unspoken messages? Are there impressions that you get very clearly whether they are or are not spoken? In many TV shows aimed at tweens there is an unspoken message that parents are stupid or sometimes basically absent. How are different types of people depicted? Are there messages about how to get what you want? How to be in relationship with others? How to deal with friendship problems?
3. What values are presented? What positive and negative messages come through? How do these compare to your own value system?
Another fun activity that can really open both your and your child’s eyes to the messages being sent through different media and marketing campaigns is making word clouds. You and your child can use Wordle to create word clouds from groups of words that you gather from different advertisements, TV shows, music, etc. Here are some specific ways that you might use word clouds with your tween:
1. Work with your tween to develop a word cloud of the characteristics that they think are most valuable in a girl or boy and compare it to those they see presented in media portrayals. For example, after you help them make theirs, you might look through magazines together, watch advertisements, or TV shows and collect words and themes that you both agree are being used to promote value in a person.
2. Watch a TV show or movie that you and your tween are considering and record the words or themes that you notice. Use Wordle to develop a picture of the overwhelming themes within that show. This will help you decide if the overall worldview presented by the program is one that you want to support
3. Record the words used in music that you and/or your tween consider sexualizing or negative to make a word cloud and compare it to one for music that you both find positive. The visual of the word cloud really allows you to compare and contrast the different messages being sent.
If you’re comfortable with it, it’s okay for your tween to engage with media that promotes a different value system than your own. What’s important is that both of you are able to think and talk about it together. This is a good way to jumpstart a conversation about why your family has certain values in the first place.
These activities will give you a good opportunity to start practicing being a critical consumer of media and marketing with your child. This will lead both of you to feel more empowered to choose your response to media and marketing.
Recent headlines have shown the enormous psychological impact bullying can have on someone’s sense of self worth. If left untreated, bullying leads to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and suicide. The majority of bullying occurs in the tween and teenage years, where the most sensitive kids are the targets.
A recent study shows that almost 50% of those diagnosed, attributes bullying as a main contributor to the development of an eating disorder. Starting in elementary school, bullies target those people who are most sensitive, the same type of people with the temperament to develop eating disorders. This group tends to over-personalize when others talk about them, and generally have less confidence to stand up for themselves and fight back. Instead, the bullying renders them helpless, and they feel alone in defending against the attacker.
When bullying takes the form of making fun of a person’s weight or teasing about body shape, it contributes to the development of an eating disorder. These senseless comments in the tween years make an impact for years to come and are painfully recounted in treatment, even as adults. Victims of these statements are sent an intense message that they are “fat” equaling that they are unwanted, unloved and unworthy, even if the message is not true.
As a result, the victim develops extreme anxiety at the possibility of future attacks, and turning to food as a means to cope. They find comfort in restrictive eating, in hopes they will lose weight and be left alone. Others binge as a way to self-soothe, where some may purge in an attempt to rid themselves of the extra calories. Obsessive exercise alleviates some of the associated anxiety, but it is often short lived until the next time they are scrutinized by the bully. In boys, hopes of bulking up and intimidating the aggressor are coupled with failure if unsuccessful.
To complicate the experience, disordered behaviors then create an inner bully, a relentless critic that mirrors what they are experiencing in the outside world. The person then seeks and distorts evidence that they are unworthy and worthless. When they abuse themselves, it makes it less painful for when the actual bully attacks. This internal faultfinder may be worse, as it never gives its victim a break from the abuse. All of this done in effort to make the person numb via the criticisms, disordered eating behaviors and poor body image perceptions.
If you recognize some of the psychological symptoms of bullying (depression, anxiety, low self-esteem) or behavioral reactions (not wanting to attend school, having “no friends” or actual reports of bullying) in your child, you must intervene immediately. Research shows that the faster you take action, the less of an impact it has on your child. Stand up for your tween, and help them develop ways to stand up for themselves and others who are being bullied. Adopt a no tolerance policy for the mistreatment, and inform the appropriate authorities. Identify resources in your community to help support your child (Therapists, School Officials, Parents, Friends, etc.) and gain as much information as you can through research on the topic. Further, seek help from professionals when the eating disorder is discovered, so that your tween can commit to recovery from the unhealthy behaviors and learn to live a happy, fulfilled life free of the inner and outer bully.
Substance abuse among tweens is sky-rocketing across the country. It’s not just media hype– experimentation with drugs and alcohol is no longer just for kids on the fringes and is regularly occurring earlier than most parents realize.
Unlike most parents’ middle school experiences, experimenting with substances in 7th or 8th grade is not uncommon. I work strictly with tweens and teens who share stories with me that their parents would never imagine to be real. In fact, many who begin to dabble with substance use in high school report that they feel they “started late” when compared to their peers.
What’s a parent to do?
First it is important to recognize the science. There is no argument that the human brain continues to develop well into the mid-20s. In fact, some report that the tween brain develops at a pace so rapid that the only more dramatic period of growth is during infancy.
Scientifically speaking it makes sense to take a hard-line on substance abuse, especially during the tween years. Studies are routinely showing that the longer a kid stays away from substance use (and the longer their brain can therefore develop without exposure to drugs or alcohol), the less likely they are to develop a substance addiction in their lifetime.
Second, stay on top of what is trending. For parents today, it requires a serious effort to stay informed about the drug scene. While alcohol and marijuana are still the most popular and drugs like ecstasy are quite prevalent, it’s also worth noting that tweens often abuse easy-to-find OTC cough suppressants such as Robotusin or Coricidin for quick highs. Others will raid their parents’ medical cabinet to experiment with prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, Xanax, Vicodin and ADHD drugs like Ritalin.
The emergence of “designer drugs ” which produce significant highs, are largely legal, and go undetected on drug tests are presenting a new sort of challenge for even the most diligent parents. Substances like synthetic marijuana (known commonly as Spice or K2), salvia (famously used by Miley Cyrus), and even bath salts are as easy to obtain as a pack of cigarettes in many states and are quite popular among the tween population.
Finally, try to understand why substance abuse is becoming more common during these formative tween years and discuss it with your kids. Sometimes it’s as simple as a tween modeling the behavior of their older siblings. The majority of tweens want to be perceived as mature and participating is their attempt to be cool. Many tweens are struggling socially. For some kids, becoming a partier gives them an immediate group to belong to. Other tweens are self-medicating for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
I cannot covey how many highly-invested, highly-educated parents I’ve worked with who had no clue that their tween was experimenting with drugs or alcohol until something serious occurred.
Here are some tips to help you navigate this slippery slope with your tween:
- Drug test and breathalyze intermittently but regularly. If your kid knows you are testing, they will often think twice. This also allows your kid an easy excuse to say no when facing tough peer pressure from friends.
- Take a zero tolerance stance. Tweens don’t typically practice anything in moderation. Think along the terms of red light or green light.
- Do not tell your tween of your substance use history until they are through high school. Yes, it will be tempting to open up and share with a curious tween, but try to avoid it. While you may be stating, “Yes, but…” all your tween hears is, “Yes!” After all, you turned out okay so how bad could it be?
- Monitor your tweens cell phone and Internet use. Tweens discuss their interest in substance use with their peers. This is a great way to catch issues either before it occurs or at least before it becomes a serious problem.
- Have tangible and immediate consequences if you catch your tween experimenting. Yelling or lecturing at your tween is a meaningless annoyance to them. By calmly issuing the consequence for their choice and by following through on your discipline, you set a clear standard.
- Keep your tween busy. Although you do not want to overload your kids, the more structure they have, the less down time they will have to experiment. After all, bored kids tend to find their way to trouble faster.
- Know the key terms. Kids have created an alternate vocabulary for drugs and alcohol so that parents do not pick up on their discussions. Visit my websitewww.drjerryweichman.com to learn these terms or follow me on Twitter using the handle @drjerryweichman for additional ways you can help your child.
For several years now, critics of our educational system and parenting culture have been saying that at the same time the academic performance and morality of American youth plummet, these same children and adolescents carry an outsized opinion of themselves. The shorthand goes that they have too much self esteem. However, if you understand the definition and source of true self esteem, you’ll see that our kids are sorely lacking in the stuff.
First, let’s fix on a good definition. Authentic self esteem is based on the self respect that emanates from external reality. It does not come from internal fantasies fed by well intentioned parents showering their kids with unearned praise. Self-esteem and self-respect may appear to be synonyms, but as child psychiatrist Jack Westman points out in our new book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Child & Adolescent Psychology, they are not. A child’s self-esteem, Dr. Westman explains, can be low or high based on a fantasy he holds about himself, whereas self-respect is based on reality. You can have high self-esteem, and still be a selfish, inconsiderate person.
Kids who have been “spoiled,” whose parents consistently tell them that they are smarter, more creative, athletically gifted, and all around superior to others, can have high self-esteem. But this form of self esteem crashes when they are frustrated or don’t get the sort of approval they have come to expect.
In contrast, self-respect is having a good evaluation or judgment of yourself and having that view validated by realistic accomplishments and experiences with other people. Self-respect gives rise to authentic high self-esteem. This internal feeling is based on external reality.
Because these two words have been conflated in general use, we’ll refer to self respect (as we’ve defined it here) as self esteem but please understand that we are referring to the authentic meaning of this over-used, misunderstood term.
Why Does Self Esteem Matter?
Authentic self-esteem in children is important for a child’s emotional, social, and-now the research makes clear-also for her intellectual development. Sources of self-esteem include the following:
- A child’s innate temperament helps shape her self-esteem. Easy, friendly temperament children tend to develop more self-esteem than children with difficult, inhibited temperaments.
- When parents are willing to discuss household rules and discipline with them, their children’s self-esteem rises. A child then internalizes the message that she is important enough for her opinions to be heard.
- Parents’ consistent warmth, affection, and involvement with their children builds self-esteem. A hug sends the simple message: “You are important to me.”
- Self-esteem also comes from the peer comparisons a child makes and approval or rejection she experiences from peers.
- Self-esteem comes from a child’s emerging “belief system” which can be seen as an accumulation of all of the preceding.
The Problem for Tweens
It’s probably not a surprise to hear that the children most vulnerable to low self esteem are 9 to 12 year olds. When measured by psychological researchers, self-esteem is highest in preschool and lowest at the start of junior high school. In a study of 2,000 low- to middle-income children living in the greater Detroit area, 25 percent of this age group had negative self-esteem. Their negative views of themselves showed up on all three scales measured: academic competence, social acceptance, and global self-worth. On each scale, 5 to 10 percent more girls than boys displayed negative self-esteem.
Why is it so tough to be a tween? First they’re undermined by vast hormone-driven body and mind changes. They literally don’t feel like themselves anymore. To add to their emotional challenges, the transition from elementary to high school is when children fall from a secure social position to a new unfamiliar one, and find themselves at the “bottom of the pecking order.” It’s also the age when many are pulling away from their parents, not confiding all their thoughts and feelings, and not allowing as many kisses and hugs as they used to. Still, by understanding the source of true self esteem, and then helping guide their tweens to adopt attitudes and engage in activities that will give them cause to feel good about themselves, parents can help them navigate this difficult transition.
How to Give Praise
Authentic self-esteem in children does not come from adults offering unearned rewards or praise-simple, right? Apparently not, because in one national survey 85 percent of parents said they think it’s important to tell their kids-early and often-how smart they are.
The problem is this approach backfires. Kids as young as seven know when they’re hearing an untruth about themselves. For instance, if an adult tells a child how fabulously he just did at bat after he struck out, he’ll sense the adult’s false praise.
So what is effective praise? What works with children is the same as with adults. Praise works when it is:
- Specific to an accomplishment
A child can get addicted to false praise. The reward system of the brain will anticipate it and begin sending out dopamine when praise is received. Not receiving praise then becomes a problem for the child. The child who depends on unearned praise will not take risks and will care only about getting good grades. He is more likely to cheat on tests. In other words learning loses its intrinsic value; it’s all about performance and how good he looks to those whose praise he covets.
Meanwhile, the ability to sustain a task and accept a certain amount of frustration and failure is essential to learning and creating in school and in life. When a child is too afraid of failure and too dependent on false praise, she is at greater risk for failure. Praise should be given for sustained effort and rewards should come only with success, not a near miss. From these experiences a child will develop authentic self-esteem and a solid core of emotional resiliency-the all important ability to bounce back from failure or adversity.
Madeline Gerris, of Westfield NJ, initially noticed her son’s first crush when he started talking about the same girl all the time. “By mid year (of 5th grade), the kids were telling him that his crush liked him. He admitted liking her and that was the extent of the crush.” Kathy Arky, from West Hartford CT, noticed that her daughter was texting more than usual, took a real interest in how she looked and was consistently in a good mood. “These are pretty good signs that love is in the air,” says Kathy.
What to Expect
Having a crush in late elementary school and early middle school is one of the cornerstones of growing up. Before we can see the physical changes of adolescence, preteens experience a rise in hormones resulting in romantic feelings. “The first phase of a crush is really a visceral attraction that involves a lot of fantasy,” explains Sari Cooper, a NYC Family Therapist. “The next phase is the evolution from fantasy to friendship. Throughout both these phases kids are becoming aware of who they are attracted to. It is important for parents to support those wonderful feelings,” advises Sari.
Preteen girls are usually much more interested in becoming a “couple” than boys. “There were girls calling my son in 5th grade,” remembers Madeline. For girls at this age, a major topic of conversation is their crush. Boys may think that having a “girlfriend” is cool, but are just as interested in talking about sports with their friends. If boys do have a crush, they are more inclined to suffer in silence. Madeline adds, “Boys usually keep it very quiet from everyone in school except their closest friends. Girls have no problem telling everyone that they like someone.”
Texting and IMing have replaced passing notes and talking on the phone. “Technology makes the crush experience very different from our experiences since our kids never have to make a phone call,” says Madeline. A major difference for preteens today is that not only do they “date” by texting, but they also break up this way. Kathy laments the lack of face-to-face time. “I feel that talking in person is very important. When you read an email or text you don’t get any cues – does your friend feel bad, are they mad?”
As well as being concerned about communication, parents worry about monitoring their kid’s activities. “I think it is a little scary for parents because it is much easier for kids to hide things when they are texting or emailing,” says Madeline. Kathy says that on occasion she will check her daughter’s texts to make sure that they are appropriate. In the age of technology, it is important for parents to be linked into their child’s cyber world. “Knowing your kid’s passwords is part of being a responsible parent,” explains Sari Cooper.
The most important thing you can do for your preteen during this phase is to listen carefully to what he or she is telling you and acknowledge their feelings. A crush involves an intense set of emotions and it is often difficult for children to express themselves. If your child chooses not to share their feelings with you, it is important to respect their wishes. Sometimes listening involves hearing what is not being said.
It is also important to avoid talking about a crush as if it is a relationship. In truth, a crush is just a glimpse of the deeper romantic feelings that your preteen will feel later in life. “To help your kids develop the capacity for emotional intimacy, it is important to talk to them about creating a foundation of friendship,” recommends Sari Cooper. Seventh grade mom, Madeline says, “I always encourage kindness during and after a crush. These are classmates that they will have for many years to come and they do not want to lose a long term friendship.”
The end goal, for parents, is to protect their child’s self-esteem. Sari recommends that parents watch for a reaction if their child’s feelings are not reciprocated. Preteens are developing their identity and may internalize rejection as “I’m not good enough”, “I need to go on a diet” or in the case of boys, “I need to beef up”. Since not everyone’s feelings get returned, it is important to remind your child that it is not necessarily a reflection on them. Sari suggests emphasizing the importance of finding friends that you really connect with; friends that are authentic and appreciate the gifts you have.
Crushes for most 8 – 12 year olds are quite innocent. However, there is a big developmental jump when kids turn 13 or 14. The teenage years are important, as it is a critical time in the development of their identity. During these years, without a firm sense of self, kids are most at risk for being overly influenced by peers. Dating early often causes teenagers to compromise who they are in order to make themselves more acceptable. Studies have shown that early romantic relationships are connected with low grades, drug and alcohol use, depression and sexual activity. Sari Cooper recommends that parents don’t wait until the teenage years to share their values with their kids. “It is better to have many conversations over time about relationships, creating intimacy, family values, religion, sexual health and protection.” By starting these dialogues during the preteen years, parents give their children the road map they will need as teenagers.
Parents are in an impossible position today thanks to the increasingly pornographic and hypersexualized culture. One of the major jobs of a parent is to socialize children into the culture. But what do you do if the culture is toxic? Children and adolescents are being exposed to a heavy diet of soft core porn and these images are now so commonplace that they are almost impossible to avoid. If you think I’m exaggerating, then flip through a magazine at the supermarket checkout, channel surf, take a drive to look at billboards, or watch TV ads, and you will be bombarded with images that a decade ago would have been considered soft-core porn.
If you want an example of just how hypersexualized our culture has become, then look no further than the rebranding of Miley Cyrus. It seems like just yesterday she was a squeaky clean Disney icon who was loved by millions of girls around the globe. Well, she is still loved, but now she looks just like all the other young female celebrities who are competing for stardom in a culture that increasingly hypersexualizes young women. From her photo shoot in Vanity Fair, where she wore bed-head hair and not much else, to her pole dancing at the Teen Choice Awards, Cyrus has been forced by the dictates of the market to conform to an increasingly narrow image of what it means to be female in today’s culture.
These images have a profound effect on both girls and boys because they provide them cultural cues on what it means to be a woman or a man. As children begin to develop their gender and sexual identities, they become especially reliant on media images to figure out what is cool, hot and most importantly, valued by their peer group. So what does it mean for a girl to mature in a culture where Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton and Britney Spears are role models?
People not immersed in pop culture tend to assume that what we see today is just more of the same stuff that previous generations grew up on. But what is different today is not only the hypersexualization of the image, but also the degree to which such images have overwhelmed and crowded out any alternative images of being female. Today’s tidal wave of soft-core porn has normalized the porn-star look in everyday culture to such a degree that anything less looks dowdy, prim, and downright boring. Today a girl or young woman looking for an alternative to the hypersexualized look will quickly come to the grim realization that the only alternative to looking hot is to be invisible.
And what girl wants to be invisible? Adolescence is about being noticed and the desire for visibility among one’s peer group too often means conforming to the plasticized, formulaic and generic images that bombard us daily. We should see the porn culture as a bully that manipulates, coerces, and grooms girls into conformity by providing them with limited choices. This culture is slowly chipping away at girls’ self-esteem, stripping them of a sense of themselves as whole human beings, and providing them with an identity that glorifies sex and trivializes every other human attribute.
An American Psychological Association study on the sexualization of girls found that there was ample evidence to conclude that sexualizing girls “has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs.” Some of these effects include risky sexual behavior; higher rates of eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem; and reduced academic performance.
There are, of course, girls who successfully resist this culture, but they pay a price by having to embrace an identity that is at odds with mainstream culture. What I find from my interviews is that these young women and girls tend to have someone in their life–a mother, an older woman mentor, or a coach–who provides some form of immunization to the cultural messages. But often this immunization is short-lived.
Every summer I co-teach an institute in media literacy at Wheelock College, and many of the participants are parents or teachers. Year after year we hear the same story: they are working hard to provide their daughters or students with ways to resist the culture, and for the early years the girls seem to be internalizing these counter messages. However, at some point–usually around puberty but increasingly earlier–the girls begin to adopt more conventional feminine behavior as their peer group becomes the most salient socializing force.
While girls are being trained by the pop culture, our boys are being seduced and manipulated by a multi-billion dollar a year porn industry. Studies show that the average age of first viewing porn is 11, and porn today looks nothing like your father’s Playboy. Type porn into Google and you won’t see anything that looks like the old pinups; instead, you will be catapulted into a world of sexual cruelty and brutality where women are subject to body-punishing sex as they are being choked, spat upon and verbally abused.
I regularly lecture to parents groups and they are appalled by the images that any 11 year old can freely access by typing PORN into Google. What often shocks them is the sheer level of brutality where sex is used to make hate, not love, to a woman’s body. The feelings and emotions we normally associate with love – connection, empathy, tenderness, caring, affection – are missing, and in their place are those we normally associate with hate – fear, disgust, anger, loathing, and contempt. It is images like these that are now commonplace all over the Internet and are shaping the way boys and men think about sex, relationships and intimacy.
I have a son and I am outraged that the pornographers spend millions of dollars on research trying to figure out how to turn him into a porn user. My son, and indeed all children, have the right to develop their sexual identity in a way that is authentic, affirming and in keeping with their own developmental time clock. Porn today is the major form of sex education for boys and cultural education for girls.
This predatory industry even has its own lobbying organization called The Free Speech Coalition. One of their big successes was in the case of Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the coalition in declaring the 1996 Child Porn Prevention Act unconstitutional. Its definition of child pornography (any visual depiction that appears to be a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct) was ruled to be overly broad. The law was narrowed to cover only those images where an actual person (rather than one that appears to be) under the age of 18 was involved in the making of the porn, thus opening the way for the porn industry to use either computer-generated images of children or real porn performers who, although eighteen and over, are “childified” to look much younger.
Following the court’s decision, there has been an explosion in the number of sites that childify women, as well as those that use computer-generated imagery. Young women are made to look like children by dressing them in school uniform, putting braces on their teeth and making them act like pre-pubescent girls. Websites with names such as First Time With Daddy, Exploited Teen and First Time Sex legitimize and normalize the sexual abuse of girls.
I have been on many talk shows where someone invariably says that it is up to the parents to keep their kids away from the porn culture. Certainly we have a part to play, but the reality is that the culture should be helping us to raise our kids, not undermining us at every turn. The pornographers have done a stealth attack and it is now time to fight back. We can’t do this on an individual level, so we need to build a movement that empowers parents and children to resist the porn culture. The first step is a grass roots education campaign aimed at raising consciousness to the harms of porn as a way to build a community of like-minded people.
One tool in this battle is an anti-porn slide show developed by the founders (including myself) of the activist group Stop Porn Culture. This show is now being given in homes, community centers, colleges, schools and anti-violence organizations across the country. It is a way to start the discussion and to encourage people to become active. It is important to build a network in your area because your children need the support of a peer group if they are to stand outside the porn culture. Ultimately this movement is based on the belief that the culture belongs to us, not the pornographers, and they have no right to rob our children of an authentic and life-loving sexuality that is based on connection, intimacy and equality.
As parents of a tween, it’s always helpful to try to stay ahead of the curve so that you can understand what your child is getting involved in and be prepared to determine it’s appropriateness. If you’re like many, your pre-teen probably knows more about social networking than you do (the first clue to the technology fast track was when your tween changed your settings on your cell phone). If you already have a Facebook account and want to get a better understanding of how to use Facebook effectively (and how your tween might use Facebook), an important step is to gain a solid understanding of the various settings you can choose as a part of your profile. The settings are, in essence, the boundaries that you choose to define your “appearance” on Facebook. If you don’t already have a Facebook account and would like to see what the buzz is about, check outFacebook 101 for Parents of Tweens for information on how to get started.
One of the best pieces of advice we can offer to a new Facebook user is to test the waters (once you’ve friended someone who will act as your guinea pig!). Get a good sense of what happens when you take certain actions. As long as you’re interacting with a trusted friend, you’ll begin to see how the communications flow works. This kind of understanding will give you some good information to make informed settings decisions that will meet your needs.
Not surprising, the most often cited reason for people not participating inFacebook is that they have privacy concerns. When it comes to privacy, you have a few philosophical decisions to make. Either you limit the information you post, or you include a good amount of information and utilize Facebook’s privacy preferences. Or you could do some of both. Not unlike getting comfortable paying your bills online, there’s a leap of faith to entrust Facebook with your personal information. Since trust and integrity are integral to Facebook’s reputation, the company puts a lot of emphasis on the importance of both.
Once signed in, click Settings in the upper right hand corner and select Privacy Settings. Virtually every aspect of the information you provided about yourself and what you post becomes your choice of whether it can be viewed by others. This includes: Profile, Basic Info, Personal Info, Status and Links, Photos Tagged of You, Videos Tagged of You, Walls Posts, Education Info and Work Info. You can also select who gets to view any of this information from your profile, including: Everyone, My Network and Friends, Friends of Friends, and Only Friends. Further, you can customize your profile to exclude specific people (this is the setting you don’t want your tween to select, i.e., excluding you!) from various aspects of your profile and postings. While making a determination of who sees what, think about all of the potential viewers before selecting “everyone” from the menu (i.e., child, spouse, employer, potential friends, search engines…literally, everyone!).
The more information you include in your public profile, the greater the chance of being “found” (great if you’re trying to connect with old friends, not-so-great if you want to stay incognito!). It’s helpful that you can check to see how you appear to others by typing in a friend’s name in the indicated box on the same page; you’ll then be able to view what they see about you.
It’s important to note that you have, through the Settings and Privacy path, the ability to block specific people from finding/seeing you on Facebook. When someone is on your Block list, they can’t search for you on Facebook (and therefore can’t friend you); they can’t write on your wall and they can’t write a message to you. And, they won’t be able to see what you’ve written on someone’s wall or anywhere else on the site.
Setting Tween Boundaries
Once you’re up-to-speed, in thinking through your comfort level with your tween’s use of Facebook, there are several factors that you’ll want to consider and be prepared to address with your pre-teen, such as:
- If your pre-teen is under 13, he/she will have to falsely claim to be at least 13 to get an account. This is important because, if you’re OK with letting your tween confirm an older age during the sign-up process, it’s worth a discussion about when it’s OK and when it’s not OK to falsely state information (which, of course, opens up a whole can of worms, doesn’t it?!?)
- Will you require your pre-teen to friend you so that you can see the type of communication taking place among his/her friends? If you believe this is important, and many people do, you need to decide how firm you’ll be with your “request.” Friending your tween will enable you to access their profile, photo albums and wall (where others post comments). Some parents require being friended as a quid pro quo for their pre-teen’s opportunity to have a Facebook account. Your tween may heartily resist friending you, claiming that other kids don’t need to. Be prepared. FYI, once your tween becomes proficient on Facebook, they’ll likely discover that they can limit the data you see from their profile (just as you can limit theirs); hopefully they won’t figure this part out too soon. By the way, you should also know that you can be “un-friended” without notification. All you need to do is: click on the person’s profile, go toward the bottom of the page (left column) and click “Remove from Friends.” If you are friended with your tween, you might want to check periodically to make sure you haven’t been un-friended!
- Will you allow your tween to post (and tag) photos? Putting a name with a picture is a scary idea for many parents. All you need is an address or a commonplace location and there could be an element of familiarity that makes someone seem harmless to an unsuspecting tween. In actuality, however, privacy settings can ensure that only friends can see the details of yours/their tagged photos. It depends on your level of comfort.
- How much time will you allow your pre-teen to spend on Facebook each day/week? This can be tricky. Some pre-teens have to carefully manage overall technology screen time. Others have a brief fascination and move on. It’s an individual tween/family decision of course, but might be addressed under the broader consideration that includes all technology. As one parent pointed out, “I don’t mind that my tween has a DS, a Wii, and participates in social networking…at least I have a carrot or stick to get them to follow the rules!”
- Who will you friend among your tween’s peers? The expert consensus is to let your tween’s friends and children of your friends send you the “friending” invitations. That way, except for your own child, you won’t be interfering (and heaven forbid, cause your tween embarrassment!). Also, of note, once you have your tween and his/her friends in your circle, you can no longer “speak” without a filter. So, keep that in mind as you post your quips!
Features and Jargon
Newsfeed – the Newsfeed is located on the home page of your profile. It updates you about your friends‘ activities via their postings and profile changes. You can also have a chance to comment on your friends‘ activities. Others can comment on your comments, and so on! There are several settings options related to the Newsfeed that can again be accessed through Settings and Privacy Settings.
Wall Posting – think of wall posting as the sharing of public comments that you might post on a bulletin board. They’re also helpful for sharing links and videos appropriate for a broad audience. Many of us have experienced the misfortune of sending an email that was misinterpreted; perhaps something you thought was funny was interpreted as angry or your wording was too bossy or worse! The same can happen with Facebook. Keep in mind that changes to your profile picture, edits to your information and uploaded pictures, links and videos will often prompt comments to your wall from your friends. Generally, in your communications, be careful about how you “sound” and, whatever you do, don’t write anything that would embarrass your tween!
Sending Messages and Chat – the Message and Chat features functions much the same way as email and instant messaging in general. It’s between you and yourfriend.
Groups – Facebook users can choose to join any number of Facebook groups. Some may choose groups that are silly (fans of a YouTube Video), others may chose groups based upon an affiliation (fans of Abercrombie). Some may be chosen based on reality and others may be chosen based on aspiration. If you don’t like the group your tween has chosen to be a part of, it might be worth a conversation to understand his/her interest that particular group.
Pokes – “You’ve been poked. Do you want to poke back?” Pokes are silly gestures that really do nothing except point out to the Pokee that you’re connecting.
Quizzes – some people are prolific quiz takers. Are you really interested to share, “What famous literary character are you most like?” or “Which college stereotype are you”? If you like the quizzes, just be sure that you don’t include a quiz like “What’s Your Kissing Style”? It’s probably too much information and will surely embarrass your tween!
Don’t Wave Your “Freak Flag”
A big parent no-no is to express too much on Facebook! For example, photos of yourself or embarrassing photos of your tween (at any point in his/her life!) will likely put your pre-teen over the top. If you do choose to let photos be tagged, your tween’s friends will get notice that there’s a new photo of him/her online. Likewise, too much information on walls and other postings could not only cause your pre-teen to shudder, you may have professional connections that would be awkward!
One way to stay abreast of issues that arise and new updates on Facebook is to periodically search on Google or another search engine if you have any questions. You’d be surprised what a search such as “Facebook privacy” can reveal. Or if you have a concern about an issue in the news, just search it online and get some more information. Also, the Help Center along the bottom of the page is a great tool to learn more about functionality.
And, don’t forget to enjoy the fun part of social networking!
Now that your child is a preteen, staying home alone is an option. Perhaps, you’ve already left them alone for a few minutes while running an errand or picking up a sibling. Older tweens often enjoy the independence, but may not know how to take care of themselves in an emergency. TweenParent.com has come up with some tips and ideas that we think will help you prepare your preteen to stay home on their own.
Things to Consider Before Leaving Your Tween Home Alone
- Does your preteen want to stay home alone or will they be frightened?
- Does your tween show reasonable behavior when choosing independent activities?
- Is your tween reliable and responsible while doing daily activities and chores around the house?
- Is your preteen self-sufficient? (Do they recognize when they are hungry and can they prepare small meals and snacks by themselves?)
- Does your tween follow rules and instructions?
- Do you trust your preteen not to panic in unexpected situations?
- Is your tween comfortable using the telephone?
- Does your preteen know how to handle emergency situations?
- Has your preteen ever played with matches, fire or other dangerous objects?
- Does your tween have a medical condition that would make them vulnerable if left home alone?
Teaching Your Preteen How to Handle an Emergency
- Give your tween a lesson in first-aid 101.
- Show your preteen how to call 911.
- Teach your tween what to do in case of a fire. Remember that fire department rules for apartments are different than houses. If you live in an apartment check the fire department’s recommendations for your building.
- Find a reliable neighbor that your tween can go to and/or call in the case of an emergency.
- Establish a meeting area outside your home in case your child needs to leave in the event of an emergency.
Lists For Your Tween
- Important Contact Information – Include your telephone numbers and a neighbor’s number. A grown up should always be available for your preteen.
- Emergency Numbers – All the basics; 911 for fire and first aid, the poison control center, and your doctors and dentist’s information.
- Home Address and Phone Number – In an emergency, your tween may be too flustered to remember even basic information.
- A Chart of First-Aid Procedures – Easy access to this information will help your child make good choices.
Our Recommendations For House Rules While Home Alone
- Preteens should not tell anyone that they are home alone. However, if your tween gets caught in an awkward conversation, it’s important for them to know that it is okay to fib to strangers about being home alone.
- Tweens should not answer the door while home alone.
- Consider not allowing any friends in the house without your permission. Keep in mind that you don’t want to get the reputation of having the house without grown up supervision.
- Make rules about answering the phone. For example, you may want your preteen to pick up the phone only if they recognize your voice on the answering machine or see your number on caller ID.
- Structure your tween’s time. Write a list of things you expect to get done while you are away — homework, chores, make a snack.
- Decide what kitchen appliances your kids are allowed to use. Most people feel comfortable letting their preteens use the microwave and toaster, but not the stove.
- Establish clear guidelines about using the computer, TV, or playing video games while you are away.
- Decide if your preteen needs to have permission to go outside.
Home Alone Tips
- Have easy to make snacks and food readily available for your preteen.
- Show your tween where the first aid kit, flashlights and batteries are kept.
- Remember to lock the door on your way out.
- Warn your preteen never to go into their home if something looks out of place. A broken window, open door, forced lock or ripped screen could be a clue to a robbery.
Transitioning Your Kids
- Go out for only five to ten minutes the first time you leave your tween alone.
- Structure your preteen’s time. They may feel more comfortable if they have something to do.
- Talk to your tween about how they feel about being left alone. If they have concerns, this is your cue that they are not ready.
- If there is stress in your household, wait until things are “back to normal” before leaving your preteen alone.
Getting your preteen acquainted with the kitchen can be beneficial in so many ways. Aside from giving you a break from being responsible for every meal, learning to cook builds confidence, vocabulary, and tastes, as well as reinforcing basic math skills. You may have already been baking and cooking together since your preteen was small, but even if you haven’t, it’s never too late to start. So often we let our busy lives interfere with our willingness to prepare a meal. By encouraging your child’s interest in cooking, you are empowering them with important life skills.
Browse through some cookbooks together
Giving your preteen the freedom to pick out a recipe builds their excitement. Plus, it gives them ownership throughout the process. Finding a kid-friendly cookbook is easy, the question is, which one? The recipes should be simple and straightforward, and should use uncomplicated ingredients. There should be pictures, lots of pictures, and vivid descriptions illustrating how to do certain tasks. Emeril, Rachel Ray, Williams-Sonoma, and Better Homes and Gardens have all released great cookbooks for kids. My favorite children’s cookbooks are fromMollie Katzen. She makes cooking fun, delicious, and healthy for both kids and adults.
It’s important to know what you and your tween are getting yourselves into. Explain to them the importance of reading an entire recipe before beginning the process. Make sure you have enough time, the proper equipment and ingredients. Show your tween how to decipher the recipes. Words like “simmer,” “broil,” and “dice” might be foreign to your child. If you come across terminology that you do not recognize, you can look it up in the food dictionary at Epicurious.com. When doubling recipes, ask your tween to show off their math skills by telling you the new amounts of ingredients needed. This will help boost their culinary confidence.
Going grocery shopping as a team
Once you know what you’re going to be making, pick up the ingredients you need at the grocery store. Study food prices, labels, and quantities with them. Have them practice shopping on a budget by using a calculator to add up the food prices as you go. Let them pick out a few things, outside of the recipe, that they might be interested in trying.
A kitchen Q & A session is important so that your preteen knows where things are, what to use, and how to use them. Turn it into a fun family trivia game, if you’d like. This is a good opportunity to find out what your child already does and does not know about the kitchen utensils, tools, and appliances. Don’t underestimate them – they probably know more than you might expect. Don’t overestimate them, either – they might know what something is, but have no idea what it’s for or how it’s used. Maybe you have something hiding in your utensil drawer that they’ve never seen before. Have you ever actually used your lemon reamer?
Safety in the kitchen
A talk about safety is mandatory. Try to keep at least one eye on your preteen, at least until they are comfortable around the knives and heat. You don’t want to scare them, but rather guide them about the proper way to hold and use a knife for chopping. Use your judgment about whether you think your child is mature enough to handle a sharp knife, otherwise stick with safer tasks such as measuring, stirring, and cracking eggs. Give your novice chopper something easy to practice with, such as a stalk of celery. Celery is a great practice food because it can lay flat on the cutting board and is easy to grip. Don’t worry about your preteen having perfect Food Network-esque knife skills, as long as they are comfortable. Some important safety tips to communicate to your child are:
- Long hair should be tied back.
- Sleeves should be rolled up past the wrists.
- Potholders should be clean and dry, and always easily accessible. (Wet potholders conduct heat.)
- Pot handles on the stove should be turned inward, to avoid being accidentally bumped.
- Hot pots or pans should stay on the stovetop to cool, before being transferred to a countertop or the sink.
- Kids should be tall enough to see inside the pot before attempting stovetop recipes. Never leave the stirring utensil in the pot. That’s what those adorable little spoon rests are for.
- Kitchen = electricity and water in the same general area. Proceed with caution, and be sure the two never mix.
- No metal in the microwave. That means no aluminum foil, forks, etc.
- If raw meat, fish, poultry or eggs have touched a cutting board or utensil, explain why you should not use it again to touch raw foods without washing it thoroughly with warm soapy water. Same goes for your hands.
- Above all, encourage a lot of communication in the kitchen. If a sharp knife, or a hot pan, is being moved from one location to another, speak up!
Let your preteen take charge. Having your preteen act as head chef allows them to take ownership over the process and eventually become independent enough to do it themselves. You can participate as sous chef and offer advice when necessary. Follow are some tips you can share with your preteen to get them started.
- Create a clean working space.
- Review your recipe.
- Preheat oven if necessary.
- Wash your hands with warm soapy water.
- Get all the utensils and ingredients set up on the counter.
- Rinse and dry all fruit and vegetables before you use them.
- Measure and chop ingredients so they are ready to cook.
- Clean up spills, load the dishwasher and soak pots as you go along.
- Have fun!
Enjoy your meal
After bonding with your preteen in the kitchen, enjoy the fruits of your labor together! Regardless of how the dish turned out, be sure to give your child lots of praise and positive reinforcement so they are confident about trying new things in the kitchen and new foods on their plates.