I would not consider myself to be a Helicopter Parent. In fact, unless you awaken Mama Bear, I’m probably more like Mama Bird – “here, honey, let me give you a little boot out of this little ol’ nest and see if you fly. Come on, kid, FLY! Huh….”
I do, however, spend a lot of time contemplating the shift to a digital connected world, its affects on social interactions, and the very real dangers associated with the vast anonymous internet. My kids are not yet digital. Other than school, relatives and babysitters, my boys are rarely apart from me, so I haven’t felt the need to equip them with digital devices. That is all about to change as the oldest continues to push into more independence.
The past few weeks, as an Internal Medicine-Pediatric physician (trained to care for kids and adults), I have filled in more on the pediatric side of the medical office. And when sitting with 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds and even 17-year-olds, I’ve found myself giving each of them (and their parents) a little bit of advice.
To the kid:
That cell phone you have in your pocket is a very important and potentially very dangerous device. You can get reach out to friends, family, and a whole host of people, which is really awesome. But you can also get yourself into deep trouble with that phone by texting or talking to the wrong people or putting up photos or a whole bunch of things. But, the reason your parents got you that phone in the first place is most likely they wanted to keep you safe so that you could call them whenever you needed.
What you need to do – tonight – is sit down and talk with your parents about your “secret code.” Your secret code is a short phrase, known only to your family, which tells mom or dad that you need them absolutely positively NOW!!
For example, you might text your mom with the sentence, “Gosh, I sure am hungry for pepperoni pizza.” The minute your mom reads that sentence, she will stop everything she is doing (and I mean everything), jump in her car and drive immediately to where you are. She will make up some really stupid crazy parent excuse for why she has come to pick you up. “Dear, the cat is sick and we need to take her to the vet now. I’m so sorry, but I need you to come along.” (Don’t have a cat – make it your sister….but not to the vet….maybe to the doctor!). Then you will roll your eyes, text your friend “my mom is nuts!” and get in the car.
You see, I can tell you’re a smart kid. But every single smart kid at times in their lives gets into uncomfortable or bad or stupid situations. Maybe you’re visiting a friend and maybe another person comes over too. And maybe this other person starts to do something that you just don’t want to get into. Maybe it’s making prank calls. Maybe it’s lighting up a cigarette. It could be anything. If you find yourself in any uncomfortable situation, you pull out your phone and text your “secret code.” Your parent will read it and come. Right then. Your friends will read it and say, “Dude! That’s stupid. Are you really hungry? You want pizza?” And your parent is already in the car and on their way.
To the parent:
Now, we all know the reason you got the phone is so your most precious Jenny or Johnny fits in with the social crowd….well, and because you want to know she/he is safe and because it helps with managing our crazy busy lives and schedules.
You also know that the phone can be a very dangerous possession and I’m sure you’ve already talked with your son or daughter about the dangers. I’m also sure that you randomly confiscate the device and check all the texts, Snapchats, Instagram and whatever other apps and accounts.
What you will do – tonight – is sit down with your kid and develop a “secret extraction code.” (see above) And you will, at the moment that code comes in, drop everything you are doing (and I mean everything – your meeting, your treadmill run, your quick errand at the grocery store, your nice warm cozy bed) and you will turn on your tracking device, see where your kid is, jump in your car and drive over there.
The whole way your heart will be pounding in your ears and you will be scared about what you are about to walk in on, but you will take deep breaths and think of your stupid extraction excuse. “I’m so sorry, Johnny, but your little brother is sick and I need you home now.” And you will promise yourself over and over that these are the only words you’re allowed to say when you see Johnny.
In fact, you’re not even allowed to talk to Johnny when he jumps into the car. You’re not allowed to say a word except “I love you” until he begins to talk. And if he doesn’t talk for minutes or hours or even until the next day, the only thing you can say is “I love you. I am always here for you.”
Johnny needs to know that you’ve got his back. Johnny needs to know that no matter what, you are there for him. Johnny needs to know that you love him so much that no matter what he was doing, no matter what his friends were doing, no matter what – you will keep him safe.
Every parent has looked at me and nodded their head. They know. Deep down we all know the world can be a scary place. We all pray that our kids will make good choices and will never need their extraction code. But we also need our kids to know how to call for help in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their safety, that doesn’t embarrass them in front of their peers, and that doesn’t put the blame on them.
Our kids need to know that we love them so much that we will do whatever it takes to keep them physically, emotionally, mentally safe. No matter what. Mama Bear/Papa Bear will be there.
What’s your extraction code?