Facebook as a Parenting Punishment Tool: Good Idea?

5 years ago

In the ever-more complicated world of parenting, discipline and punishment are at the top of the Most Challenging List. The Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health says:

“Disciplining children is one of the most important yet difficult responsibilities of parenting, and there are no shortcuts.”

Discipline is the very topic in which you feel you are an expert before you have children because it is so crystal clear what those other people with children are doing wrong, until you are a parent yourself. And then somehow that clarity disappears into a fog, and the fog only clears in short, unpredictable spurts. One should not take short cuts in the fog.

During the pre-adolescent years in particular, your parenting fog conspires with your adolescent’s lapses in judgment to make all good parental decision-making the purest of all crap shots. And this is why I hesitate to judge Denise Abbott’s brave stab at digitally disciplining her daughter. In an interview with Akron, Ohio’s WKYC.com, Denise Abbott said she was dismayed when her 13-year-old daughter Ava’s behavior on Facebook got out of hand. Without even approaching the subject of whether or not a 13-year-old should even have access to Facebook (you can enjoy Mir’s of Woulda Coulda Shoulda thorough discussion about the appropriate age for Facebook here), Ava was apparently mouthing off and being disrespectful to her mother via her Facebook page. So Mom not only shut-down her daughter’s Facebook privileges, but went one step further. She posted a profile picture that was a likeness of Ava with a big “x” where Ava’s mouth should have been. Below the picture read:

“I DO NOT KNOW HOW TO KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT. I am no longer allowed on Facebook or my phone. Please ask why. My mom says I have to answer everyone that asks.”

Then when over 30 (and counting, I’m sure) people responded with inquiries, Ava had to explain her wrongdoing to every single person.

I have to say that Abbott’s approach is a creative one that also has several elements of what I consider effective parenting. The punishment was swift and it directly addressed the privilege that Ava abused. And Mom’s approach required her daughter to deal head-on with consequences- which included no Facebook privileges and not just a little dose of public humiliation.

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But there is one element that the punishment is missing, I think. And it might, arguably, be the most important. I’m not sure Abbott has been clear about how her daughter should behave on Facebook. Did Abbott’s discipline provide direction about how to act online and what are appropriate uses for Facebook and social media in general? It seems to me there is, at the very least, a very mixed message here about the appropriateness of expressing private matters publicly.

I strongly suspect that Abbott’s admonishment that her daughter “keep her mouth shut,” was based on the fundamental notion that there are certain things you share online and certain things you do not, especially about your family. We parents all know that our teens and pre-teens have hateful thoughts about us from time-to-time. Okay, let’s not say “hateful." Let’s just say that teens do not always agree with our expectations and rules. We know that they go into their rooms, perhaps, and curse us under their breath. Some parents even allow such feelings of disagreement and/or disdain to be expressed directly to them. But most parents do NOT appreciate being put on blast on Facebook!

Children cursing and complaining about parents on Facebook is certainly not new. Still, doing so is not only disrespectful, it is indiscreet and counter to the unspoken family rule that says “what goes on inside of this family, stays inside of this family.” Every single person in a family wants their own business dealt with discreetly, whether or not they are good about the privacy of other family members.

And so, it seems to me Abbott’s decision to publicly discipline her daughter sets a family precedent to be public about their issues. No, actually, technically Ava set the precedent when she first misbehaved online. And then her mother, with an apparent desire to do her daughter one better, followed suit. If the experts are right, that is, the experts who say that modeling proper behavior is the best way to teach children life skills, like discretion and respect, then arguably Abbott’s choice of discipline may have inadvertently reinforced her daughter’s behavior instead of curbed it. It's kind of like spanking a child to punish him for hitting, or screaming at a child for throwing a tantrum. What you actually do as a parent speaks much louder as a directive than what you say, almost without exception.

Rick Morris, author and award-winning educator, says it best: Children “may doubt what you say, but will always believe what you do.” And I have found this be to painfully true in my own family’s culture. All of the things I espouse as a parent, but do not actually do, somehow never get done… by anyone!

On the social media frontier, Facebook alone has in so many ways turned our parenting world upside down. How do we allow our children the freedom to explore such a powerful social tool that we ourselves haven’t really quite mastered yet? And let’s face it, many of us adults do not totally have a handle on Facebook ourselves! If you don’t believe this to be true, just look here and here. Examples of adult social media mismanagement are ever plentiful! So, as much as I admire Denise Abbott’s resolve, creativity and proactive parenting stance, I question whether she’s actually done herself, as parent, and Ava, as child, a good turn by looping her own and her daughter’s Facebook community in on her humiliating lesson. It’s a slippery slope of disclosure I am certain I would not want to open up to the world (not even my own extended family)!

At the end of the day, Abbott’s actions have garnered much more attention than her daughter’s Facebook behavior ever would have. And so between mother and daughter, with regard to using Facebook at each other’s expense, Mom wins… or does she?

author of 24 Things You can Do With Social Media to Help Get Into College, also blogs at Tortured By Teenagers and ThinkActParent.com

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