Teaching Our Children To Be Kind Online

Black African American teenage girl with a afro haircut using a

We talk a lot about how to keep our children from seeing violence on TV and online. We talk about parental controls. But do we talk enough about how important Internet kindness and decency is?

On a recent share of an article I wrote, Facebook commenters used the following phrases to describe me: “condescending twat,” “selfish, egotistical, self-indulgent cow,” “dick,” “bitch,” “self-absorbed c—,” “fucking narcissist,” and “douche.”

The commenters also had some choice words about my parenting and my children, including this: “People like this seriously don’t deserve children.” And this: “She sounds like she is raising the most insufferable people on the planet. Lord help us all when her spawn are unleashed as non-functional adults.” And the one that probably angered me the most: “She probably blindly swats at her annoying kids to get them to shut up.”

I regularly write articles that are shared on social media. I’ve been given the advice that lots of us writers give each other: DON’T READ THE COMMENTS. And I certainly don’t go reading every single one. But the thing is: If I don’t read comments at all, I don’t get to see the positive ones—readers saying that my writing moved them to tears, or just brought a little brightness to their day—which is one of the things that makes writing worthwhile.

So sometimes I look. And I can handle criticism. However, the criticism is usually about the writing itself, the message I am putting out there. But this time it was different. The comments weren’t just “I hate this article, and everything it stands for.” No, it was: “I hate this person.” In fact, someone simply said, “I hate her.”

At first I tried to suppress my feelings. I thought: Well, these people don’t know me. They don’t know what kind of parent or person I am. I thought: Come on, Wendy, you knew this kind of thing would happen if you wrote online long enough. I thought: Oh, crap. Did I say something really offensive? Do I really come across as that much of a jerk? And then I wondered if I was just being too sensitive and needed to toughen up.

Do you see what happened? For just a moment, I took those hateful comments on myself. I blamed myself for the feelings that any human being would naturally have in this situation.

I understand the feeling of being behind a computer screen and typing out your thoughts and feelings on social media. Maybe I have used some rude language when talking about a politician or a celebrity. I have probably said something or other that has hurt someone in some way online, though I have never done so intentionally.

But no: I have never unleashed this kind of hate on other human beings, and no one ever should.

Being cruel online is being cruel, period. Saying something hateful about another human being who could ever possibly read what you wrote is a horrible thing to do. Would you say it to that person’s face? No? Then don’t say it online.

Here’s the thing, though. I am a 37-year-old woman surrounded by love and family. And I have a strong band of supporters—online and off—who rallied around me when I mentioned these hateful slurs made against me. So I can take it. I can shake it off.

But not everyone can. Not every grown-up, and certainly not every child. I have two children of my own, and above all, this experience has completely changed how I think about their online interactions. My 8-year-old is already playing a version of Minecraft that includes online chat, and I’m thinking I need to do more than warn him never to give out his full name or address.

It’s bad enough when cyberbullying leads to hurt feelings, but hurt feelings in an already vulnerable child can be destructive, and lead to tragedy. We know that there have been cases of children committing suicide as a result of cyberbulling. This breaks my heart and concerns me deeply—and it wasn’t until I experienced it myself that I understood how crushing online bullying can be.

We talk a lot about how to keep our children from seeing violence on TV and online. We talk about parental controls. But do we talk enough about how important Internet kindness and decency is? Do we ask our kids how an online interaction makes them feel, and how powerful their own words can be?

I have started to broach the subject with my son, using my own personal experience with cyberbullying as a springboard. I have told him how the experience made me feel. I have discussed the power of the written word. I watched him chat with his Minecraft buddies online and discussed how a slight tease can shift into something cruel, and where the lines might be. I don’t know if he gets it all, but I am happy we have begun the conversation.

I urge you to do the same, however old your child is. I recently read the book Kindness Wins, by Galit Breen, which is an up-to-date, user-friendly, amazing resource for learning more about this very important topic—I highly recommend it to parents navigating these murky waters.

Frankly, I am sort of terrified about the online world we live in, and that we are raising our kids in. And yet, there is so much that is wonderful about it—I myself have fostered deep friendships, and been exposed to so much cultural richness and connection. I believe it can be an enriching world for our children as well, but there is so much work to be done to make it a friendlier, more caring place.

So I am calling on myself, my friends, my family, my children, and everyone online to really think about every word that you type on social media platforms. Be mindful, considerate, aware. Think before you type. I have been asking myself each time: Is this kind? Is this empathetic? If not, there is no reason to type it.

When people called me nasty names online, I wanted to rage at the them. I wanted to call them every name in the book. And I did—in my head, and out loud to my family and friends. But not online. No way.

Wendy Wisner is a mom, writer, and lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is the author of two books of poems (CW Books), and her writing has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Scary Mommy, and Mamalode. She lives in New York with her husband and two sons. Find Wendy at WendyWisner.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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