We have a teen.
She is bright. And funny in a witty way. You would like to be around her. She is good at making people feel precious and noticed. She likes playing and make-believe and her toys are still treasured in all the sweet ways (I found a Moana doll in her bed the other night which made my heart melt because I really, really do believe in the phrase “let them be little.”).
She is growing up, too. She wears my clothes. And my shoes. Lately, she has been in a “piercing” stage where she wants ALL.THE.HOLES. I accommodate her when I can (I mean, I don’t really have a good argument on this one), but the nose has to wait until she is 16—thank you Department of Health and tattoo shop that abides by the laws. She does the Dab and that Whip and Nae-Nae thing. Recently, she knew the words to a song I’d never heard, and she told me, “it’s an 80’s song, mom”…like she knows cool-vintage and I didn’t actually grow up then. She loves all the good books and movies, and you will be her best friend if you reference anything Harry Potter, Star Wars, Narnia, Lost, or Marvel.
I love my Niamh. She is this thirteen-year-old mix of being a child and being a real live teenager. We have had hard discussions this year about image, eating, exercise, friendship, being unique, and why I don’t like her in 4-inch wedges (it’s just too weird, man). I am learning for the first time as a mom what places I want to stick my ground (my kids are not allowed—ever ever ever— to drive with teens, for instance) and what hills I’m not willing to die on (piercings, hair coloring, and her use of YOLO—which makes me cringe but I bite my tongue). She loves music (like her dad), so we have taken the route of evaluating on a song-by-song basis whether curse words have some type of value in the song (because we think some help express a point or feeling— like in Stand Up by FloBots, which is one of her faves) or whether they are pointless, derogatory, or crass. We have also had to figure out a parenting plan for social media—which is a place, I believe, needs strategic parenting.
There are a thousand different ways to approach social media as a parent. Niamh has multiple friends with Facebook and Instagram accounts. I learn from parents who do it differently than we do. In most cases, they are a nice correcting force in my life, because I tend to over protect and maybe helicopter around a bit. From a parenting standpoint (and I really have to consciously work at this), I want my kids to have the freedom to experience the world, make some bad choices with the good ones, and know they are joyfully loved to the fullest in it all. I don’t want them operating from a behavior management angle (which I did very well as a teenager). They will make mistakes. I will make mistakes. Richard Rohr says in Everything Belongs, “The great and merciful surprise is that we come to God not by doing it right but by doing it wrong” (let your theology wrestle with that one for a while!). This way of thinking has helped Phil and I both stay in conversation with our kids. Sometimes I have to show up to Niamh and Philly and say I am sorry for failing them as a parent— that I was concerned with behavior over heart, which is never the point. And they come to us, too, sometimes with tears in their eyes (Philly) and sometimes with a broken heart (Niamh) and ask for forgiveness. And it is all mercy, grace, learning, tears, space to fail, adjusting their compass a little, and hugs again.
Phil and I choose not to allow Niamh to have her own Facebook. We think it might serve as a distraction and could even be a place for someone like her (who can be shy and nervous…like me) to depend on abstract friendships rather than real-life-people friendships.
Instagram is, in my humble opinion, the best thing since email, maybe even bread. It is my favorite social media platform, mostly because it is, at its core, a creative and curated place. I openly and fully admit, it is the best of our days. I choose my photos carefully and edit them meticulously so that they flow together and the “story in squares” is both lovely and inspiring. I can talk about real and messy things there, but I like that it is a place for me to creatively tell our story in beautiful photos.
I wanted to allow Niamh this same creative space to explore photography and express herself. However, there is no real way for parents to monitor or manage the content on IG. Sure, you can make your child’s profile “private”, but that does not sift out what will appear in their searches or even on the community page. I do not want to protect her from the reality that some people in the IG world are basically naked and happy to show it, are sending a message of body-perfection over soul-substance, are preferentially promoting discord over peace, are demoralizing and verbally assaulting to women, or are really good at following whatever is popular but have no real thought of their own. As a parent, though, I want to talk through it with my girl…who is still learning that it is a beautiful thing to be “curvy” and have freckles and wear plain, old Beatles tshirts and be weird and unique and appreciate people who are culturally, religiously, and ethnically very different than herself. I do not want to give her free and unsupervised travel down a road of being informed and possibly shaped by excessive amounts of the world’s content with no friend to help navigate the harder things. I want her to walk it, but I’d like to hold her hand.
So we opened an IG account together. We use it to refine her love of taking photos; grow her creativity in telling a good story through images and a few words; to share a fun place together as a mom and daughter; and to give her some access to the world of social media. She is not logged in unless I do it for her. And she is not allowed to “surf around” IG aimlessly. It is a working compromise, and may need some adjustment as we move forward. I’m learning there is an art to compromise when you are a parent, some sort of give-and-take of freedom and respect. I plan to eventually hand it off to her. But Niamh is still half child in our opinion, so Phil and I have the responsibility and massive privilege of guiding her as she grows.
It is not a matter of trust. I trust Niamh and Philly both. I trust them to know the right choice. I trust them to make it. I trust that, at some point, they won’t. I trust them to be honest with us, because we stress grace and love over perfection. I trust them to honor our parenting choices. I trust them to fail—and they trust Phil and I to love them through it. I trust Niamh not to look for bad content. But I do not trust bad content to not come looking for her. When it does, and it will, I would like to be part of the picture. I’d like to ask the right questions and gently nudge her towards a healthy outcome. And at 13, we believe that is necessary parenting not optional parenting.
Like I said, there are so many different ways to approach social media with kids. We have many friends who do it differently— and successfully. In no way do I think we have the best approach. In these new things—this teenager stage we are encountering—parenting often takes the form of a shot in the dark. We have found that being honest along the way with our kids—keeping them a part of the discussion, admitting where we have struggled in the past, and being free to share anything in a safe, loving home—creates a family where honesty is a thing to celebrate even when it reveals a failure. Often our hard talks start with us telling our child “you can’t shock us” and end with “thank you for being brave and sharing with us.”
And this is our attempt at incorporating those things into social media access. I’m thankful that our kids are good at grace for Phil and I, too, even as we figure out parenting! It is my favorite, most exhausting, and scariest life task. And my greatest, greatest hope is to be parents of children who parent better than us— who move our family and legacy more towards Life and Goodness and Love.
If you want to check out Niamh’s and my shared Instagram, you can find it under @mom_and_a_girl . Feel free to say “hello.” We enjoy meeting new friends.
And Phil and I would love to read advice, experiences, and tips on how you navigate this with your own children! Feel free to share in the comments.
Thanks for reading!