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It’s not just about college admissions: Teaching kids to live well, even when no one is watching


Sometimes the ethical lines are drawn very clearly. Take, for instance, the recent college admissions cheating scandal. It is a little more than just “nudging the scales” if you find yourself hiring someone to photoshop your child’s face onto the photograph of a kid who is actually getting out of bed before dawn and practicing his pole vaulting every single day.

But what happens when those lines are not quite so clear? What about the smaller infractions we might be committing in service of supposedly helping our children. For instance, what are we modeling for our kids when we lobby their teachers to change a grade, and teach them to call this “self-advocacy?” Or when we harangue their Little League coach into granting more playing time?

These relatively little transgressions also are not a great strategy to raise ethical humans.

Those lines feel even blurrier as we try to figure out the new and ever-changing rules of managing digital reputations. When it comes to social media and their digital devices, it is easy to tell children to clean up their act. To scrub their social media profiles and posts. To encourage them not to use their real names, for “safety’s sake.”

How to raise a happy kid in the digital age

In my work, I visit many schools, and sometimes well-meaning parents reassure me: “We have things totally under control, the kids all change their names or make fake accounts in junior year so they can ‘get into college.’ ”

So, about that college threat …

That specter of college admissions looms large over our kids’ lives. Too often, parents and teachers use college as a threat and lean on this external authority (college admissions officers) as somehow greater than our own authority.

The practice is rooted in our own fears, of course — our desperate worries about how to control our hormonal and impulsive middle-schooler after we have handed them a smartphone and the keys to instant global communication. We use threats to drown out our own fears, and in turn, we are creating fourth-graders who worry their standardized test scores will keep them out of college.

Using the “college admissions” threat when teaching kids about their digital footprint sends the wrong messages: 1) That going to a highly selective school is the most important priority. 2) That you cannot be silly or make dumb choices in middle school. 3) That being a good person is something you pretend to do in order to impress others.

We overvalue the first point and are completely off-base in the second. Do we really believe students are being denied entry into elite Ivy League schools because of silly seventh-grade selfies? Or those “bad words” in that one group text?

Yes, there is truly egregious behavior (the Harvard scandal or the Rochester cheating incident, for example), but we need to be realistic about the consequences of relatively minor actions. Tweens can be silly and impulsive, but if colleges wouldn’t admit anyone with a middle school silly selfie, campuses would be empty.

And on the question of character, consider the case of Harvard retracting admission because of social media posts: Getting your Harvard admission rescinded should not be the only reason parents should be troubled about their children mocking sexual assault or making light of the Holocaust. It goes much deeper than that. Shouldn’t we teach kids to avoid cruel jokes whether or not a college is shining a flashlight on them at that moment?

How do we go deeper?

To go deeper, remove the threat. Our children’s actions speak to who they are and who they want to become. If we substitute this lesson for superficial threats and extrinsic motivations, we are telling our kids the wrong things about college, about life and about how they conduct themselves.

Authenticity matters. Don’t we want to teach our middle-schoolers to be their authentic selves? To be the type of friend whom other friends do not worry will share their secrets, make fun of them or make them feel bad? Not to abuse substances to keep their brain sharp, not because if Princeton sees you holding a red cup they will not let you in.

Start the conversation with your children from a positive place. Show them how to align their actions with being a good person: “I know you are a good friend, but that kind of attempt at humor might make it hard to see that you are.”

Ask questions so your child learns to be self-reflective. For instance, ask your child if they have ever met someone whose social media presence was very different from how they act in person. What does your child think about that disconnect? What could they do to correct it in themselves?

The pressure of perfection

Digital mistakes are inevitable. Kids will mess up! Just like adults, kids will make digital mistakes in relationships and in a more public way as well. It is part of the learning process, which we can say from experience is (unfortunately!) a lifelong endeavor.

We need to lower the stakes. Our kids’ digital lives should not be a high-wire act, where in one mistake, you can ruin your life. Is this what we want to say to 11- or 15 year-olds? No! We want to tell them to do their best, think before they post and apologize (and change their behavior) when they slip up. It is a correctable misstep, not a fatal fall.

This is where my mantra of “mentoring over monitoring” is best deployed. When we are open and honest about our own mistakes — and how we attempt to correct them — it relieves kids of the pressure of perfection. It gives them a model to map their own mistakes.

For instance, was there a time you shared news that was not supposed to be public yet? Or hit “reply all” when you should not have? Or said something via text message that should have been face-to-face?

Sharing these examples with kids shows them how to take responsibility for their own actions, how to learn from them. You do not apologize just because you got caught — you apologize because you want to ask for forgiveness, to limit the amount of harm you have caused and ultimately, to do better next time.

Let your kids know we will all make mistakes, but at least we can try to avoid making the same ones again and again, and to hold ourselves and one another accountable, but also engage in forgiveness.

It’s not about getting caught

Our kids are growing up more public than ever, and this separation of identities — digital vs. “IRL” — can surface issues we have not dealt with before. The college admissions scandal is a great opportunity to talk with your kids about strength of character, doing the right thing and how misrepresenting yourself will eventually backfire.

It is a good thing the cheaters got caught. But the message of a digital citizenship should not be “don’t get caught.” Instead, it should be about being the same good person in digital relationships that we are in our in-person relationships. To be as honest with what we post and comment as we would be face-to-face.

Though new technologies can create new landscapes to navigate, the essentials remain the same. To crib from the famous John Wooden quote, we want to teach our children to act right even “when no one is watching.” Not even that college admissions officer.

Devorah Heitner is the founder of Raising Digital Natives and the author of “Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World,” a guide for mentoring digital kids. Her curriculum for grades 4 to 8 is called Connecting Wisely in the Digital Age. She is delighted to be raising her own digital native.

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