Person text messaging on smart phone.

Recently, I was part of a panel discussion about kids and technology. A mom in the audience shared a situation she’d encountered with her son. He is new to texting, and as the texts came through to her son, she was reading them on her iPad, an arrangement they had agreed upon when he started texting.

One evening, the conversation turned “inappropriate” and her son reminded his friends, “Hey remember my mom can see all of this.” At this, the boys ramped up their language. Her son walked downstairs and said to his mom, “What should I do?” The mom suggested he say he had to eat dinner and exit the conversation.

“Success!” I thought, from my seat on the panel. The boy is learning how to use a new tool properly, communicating with his mom about his experience, and bowing out when things get weird. Even better, his mom didn’t turn the problem into a bigger deal, and that bodes well for her son continuing to trust her.

When it comes to learning how to use any new tool, whether it be a pocket knife or a texting app, parents should be involved in teaching and monitoring safety – at first. And then as time goes on, parents should become less and less involved.

After sharing the incident, the mom then asked, “So, do I tell the other moms their boys were being inappropriate?”

To tell or not to tell? “Inappropriate” can mean a lot of things. If the boys were plotting to hurt or humiliate someone else, then yes, this mom should tell their parents. But if they were being gross, obnoxious, rude boys, I say let it go.

Remember when you were young and you’d spend hours on the phone talking to your friends? No kid does that anymore because texting has taken over as the primary mode of conversation for tweens and teens. But had my mom listened in on my phone conversations, she would have heard me say a lot of inappropriate things. As a young and socially inexperienced person, I was sometimes mean, sometimes gross, and sometimes way out of line. Every kid tests his or her own boundaries. That’s how they start to grow up. The queasiness in my stomach or the ache in my heart when I crossed that line is what helped me learn from those mistakes.

When we hover over our kids’ social interactions, on high alert to catch each mistake and steer them back on course, we squelch their internal barometer for embarrassment and guilt.

Had my mom listened to all my conversations and called my behavior out into the light, I might not have learned to read my moral compass. Instead, I imagine I would have gotten angry at her because it’s easier to feel angry than embarrassed. I would have focused my emotions on the betrayal and the injustice of having been exposed, rather than wallowing in – and learning from – my own guilt.

The other panelist disagreed., “I would want to know if my kids were misbehaving.”

To which I thought, “Really?”

Why do we want to know everything our kids are thinking or saying or doing? Don’t they deserve the same independence we had so they can both achieve success and make mistakes without us hovering, analyzing and giving feedback on their every move? Tweens are biologically and developmentally driven to take risks, after all.

If a kid is in real danger (physical, emotional or moral), then an adult should absolutely help. Sometimes that’s telling the parent and sometimes it’s intervening to let the kid know directly what’s wrong with what you observed. If you see a party at my house and I’m out of town, of course I want you to tell me, but more important, the first thing I want you to do is go into my house and break up the party. I love and need a good village. But if my son said he was going to see Inside Out and then snuck into Terminator, I probably don’t need to know. Better than telling me would be if you tapped my boy on the shoulder and whispered, “It’s super scary” before he went into the film. That should kick that guilt barometer into action nicely.

A big part of growing up is learning how to handle mistakes. I recently listened to an interview with the owner of my city’s minor league baseball team. He said (and I’m paraphrasing) that at a Knights game, you’re going to see coaches make decisions that aren’t good for a win, but are very good for player development. In other words, the coach will purposefully let players make mistakes in order to learn. Before they get called up to the Chicago White Sox, our Knights players use this time to experiment with form and function on the field so that in the big leagues, they are prepared for any situation.

Remember with parenting, we’re also playing the long game. It’s worth letting a few balls go by you to teach kids how to chase them down themselves.

Michelle Icard is the author of Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years. Her web site is  www.MichelleintheMiddle.com.

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