The Knucklehead, like his Papa, tends toward the introvert. That’s not to say he lacks social skills, or doesn’t enjoy the company of friends. He does. But, like all introverts, it’s from within that he draws his strength, his refreshment. Fully charged, he’s ready for a night out with friends. For the extrovert, a night out is recharging. For the introvert, the recharging is done in solitude.
Still, I was concerned by The Knucklehead’s Facebook “Friend Flush” a few days after his high school graduation. Knucks has never been one to rack up the “friends” online, so his count of 150-ish was modest, if not monkish for a teenager.* So to find that he had suddenly slashed his friend list down to less than 60 individuals raised a parental red flag. Was The Knucklehead withdrawing from society? He didn’t appear depressed, but that didn’t seem like something I could afford to ignore. After all, the transition from high school to college is an enormous life event, by definition a stressor. At best, this seemed like a callous discarding of human beings. Would these people not later be missed? Was this not discourtesy? Snobbery? Should I be concerned about latent sociopathic tendencies? A quick check on his page showed that all his closest friends were still there (as was I, thankfully). Still….
“Are you sure about this? This seems pretty harsh.”
“It’s OK, Dad,” Knucks replied smiling. “I’ve actually been looking forward to this all semester.”
The larger issue behind this was guiding one’s knucklehead through the ethics of a technology that didn’t exist in ones’s own knuckleheadhood. For most of us, our default parenting comes from those who raised us. How was this handled when I was a kid? For good or ill, that’s our starting point, and we make decisions (consciously or unconsciously) based on what we were taught. We didn’t have Facebook when I was a kid. Or cell phones, cable television, Netflix, The Internet, Tae Kwon Do, Lady Gaga, or Duck Dynasty. Hell, I was born into a world with no designated hitter. It’s not that my parents didn’t have the challenge of new technologies. I just don’t think they had this many of them.
The Internet alone was bewildering. I felt like I had no template at all for raising a kid in an online world, not even a template I could disagree with. Just nothing. Parental controls baffled me. I wasn’t sure how they worked, was concerned about what would still get through, or what might be unfairly kept out. I was certain that The Knucklehead at an early age knew more about computers than I did, so I couldn’t be sure he wasn’t clever enough by age 11 to get around whatever software I used to “protect” him in the first place. My solution turned out to be low-tech. We kept our one computer in a high-traffic area, right between the kitchen and the TV room. You knew for certain that literally any second, anyone walking by couldn’t miss what was on the monitor (I learned early on to shop for gifts for my wife while she was in the shower).
Facebook etiquette alone is baffling to me, and I’m an adult. We seem to be making it up as we go along. Does “liking” a post or comment indicate agreement? Or just acknowledgement of the person? To bring an article or website to a friend’s attention, should I send a private message? Planting something right on someone’s page seems a little forward, or is that just me? Perhaps a link is better used as a comment? What is a “friend” on Facebook, anyway? And what the hell are “pokes”? Greetings? Nagging “why-haven’t-I-heard-from-you”s? Flirtations? I lost a friend on Facebook simply for asking that question. If we’re still trying to learn this stuff, how can we teach it to our kids? Especially when they seem to know the medium better than we do?
One day, I realized the answer was simple, and it was right in front of me. And it was the same answer our parents had, and their parents before them.
I would teach my Knucklehead ethics. I would teach him courtesy and respect for fellow humans and the world around him. I would teach him to be a citizen of his town and of the planet. But I would teach him in the venues I knew, and I would trust him to carry those values into strange new lands.
When my son played soccer, I taught him about fair play, and being a good teammate. I knew his life wouldn’t be spent on the soccer field, but he would carry those lessons off it. We talked about how to be a good friend. How to be considerate in school. How to be watchful for the person who was being left out, or bullied. How that would feel if it were happening to us. How grateful we would feel for a friend to come along. In a thousand little comments and conversations over the course of his childhood, we talked about personal ethics. About loyalty, integrity, and warmth. About how to speak to a server in a restaurant, a salesperson, a stranger, a coach, a teacher, a child, an elder. About being attentive and respectful in a relationship, and the fulfillment that would bring. About how to care for the dog. Whenever I saw him in a situation that was familiar to me (and those still make up a significant slice of life in this ever-changing world), I talked about what I did in the same situation. Or, more often, what I now wished I’d done. And then I learned (slowly, to the sometimes-exasperation of The Knucklehead) to sit back and trust my kid to carry those lessons appropriately into places I’d never been before.
That’s when it occurred to me that I was nuts to try to teach my kid Facebook etiquette. I’d taught him to be courteous. He knew Facebook better than me. I was the one who should be turning to him.
And when I stopped worrying I realized the Friend Flush was brilliant. Over the summer it was the only change in his social life, so I stopped fretting that it was a harbinger of larger depression or dysfunction. I realized that his real friends, the people he cared about, laughed with, and turned to for counsel, he tended to communicate with mostly outside of Facebook, and about more serious or intimate matters. He used Facebook with those friends for what it was best at: sharing movie previews and funny videos. The rest of it, to him, didn’t matter. It was just clutter. So the Friend Flush wasn’t really removing friends. Not the real ones. It was all about removing clutter. Cleaning the feed of stuff that truly did not matter. It was brilliant.
Now, I use Facebook differently than The Knucklehead does. For me, it keeps me in contact with select people from different parts in my life that are in different parts of the country. I did not grow up in the rural town in which I now live, and often find myself on the outside of local values, so I can still “converse” with friends with whom I feel less like a stranger, especially when talking politics and world issues. I can talk Red Sox during a game with my New England pals, and crack wise during the Oscar broadcast with my movie pals.
But there’s a lot to weed through in my news feed to get to the stuff important to me, and it is there that my Knucklehead taught me a valuable lesson in simplifying and clarifying my life. That’s what the Friend Flush was all about. Clearing out the vanity, the cruelty, the carping, and the vitriol. The stuff that does us no good. It’s brilliant. It’s liberating. Thank you, Knucklehead!
Here’s my version of the Friend Flush: Whenever Facebook notifies me that it’s someone’s birthday, I do one of two things. I wish that person a happy birthday. Or I “unfriend” him. My criterion? Whether or not I’ve heard from that person in the past year. Simple. If it’s someone I can’t afford to “unfriend” (we all have people like that) I block his feed. Should that person need me, or should I need him, we can always get back in touch. In the meantime, my life is simpler, as is the life of my not-so-friend-after-all. Voilà. To paraphrase Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal. It’s Facebook.”
Teach your Knucklehead the social and ethical basics. Do a good job. Then trust her. Your Knucklehead will then become the best person to take your hand and guide you through new territory, using the map you gave her in the first place.
*Not that he’s much of an active citizen of Facebook. Months will often pass in between posts.