parents

Parental advisory

Warning – this blog will intentionally question the concept of parent. Some language will be unfamiliar and offense could be taken if you subscribe to narrowly prescribed notions of family. Viewing may lead to questions that may not have simple answers.

There is nothing more grating than the question ‘do you have children?’ I fall into some sort of suspended animation or alternative dimension when I hear it, where all possibilities are present for the correct answer but I have to pick the one that will satisfy the person asking because everyone has a different formula for the ‘right’ ratio of parents to children ranging from 0 to…. probably not an extremely high number perhaps the teens? I’m never sure how they will respond but EVERYONE has an opinion about it and they usually feel entitled to tell me, even if they know nothing else about who I am. This is because the universal experience of life is to have a family – however it is put together, what we ‘know’ about it from experience has more than likely influenced a default sense of ‘what works’.

Once you get to a particular age the question becomes more earnest or takes on different meaning depending on the context and probably gender and other intersections of time and space. I am able to take up the social position recognised as parent although I’m not sure that I’d say I fit the expected ‘mum’ or ‘dad’ role – that in itself will invite some consternation from people determined to make the one ‘giving birth’ mum and the complementary ‘Donator of DNA’ Dad. Parenting has become a bit like career planning, with plenty of guidelines, willing coaches, experts, advice, and shoulders to cry on if it doesn’t go well. The other alternative is parenting is like reality TV, where we get edited versions and scripts that appear natural but really aren’t. Either way it seems to be a little weird.

There are many people parenting children who are not recognised for this. I meet many ‘mumsters’ in my job, young women in their teens with many siblings who take on a significant parent role but have to navigate the delicate power dynamics with parents and maintaining a sense of themselves. Rather than talking about ‘half’ and ‘step’ I think it’s important to name the quality of the role and the unique positions they afford people. Kiwis love to use the words Cuz (cousin) and Bro (anyone of either gender for whom you feel affection) so it shouldn’t be so hard to spread that openness to parenting.

Today marked 8 years of sharing life with this amazing and beautiful young being and what I appreciate about that is the young person who allows me to take up this role has an opportunity to see that regardless of the body parts I may or may not have I am genuinely interested in their life and how I can support them to feel confident, open, and curious about the world. If I can do that well and keep a sense of perspective on my role and how important I am/not while allowing for mistakes, falls, upsets and apologies (me included), then I might consider I’m doing an ok job.

Blood is thicker than water, it dries up, cracks, gets diseases and stains if you get it on your clothes. Water is part of everything and can exist in many forms – I’ll take water over blood any time.

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Dodgy Digits

My line of work puts me at the scroll face of online abuse, bullying and harassment of young people. Whilst I like to think of myself as youthful I cannot claim any knowledge of what it might be like to be growing into a young adult with so many ways to connect, share thoughts, ideas and more. Taking more clothing off and sharing these pictures with others is a growing phenomenon. I’ve been consulting with police and other agencies recently. It might be a bit hard for many parents to hear but if you have a child who knows how to use a phone and is socially networked you might need to be aware of the new harmful digital communications act.

The uncomfortable truth is young people in their teens are growing an awareness of sexuality, desire and taking risks, pushing boundaries. Some of these edges are new as technology creates alternative mediums and relationships. Parents are playing ‘catch up’ and while the act defines the law it will not necessarily prevent harm, distress, upset and deep regret. One consistent message I’d like to give is for parents to try and not ‘freak out’ and send their teen back into the dark ages of the 1990’s – which to them is last century…metaphorically. If they get it wrong, support them, listen and try and suspend judgement. I’ll come back to support later.

So what should people know? This is just my summary (the act is much more detailed and I do encourage people to read it)

First the act defines harmful as that which if any reasonable person was put in the same position then they would be highly offended. There are 10 criteria that define offensive, a digital communication should not…

1: disclose sensitive personal facts

2: be threatening, intimidating, or menacing

3: be grossly offensive to a reasonable person in the same position

4: be indecent or obscene

5: be used to harass

6: make a false allegation

7: contain things published in breach of confidence

8: incite or encourage anyone to send a message to someone to purposely cause harm

9: incite or encourage someone to commit suicide

10: put someone down (denigrate) for their colour, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability

One of the issues we face is that cameras are out all the time. It is not a crime to take pictures of people in public unless they could expect a privacy. This covers changing rooms, bathrooms, showers. But if they are posted online without someones consent the above criteria kick in.

A tricky bit for young people is the sharing of images with friends or somewhere like facebook. When talking with police recently they were very clear that once an image was ‘shared’ it was a form of consent. I’m not sure I agree and others would naturally challenge this. The issue is the ability to control that image and where it goes. Facebook profile pictures are some of the most common images uplifted and used in other places. So check you profile pics folks. Shutting down and removing images takes time and in my experience it is the worry, fear, anxiety and shame and humiliation that lasts much longer. The rumours start fairly instantaneously and once spinning are very difficult to stop.

If there are sexually suggestive images being shared of any young person under the age of 16 this is also legally classified as child pornography. So yup it’s serious. Your teens need to know this stuff! They also need to know where to get support. Hopefully they can talk to someone in their family. If not someone at school, or netsafe (nz) or the police. If you know someone who is being pressured to send pictures they can use the ‘send this instead’ app.

But we need more open conversations not just ‘thou shalt not take selfies’ lectures. Young people need to lead these conversations in schools. Peer Sexuality Support Teams, Body Image Leaders, Mediators, Prefects…others with capital letters of importance!

Many of us will shake our greying heads and recall the only harmful digital communications we knew about growing up was giving the fingers or making rude words on our calculators. Times change and we need to zero in and be one.