There is an unfinished bit of parenting business rattling around my head that I just can’t lay to rest. My son would tell you it’s over, yesterday’s news. And in some ways, I am proud of the parenting I did. I remained calm(ish). I didn’t escalate the situation. For my son, it is genuinely settled. But I am not settled because I feel like I’ve neglected my duty—not to my son, but as a member of the larger parenting village.
Several weeks ago, my son received this message on Xbox:
The message, from a boy my son knows through school, was the first of several, all equally profane, angry and appalling (I've blocked out the worst parts and any identifying screen names, but you can get the idea). One thing you should probably know right off the bat is that both boys (the message sender and my son) are not African American (nor any other minority ethnicity, from what I can tell). Their school is in a suburb that is tied for the whitest town in our state. The jab, therefore, is not only hateful, it’s confusingly racist and also inapplicable. It’s as if the sender searched his memory for the foulest words he could think of, shook them up, and then poured them out in random order.
When I first read the messages, I was horrified. I began mentally planning meetings with the school principal and phone calls to the boy’s parents. I was a mama-warrior, and I wasn’t going to let this happen to my son without a fight.
When I showed a screen shot of the offending messages to my septuagenarian father, venting and expecting to be cheered onward into battle, he surprised me by laughing. He said it reminded him of when he was a kid and they would say a list of every really bad word they knew all in a row as fast as they could, which effectively took the meaning out of all of the curses. His laughter took a little of the bluster out of my reaction (thankfully), and I decided to change my approach. I would attempt to end this line of messaging without escalating the situation for my son. (We all know there’s nothing like a marauding she-warrior mother to collapse the social hopes of a junior high boy.)
The result was a reserved message sent from me to the young perpetrator on Xbox: “Hi. This is xxxxx’s mom. I have all of your messages saved. Please stop sending them.” (If you’ve ever tried to type with an Xbox controller, you will understand that my missive was a huge accomplishment.) The messages stopped immediately, my son was able to play it off by saying that I was in the room when the messages popped up onscreen, and the sideways giggling glances toward me at school events commenced. I've made a point to say a friendly hello to Xbox boy at those occasional plays and basketball games (but my eyes whisper, “I’m watching you”).
So in a way, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. The stream of messages has stopped. The situation was no big deal among the social ranks of the school, and the kids have moved on to other daily dramas.
But in another way, I’ve completely failed that young man.
He deserves a chance to learn from this experience. His parents deserve the chance to help him learn from this. And, frankly, the rest of us could learn from this, too.
It’s not just the lesson that you might expect, either. If I were his mom, of course I would want to talk to him about the anger and the bitterness and the awful, socially inappropriate words he chose to use to convey his frustration at being a middle school boy navigating the waters of shifting friendships ("[mutual friend] does not like u bit@h"). But beyond that, I would want him to learn that his words are now out there…forever. We have reached an age where many of our statements are no longer just funny memories for our 70-year-old selves to laugh at decades from now over lattes with our own daughters. Messages that you text or Facebook or tweet or otherwise put out there into the universe now are out there permanently. Even if you jot them down the old-fashioned way, cell phone cameras and YouTube and Tumblr ensure that a forever-reminder may only be a few clicks away. These images and statements become a layer in the archaeological record that you leave of yourself for the world to unearth. What kind of record are your own kids leaving? What about you?
Do you want to be the boy I knew when my sons were younger whose Facebook page (at the age of thirteen) proudly proclaimed that his favorite quote was, “It’s not rape, it’s surprise sex”? Do you want to be the acquaintance whose f-bomb-littered status updates turn up regularly in my father’s Facebook ticker since he is also my “friend” online? What about the teenage girl from our local area whose boyfriend uploaded a video of her performing sexual favors and then shared the link with his friends? You can delete photos and videos and posts and ill-conceived messages, but you have to assume that someone, somewhere downloaded a copy or created a screen shot or somehow otherwise captured your moment of infamy forever.
As we each create the layers of our own archeology, we need to think about what they are going to say to the world about the kind of people we are. I sometimes swear like a trucker, but is that the side of me I want the world to unearth when they look into who I am online? How would I feel if the person who mined that particular layer was my best friend’s grandmother… a future employer or client… my own mother?
As a mom, I have always tried to drive home to my own kids how important it is that they never put anything out there that they wouldn’t want seen by everyone. This boy apparently thought his message was funny when he sent it to my son. I think it became a little embarrassing when he realized it had been read by me. I wonder how he’d feel knowing my son’s grandpa read it. (Not to mention all of you.)
Forever is a long time to have your mistakes out in the world.