This is the second of two columns in which Hesham Hassaballa, father of three daughters and longtime Beliefnet contributor, explores the challenges of raising moral and faith-conscious children of the texting and social networking generation.
Being a parent in the 21st century presents challenges that are unprecedented. The technology available to our children is unlike any our nation has ever seen before. My daughters are making Powerpoint presentations for school--something completely unheard of when I was their age. Through cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, and social networking sites, our children can be connected to an entire world of people. It is simply amazing.
But at the same time, with this tremendous technological advance comes potential danger. Online predators abound on the internet, and who knows how many 11-year-old "friends" on Facebook are actually 41-year-old pedophiles looking for their next victim. Our children do not want to be left out of these social networks--Lord knows how much I hated to feel like an outsider when I was a kid--but at the same time, they may not understand how dangerous our world truly is. And we do not want them to find out the hard way.
Standing in the middle of all this are parents, and we struggle to find the right balance between allowing our children to experience the world around them and protecting them from harm. I know I struggle with this dilemma, and I don't know where to draw the line. But I have to figure this out soon, because, although my daughters are young now, they will soon be asking for their own cell phone, then a computer, then a Facebook account, then car, then ... who knows.
As a Muslim, I naturally try to answer my parenting questions with my faith: What would Islam advise about parenting our children in the age of cell phones, chatrooms, instant messaging,YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace? Well, nothing specifically, but it does lay down principles from which I can base my parenting goals. After reflecting for a long time, for which I am glad that I had to write this column, I have tried to come up with a few basic fundamentals when it comes to raising my kids in this high-tech era. Hopefully these tips will be of use to you:
Teach Kids that God Loves Them
One thing I wish I had been taught growing up was that God loved me. I was taught that God will punish me if I do anything wrong. I admit, it kept me in line as a teenager: I really never got into trouble. But that was also because I had a number of goals I wanted to accomplish in life, and so I made a "deal" of sorts with God: If You give me what I want, I will do what You want.
But this kind of teaching is fraught with danger, because the child can grow up with an image of a God that is cold, distant, and cruel-hearted. That is not the God whom I worship now. The God to whom I bow five times daily is a beautiful, loving, merciful, kind Lord, always ready and willing to embrace me when I come calling. He loves to shower His grace and mercy over his devoted servant, and He does not tire from hearing our incessant begging for more.
Whenever we do make a mistake, His forgiveness is overwhelming and readily accessible. Everything we have in our lives is a direct result of His love and mercy, and I want my children to know that through and through. Because if they know how much God loves them (and Islam teaches us that God loves us 70 times more than our own mother does), then hopefully they will want to do the right thing to honor that love.
Teach Kids to Live in the Light of God’s Love
Once children know and understand that God loves them, the next step is to live in the light of that love. This means that since God loves us so much, it is only right and honorable that we love Him back. And we must show that love for God by doing what God asks of us to the best of our ability. That means staying away from the things that God does not like. So would God like us to avoid Facebook? I don't know the exact answer, but I believe He would not want us to lose ourselves in it. He wants us to be modest in our deeds and actions—in person and online. When couched in the perspective of loving God back for all of His undying love, it is not a burden, but a welcome sacrifice for one's Beloved.
If I can teach my children to love and honor God because He loved us first, that will go a long way toward making them be good, upright children who do not get into trouble. But relying solely on this is horribly naïve, I know. I remember what it was like to be a teenager: So many forces pulling in so many different directions. It is a maddening time of one's life, and truly, you could not pay me enough money to relive those years of my life. So, along with teaching our children that God loves them and to live in that love, we have to inject some practicality when it comes to raising our kids in the 21st century.
Keep the Computer in a Public Place at Home
Even if our teenagers are St. Peter or Imam Ali walking on earth, they are teenagers: They are susceptible to mischief and vulnerable to those who would harm them. I think it is reasonable to have the computer in a central place in the home so that what our kids are doing online is visible to the whole family, especially the parents. That includes laptops--no laptops in the bedroom. If what my kid is doing online should not be seen by my eyes, then it should not be done.
Facebook, but with a Parental "Friend"
So many people are on Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites, and I know that soon, very soon, my daughters will be asking to go on Facebook. I am quite torn about this: Most of my friends and family are on Facebook, and thus far, I have resisted the temptation to join them (for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which is lack of time). Yet, it can be a nice forum to keep in touch with friends and family and share photos and messages. There is a positive value to social networking sites. So, what to do? Well, I know that I will probably cave and let them have an account, but with a number of conditions.
First, they cannot put whatever they want on their Facebook page. Second, only their real friends should be given access to their Facebook information, and I reserve the right to know who these friends are. And their Facebook page is subject to random "spot inspections" to make sure there are no strangers who have asked to be their friends. It will be a tricky situation, because I'm sure my kids will feel that I'm invading their privacy. But I hope to avoid this feeling by explaining to them why I need to check up on them—not because I don't trust them, but because I know of the temptation around them.
Social networking can be a tremendous time sink, and it is of the utmost importance that Facebook not take away from schoolwork. If their grades begin to suffer because of Facebook, then ... poof! The account disappears into thin air. A good idea is to let the children have a Facebook account with me as a "friend." That way I can keep a loving eye on my baby's online activities ... and I can be "hip" at the same time.
Cell phone? Yes, but with Limitations
A cell phone can be a life-saver: If something were to happen to my child, I want her to have a way to communicate with me and my wife immediately. But cell phones can be another portal for danger, especially with the cell phones of today. They are not just phones. They are internet browsers, cameras, MP3 players, video players, televisions, and video cameras. Now I would not want to make my daughter the laughing stock of the school by getting her a cell phone with minimal capability. (But she won't get the latest Blackberry either ... that's for me!). Thus, the same issues apply to the cell phone: She can have one, but there will be limitations on who she can call, text, send photos, etc. And, again, the phone is subject to random inspections, just to be sure that the people in her contacts folder are people we know and trust.
Of course, this is going to be a work in progress, and I know there will be rough patches along the way. Still, I think my generation has an advantage over my parents' generation when it comes to raising high-tech kids.I know what it is like growing up in America--something my parents did not experience. Thus, I can relate to some of the pressures they are facing. And, although I am not a computer specialist, I am still quite familiar with the ins and outs of technology (I am thoroughly addicted to my Blackberry), and thus when I am talking to my child, hopefully we will both be speaking the same language. Again, something that was not true with my parents.
At the end of the day, I think a very important component of this is open, honest communication with our kids about how challenging it is to be a kid today. They should know that all this fretting over their online and cellular lives is out of love for them; we are not trying to torture them. And, we as parents must learn to trust our children, especially if we have done all that we can to instill spiritual, moral values in them. But still, kids will be kids. Thus, I will operate with an age-old principle: Trust, but verify. I may be a dumb parent, but I am not stupid, either.