A Plea to Parents
Governments and IT companies aren’t responsible for protecting your children — you are!
Yet again, we hear of parents and social workers and other groups screaming at governments and IT companies: “Our children are being exposed to pornography on the internet! Do something about it!”
Now I am not about to debate the issues around pornography -that’s already been done too often to mention. It is clear that ‘hard core’ pornography has deleterious effects on its consumers and is exploitative and abusive of those who appear in it. It is also equally clear that, like prostitution, pornography is as old as civilisation. Both of these have, at different times and in different places, been driven underground, tolerated or celebrated. Neither has ever been completely expunged, nor ever will be unless the human sex-drive diminishes radically.
However, there has almost always been, except in the most decadent of civilisations, a general acceptance that such things are the province of adults. Though the idea of when childhood ends has varied from culture to culture, this has pretty much been a constant. The other constant has been the notion that the primary responsibility for the discipline, moral education and protection of children rests with their parents (with exceptions such as ancient Sparta).
I therefore humbly (and doubtless unpopularly) urge that before kicking off at governments, teachers and IT companies, parents should look to their own behaviour.
The magic word
Such a word does exist. Once, it was the most commonly-used one in the parental vocabulary, but it seems to have fallen into disuse. It is short word, a simple word, but one of great power. Are you ready? The word is ‘no’.
‘No’, as in:
“No, you may not have a smartphone.” Why anyone under 18 might need such a device is beyond me. Why any reasonable parent would purchase such an expensive and powerful piece of kit for a 12-year-old is equally incomprehensible. If you feel that your child must have a mobile/cell phone then give them one which only makes and receives calls and SMS messages, and lock it to your number.
“No, you may not have a tablet/laptop of your own, in your room.” These devices are not toys, to be played with unsupervised. They are expensive, and they are dangerous! If your kids have to use them make sure they’re doing it where you can watch them!
“No, you may not use the internet unsupervised.” The internet is without doubt a powerful research tool, and in this age of bookless houses students of all ages may need to use it for homework, projects and so forth. As a parent, you should be ready, willing and able to supervise any such research. It goes without saying (or should, but I have to say it anyway) that if your children do have their own accounts on a family computer, these should be User accounts only, and unable to access the internet.
“No, you may not keep your Xbox/Nintendo/PlayStation in your room.” Because you need to monitor what they are playing (hint: Minecraft good, Grand Theft Auto bad), how long for (couple of hours OK but more than that is pushing it for a youngster), and when (sunny summer days should be spent outside, where possible). Also, while online multiplayer gaming does have certain social benefits, you still need to be aware of what is being said (hence no headsets, either).
“No, you may not have a FaceBook/Twitter/Tik-Tok/Instagram etc. account.” You want to talk to your friends, go talk to them. Face-to-face, like real people. Why? Because then you know they are who they say they are! Plus their parents are around to keep an eye on things. Get your social circle from school, church, Scouts, Little League -places where you meet physically in real life so you can see who’s who. Too many kids these days have no idea how to interact face-to-face with new people because most of their social lives are online. Some years ago, I saw a cartoon — a somewhat overweight, bearded young man lying stunned on the pavement was being anxiously observed by the driver of the car responsible while another pedestrian was looking at a smart phone and saying “He’s a Pokemon Go player. Most of them have never been outdoors!” Be less funny if it were less true!
“No, you may not have a TV in your room.” Do I really have to explain this? The plethora of digital channels available, even on the most economic of packages, means that any kind of programming can be accesssed at any time of day by anyone literate enough to read the channel guide. You need to know, and indeed exercise control over, what they’re watching.
I beg your pardon?
“Do you expect me to spend all my time looking after the children?” I hear you scream. “Don’t I get to have a life?”
Let me be clear. For both fathers and mothers equally, looking after your children is your life. Everything else, career, social life, hobbies, religion, sports, sex, whatever, takes second place. That’s the commitment you made when you decided to become parents.
You do what you have to do to house, feed and clothe your family. But never forget that they are your first concern. They are the reason you work; not to get rich, not to get famous, but to provide for your kids. But remember, no amount of money, fancy toys, vacations at DisneyWorld and big houses will make up for your absence from their lives. Kids will settle for less material wealth if they know that their parent or parents will be there for every play, every concert, every game, every ceremony. Is missing family dinner for weeks, days, years really going to be made right by a UHD TV? No, it isn’t, they need you more than they need a sharper picure of Peppa Pig!
I know, it’s not always possible. Capitalism isn’t so much a harsh mistress as she is a sociopathic dominatrix, always ready and eager to heap more humiliation on those under her sway. But I find that those with the least resource often do more and better for their kids than the wealthy and privileged, who seem to believe that material possessions will answer all needs. The poor, it seems, often try harder to do the right thing.
I also fully understand that not every family is a two-parent one. But where it is, Dad, you don’t get a free pass. I began and ended my career in a humble administrative post. One reason I never got promoted was me: I’m too stiff-necked to get my head up my own arse and too fastidious to shove it up somebody elses’. But the other, and more important, was that I was not prepared to live as the managers and other high-ups did. The constant phone calls to kids and partners explaining that they had to stay late for a meeting, or to finish a report. Facing the end of the year with three weeks leave allowance unused, and afraid to take even a day of it. Checking emails daily when on leave and phoning in every so often to ‘check on something’. The whole elaborate, exhausting process of proving how important and indispensable they were.
Me, I’d rather have dinner with my family every night. Spend leave on family holidays, take flexi-days to attend school concerts and prize-givings. I never missed a birthday party, not one. Because a fancier title and a few pounds extra a month would never substitute for my little girls’ hugs and my sons’ cheeky grin.
So, parents, in the end, your kids are your responsibility, nobody elses’. Of course the government should support you, but they have a whole country to run. Of course the IT companies could exercise more care, but they have millions of customers to provide for -most of whom want grown-up, if not necessarily pornographic, material on tap without having to wade through layers of protection intended to dissuade tech-savvy kids or teens.
No, IT companies do not always take the care they should to keep offensive or dangerous material offline or behind effective protection. That needs to be dealt with by regulatory bodies, but organising the internet is going to be like herding cats. No, governments do not do nearly enough to support parents and parenting -IMO a stay-at-home parent should receive allowances equivalent to a decent professional salary. Why? Because they’re doing a bloody difficult, exhausting, 24/7 job, that’s why! But we’ll have to work hard to get any political party to support that idea. And no, I don’t believe it should always be Mum who stays at home. I know men who are very good with children and know exactly how to deal with them, while I also know women I wouldn’t trust to look after a pet rock!
But even if this Utopia should arrive, the responsibility for children still begins and ends with their parents. By all means urge governments and companies to do their jobs, but not until you’re sure you’re doing your own job properly!