OK – this has nothing to do with divorce – or maybe it does. Valentine’s Day. Yes, I know, it was two weeks ago. And for people going through divorce, Valentine’s Day was perhaps just another day. On the other hand, if you have young children, they exude an energy on Valentine’s Day that helps remind us of the deep and unconditional love we feel for our kids. This year, I can’t help but think about the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Going forward, what will Valentine’s Day mean to THEM? Will it be a reminder of the terror, shock, and incredibly grief they experienced? And for the parents of the victims, what will the day represent? Locally, and just one week after the Florida incident, Orono High School was on lock-down due to a threat from a student who is on the autism spectrum. Minnesotans are educated and smart and we know that kids with ASD are not dangerous. The community of Orono responded in a very Minnesotan way: a GoFundMe page was created for the family of the child who made the threat. Unfortunately, the boy is sitting in Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center where a kid with ASD absolutely does NOT belong. Some kids on the spectrum may be impulsive and may not understand how their actions can impact others. They can’t always articulate how and what they feel, so they may not feel heard or understood and may respond in an extreme manner. They aren’t trying to be difficult or make inappropriate choices. But they can’t always discern socially acceptable behavior. The agony this poor boy and his family must feeling! This might be the first time where the perspective of the “actor” in a school down is illustrated, and more empathy and compassion are generated. I feel for ALL the families involved. School lock downs are now a reality for any parent with school-aged children. It makes my heart ache. And so many hearts were truly shattered this Valentine’s Day. Yet here we are, a week later, and a family’s heart is breaking in Orono. It’s overwhelming to see a community embrace this child and his family. But then again, it DOES take a village. So let’s take better care of our village. Let’s take better care of our kids…ALL our kids. Let’s embrace the big and small. Athletic and musical. Quiet and loud. Different and unique. All kids with all abilities. We can do this if we: put down our devices and listen, really LISTEN to our kids. Listen to our neighbors’ kids. Play hide and seek. Yes, I’m serious. It’s fun! Play Chutes and Ladders…again (ok, not so fun). Read Captain Underpants for the umpteenth time. And laugh – genuinely laugh! Your kids will love you for it! And…reduce kids’ screen time and get them the heck off social media. They don’t need it. They WANT it, but their brains just…can’t…handle it. And to be perfectly honest, maybe our grown-up brains can’t either. Instead, dust off your old copies of Charlotte’s Web, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, and Harry Potter. Have your older kids read to you. You’d be surprised what you might learn this time around.
During my childhood, a common folk saying was, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Clearly this adage predated the internet age. Children can be hurt by words, and need our protection. Probably most people you know send texts and are connected to a social media network. Texting and social media are easily accessible and help people feel connected. The average American adult user of social media is plugged in 3.2 hours per day, sharing and receiving information online. Parents and their children often belong to the same social media networks. The impression that text exchanges and social networks are private and personal is problematic. Although there are privacy settings that can restrict sharing to specific online friends, people don’t always use them, nor are online posters always careful to self-filter and think twice about what they share. Even when messages are taken down, what goes up on the internet really never goes away. What does this have to do with protecting children during a divorce? Here are a few cautionary tales:
- A woman who was very hurt and feeling betrayed by her husband posted on Facebook in very colorful language about what a jerk he was, including vivid, angry descriptions of his undesirable qualities. Even though privacy settings were used to limit the posts to her close friends, the Facebook page was up on her opened laptop and read by her son when he arrived home from school, causing him considerable distress.
- A daughter asked to use her dad’s phone and discovered romantic texts he had exchanged with a girlfriend. The shocked daughter shared this information with her mother, and then felt responsible for their subsequent divorce.
- A few months after her parents’ divorce, a child discovered that her mother’s status on her Facebook homepage had been changed to “In a relationship.” This was upsetting to the child, who was still adjusting to the reality if the divorce.