Saturday, May 22, 2010

Online Safety for Families

A little too long ago, someone had asked me if I would be willing to teach a seminar on Internet safety for families. It got back-burnered, as many good ideas do (like this blog, for example...), but I'm realizing for a lot of reasons the need for just such a thing. While I'm working up details, and preparing for kids of my own, I just wanted to share a few principles with you that will aid in managing your family and the computer.

Disclaimer: My parenting experience is limited to pregnancy at this point, so please don't think I'm telling you how to raise your kids. I'm new to the parenting stuff. But I have been around computers my whole life. No, I can't help you fix your laptop/iPod/XBOX/VCD/8-Track, but I have been around the Internet and computers enough to pick up on a few things.

1) Access goes both ways. The ability to reach out across vast distances has opened up a great wide world to our kids. It's also opened up them to that world. It goes without saying that your two year old isn't ready to cross the street yet, and your eight year old isn't ready for that solo trip to the mall. The Internet is a lot like the mall, actually. You have access to all kinds of cool and interesting and fun stuff. But that access goes both ways. And just the same as you monitor your child's access to the street/public places/car based on their age and maturity, the same should be true of Internet access. Your first line of defense is limiting the devices they have access to. It's very easy to get on line with a wide variety of gadgets besides the family computer now, including cell phones, video game systems (such as newer versions of the Nintendo DS, which I see almost everywhere now), and even some music players. Know what devices can get to the Net, and limit your kid's access to them. And remember, although your kids may be better at figuring out the equipment, you're still the one with the mature decision-making processes.

2) Be your kid's best friend. On the site Failbook (caution...not always clean), a Facebook conversation was posted where a teenager had uploaded a picture from a wild party they had been involved with. The first response was priceless. It was the kid's mom saying "ISN'T THAT MY KITCHEN???" While parenting books say that being your kid's best friend isn't the best way to parent, being connected to their various social sites IS. By being their friend/contact/whatever, you have access to what they're posting, who they're chatting with, etc. It gives you a chance to monitor what's going on. Some sites allow parents to moderate their kids interactions ( is a good example). To be honest, you should probably have your kid's password too, because not every interaction is posted where the public or even friends can see it. If you don't want to deal with Facebook, your kids don't need to be on there either.

3) Learn to love privacy. Every online service worth it's salt has privacy settings, that control how much of your information is available to whom. When your kids get onto a service like Facebook or Twitter, these settings should be your first stop. Some services start out with everything, from birthdate to home address, out in the open. Others default to only allowing your friends access to these things. Dig in, and turn those things down to the bare minimum. It's surprising how easy it is to get information on others through social sites. Be the boss of what people can and cannot find out about your kids.

4) Those who don't learn from history... All browsers (the program your computer uses to access web sites) keep a record of the sites you have visited, called a History. Dig around in the settings and find it. And it IS possible to delete or get around it, so look for odd gaps, as well as for what's there. It's not foolproof, but it's a good way to overview activity.

5) Be careful, little mouse, what you click. This is just a general tip. Never click a link that seems fishy. If your Facebook-loving grandma just sent you a video of supermodels in swimsuits, you might want to reconsider clicking it. Viruses can get into email and social services via such methods, and then send out the same link/video/picture/slide show to your friends to spread the problem around. Even PowerPoint presentations can contain malicious code that could affect your computer. If someone sends you something that's suspect, don't click it to investigate. Email them and see if they meant to send it to you or not. Or just delete it.

I leave it in your hands to decide how to apply these things, and with what ages. There's a fine line to tread with your kid's privacy, and every parent has to make their own decision about whether or not to read that open diary on the bed. The same is true about monitoring their online interactions. Be too invasive, and they just learn to get better at hiding it. Leaving it all in their hands has it's own dangers. Cultivate an air of open accountability in your family (that sounds vaguely Methodist...), and build an understanding with them early on that you are helping them to learn to navigate the bigger world. At some point, your 16 year old can probably cross the street by themselves, but that's because you've taught them how to make sure it's safe first.

The Internet can be a great place to meet new people, expand your horizons, and learn all kinds of cool stuff. It also, like real life, has it's back alleys and sketchy neighborhoods. Your best tool is not to know all the latest gadgets and services, but to understand the basic principles they all work on.

I hope this helps you in your journey...

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Balance of Self-Discipline

As I find myself sitting down here in Leesburg, FL, at the Methodist retreat center, waiting for my turn to go before the Board of Ordained Ministry, I am pondering a single word: Discipline. Not the kind of discipline where you put your kid in a corner if they are bad. I'm talking about self-discipline.

I imagine many of you have made Lenten commitments or New Year's resolutions recently, to make positive changes in your life. And while we often start out with rather fabulous intentions to loose weight, give up sugar, spend more time with our kids (my own personal New Year's resolution), etc, it takes self-discipline to carry the thing out. Self-discipline means to create an intentional effort, often in repetitive ways, to do or not do something which you hope to achieve/eliminate. You choose to work out three times a week, set a weekly date with your son or daughter, put a reminder on your calendar to call your sister, make a promise to yourself to read your bible daily.

But self-discipline is a tricky thing to maintain at times. It is a balance between extremes. You are choosing this thing of your own free will. OK, maybe your wife wants you to quit smoking more than you do, but if you're doing something about it, you are exercising your free will. At the same time, you often have to put some structures in place, we call them "boundaries", to make sure these things happen. The alcoholic avoids bars, the Bible Reader sets the alarm clock a little earlier, or turns off the TV after dinner, the jogger meets up with a friend to have accountability. Each of these help us to move in the direction of self-discipline.

Now, as with any balance, there are two ways to fall off this particular bicycle (especially if your commitment is to ride your bicycle every Saturday). Take a look at this line below:

Legalism Rote Habit Discipline Excuses Rebellion Chaos
Harder Softer

Let me explain this little diagram, Which side you run risk of falling off of probably depends as much on your personality and circumstances as anything else. But essentially, it boils down to either become hardened, or softened.

Here's how you get hardened. You set a discipline. You maintain it for a while, push yourself intentionally to start (or stop) this thing. And it's hard work. But after a while, you start to be able to coast. You don't have to be as intentional about it. It has become habit. You wake up to read your Bible at 6am, even if the alarm doesn't go off. You're in the groove now. And you're not in trouble yet. But now that you don't have to be as intentional, as driving about the thing, here's where the danger lies. Habit is discipline without intention. You don't have to think about the's just like breathing. But then it becomes Rote. Rote is Discipline without intention or purpose. You started jogging to get in better shape. Now you do it because you're supposed to. You started going to church to get in touch with Jesus. Now you do it because that's what a Christian is supposed to do. Now you're treading tentative ground...because the last phase is legalism. You do it, you insist others do it, and to do anything else feels downright sinful. You've lost the purpose of why (church attendance again comes to mind), but by gosh, you're going to do it, because you're supposed to. The Pharisees frequently fell into this trap. They forgot the purpose of the Law, and it became a burden to them, and they passed that burden on to others as well. The thing you started out trying to do is still a good thing, but it has turned a very dark corner.

How about the other direction? It starts out with excuses. You get sick one week, and can't make prayer meeting. You have a lot to do at work, and don't feel you have time to go jogging. You have a major deadline, and it takes precedence over time with your kids. Circumstances will happen. There will be mornings you get a cold and simply can't drag out of bed. But like bad pennies and dirty dishes, excuses can pile up if left unchecked. Suddenly, a month has gone by, and you've not been to church. It's been weeks since you called your old roommate. You can't remember the last time that you prayed.

Then rebellion kicks in. Maybe this is a different fork of the same problem, but it's worse by far. Because it raises a note of doubt as to the merits of the discipline in the first place. In 6th grade, I had a teacher that made us read 18 fiction books every 9 weeks. That's a minimum of 200 pages a week, on top of other homework. In 6th grade. I was always a voracious reader as a kid. But when I was *required* to do it, that note of resentment crept into my heart. I started counting books I had read last year. I finished only just in time to meet the requirement. And all along is in my head...if I can get through this grade, I may never read again. Rebellion. When we see the thing that we wanted, that we loved, that we were intentional about, as an intolerable burden, and we drop it like a hot rock in August.

Which brings us to the end of that side of things: Chaos. We loose the voice of our original purpose in doing the thing. Things fall apart. Our discipline doesn't hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon our lives. (Thank you Yeats!) We give up...we surrender. "It's too bad...I really wanted to loose was just too hard."

Grim pictures both. But here's the rub. Remember what made self-discipline doable? Intention and boundaries. The excuses erode our boundaries, lead to self-justifications and such. The loss of intention brings codification, "it has always been that way," and becomes a burden. But if we keep both...we have what we need. And that takes a lot of work on our part.

So what can we do? (1) Revisit the point of the thing in the first place. Why were we going to quit smoking? Why'd we start reading the Bible? Get back to the point, to revitalize your passion for it. (2) Hold your boundaries. Ruthlessly refuse to accept excuses from yourself. "I've been doing so good," is not a reason to let your guard down. Neither is "It's too hard."

You might need some help along the way. And that's why we have each other. The point of things like Church, like Small Groups and Sunday School classes, is that we were never meant to walk this line alone. We need others around us, who can see through the rationalizations and justifications, and who can remind us of our purpose along the way. That's why we gather together on a regular basis, by the way. Which is itself a kind of discipline.

So if you're not already meeting together with other believers, I cannot recommend it highly enough. You will draw encouragement, strength, and purpose from those around you. And in the process, you'll find yourself moving forward in life, in faith, in ministry, and in your relationships. It's a Discipline worth practicing. No time? That's an excuse. If you really want to grow, you'll make the time. So why not try it? Not because it's what you're supposed to do...but because deep down, you know you want it.

Blessings on your journey, as we walk this road side by side.