This is not a post about the evils of children being online too much, or how dangerous it can be or even a post lamenting shorter attention spans and a lack of real-world adventure. This is a post about how my oldest son Riley has benefited from the internet in ways that were unthinkable when I was growing up in the 1970’s.
Of course there are the easy advantages, like a global reach, instant research and limitless data. But, I’m seeing a whole other set of rewards that may not be evident on the surface. An eleven year old kid can discover their own voice, find their natural constituencies and realize self-efficacy — boosting psychological sturdiness in a fairly radical way.
Just a week ago, he found out that his two best friends were going to a Star Wars camp together in June. One of them is coming down from Maine (where he moved last year) specifically for the camp. Riley asked to go. It was SEVEN HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS for one week of camp. My reaction was similar to this:
I had to tell him no. In fact, I thought he ought to know you can buy a car with $725. A crappy car, but still a car. The look on his face broke my heart though. He asked me if he could do a Kickstarter. I explained a bit more about how it worked and that it wasn’t a good fit for a campaign. I suggested he take a look at Go Fund Me. He said he’d go research it. He came back an hour and said, “Mom, I’m Live. Can you start tweeting my link out now?”
I couldn’t believe he had set the whole thing up on his own. This was on a Monday evening. By Wednesday at noon, he had raised $800.
Of course, elation was all around and we felt very loved and blown away. Now he doesn’t have to be the son of poor parents who cannot afford to send him to summer camp. He can be the kid that raised $800 from family and friends and strangers in less than 36 hours.
Riley was stunned and humbled. If you know my son, you know that I (nor likely anyone else) have never described him as humble. He is many things, but modest isn’t one of them.
Of course there are lots of good lessons in there for a young boy…ask for what you want, find a way to make it happen, problem solve around obstacles, be gracious, etc. He has learned these things intuitively…and not from us, his school or his friends. Without hesitation, he knows he can use words, creativity and the Internet to create solutions where there were none. How cool is that.
I started to notice the impact of the Internet on his development when he began his blog almost two years ago. He picked his areas of interest (Star Wars, origami, Doctor Who, Minecraft and his own character DumCheese) and now he has over 150 followers. He found his audience. They found him. He has an identity online (and a YouTube channel) that is entirely his own.
I have often wondered how differently my life would have turned out had there been a direct outlet to the world. It took me well into by twenties (ok, maybe thirties) before I found “my voice.” It was college before I really found my tribe. And the agency to seek a fix to a problem with the confidence that I could actually solve them? I’m not sure I have that in my forties!
The Internet gave him himself early in life. He is assured in the idea that he can say who he is, what he likes and that other people will accept him as he is and hear him out. This isn’t something I remember feeling until I was an adult. I wonder what this will mean for him in the future. My guess is that he will likely be a millionaire before he graduates high school. This will not displease me.
Yes, you should monitor your kids online. Yes, be cautious about personal information and do lots of talking about dangerous people and how they operate. But for goodness sake, don’t say no too quickly to your kid’s ideas for how to express him or herself digitally. Keep the conversation going as your kid ventures out. There will need to be more talks about trolls, chats, spamming, appropriate online etiquette, etc. All of this is now part of education. I have no doubt that the blog (and now this successful crowdfunding effort) has given Riley a distinctiveness that he has defined, that has been redefined by how he interacts with his community online.
It is scary to unleash your child onto the internet. Just don’t let your fear keep your kid from bravely navigating this new world. It really can become an excellent teacher for lessons that are extremely difficult to teach.