Hyper-Sensitive Adults Make for Pretty-Poor Childhoods

There are a series of what are known as “animal advice” memes floating around the internet these days. There’s a photo of a lovely-looking duck who gives genuine advice, a sad-looking bear who confesses things that the meme-maker couldn’t imagine confessing in real life, and a cat with a newspaper who thinks about all the things he should do or buy, amongst others. Then there is “Paranoid Parrot” who often talks about mundane paranoia (“Whip my shower curtain open ten times during each shower in case a serial killer is creeping up on me.”), but who in this day and age often expresses genuine moments of fearful concern.

The other day I happened across this particular iteration of the “Paranoid Parrot”:

This image struck me as terribly depressing, because the person who made this particular meme is not trying to be cute or amusing…they are referring to a real case where a 6-year-old boy got suspended from school for kissing a girl in his class on the back of the hand. The boy in question had “sexual harassment” stated on his permanent record as the reason for the suspension. Meanwhile the little girl whom he “harassed” insisted that she didn’t mind because these two kids consider themselves to be “boyfriend and girlfriend”.

When I first heard about this story I literally almost threw up. Here’s my issue: I am 100% all for ensuring that things like sexual harassment do not occur in our schools, but a little common sense has to be employed as well. A 6-year-old cannot “sexually harass” someone because a 6-year-old doesn’t even know what sex is. And even if this particular kid had already had a thorough explanation from his parents about exactly what sex is, a kiss on the back of the hand is not sex. And just to put a cherry on the top of that cake, the term “harassment” implies “unwanted”, which the little girl in question explained herself was not the case.

I’m not completely immune to the realization that bad and upsetting things can happen to children while they’re in school. If this little boy had been reaching up under the little girl’s dress and fooling around down there, then yeah, I can understand some slightly drastic measures being employed. If he’d been holding her down and laying kisses all over her while she screamed for him to stop, then by all rights, suspend the little creep. But when, I ask you, did a little peck on the back of the hand become sexual-freakin’-harassment?!

In my opinion this is just another thread in the web of hyper-sensitivity that we’re spinning around our children in this day and age. Of course we don’t want our schoolkids to be harassed, and of course we don’t want them to wind up violent criminals, and of course we want to keep them from winding up depressed and suicidal. All that goes without saying. But stating that a six-year-old kid is a sexual predator when he doesn’t even know what that means is not helping the situation; it’s just going to wind up being a horrible label that follows him around for the rest of his life. Suspending an 8-year-old boy because he chewed his Pop Tart into the shape of a gun is not going to stop him from becoming violent anymore than destroying every gun-related toy on the face of the planet; it just proves that adults will find any reason to punish a kid, and teaching good morals and the difference between right and wrong is a hell of a lot more effective than being punished for every little thing you do. And don’t even get me started on things like banning balls during recess and removing the competition from sport to make sure that “every child wins”…I don’t even know where to start on how ridiculous this kind of thing is, but I can absolutely guarantee you that it is not helping the situation in any way, shape, or form.

I want to protect my daughter as much as any parent wants to protect their child. I hope that when she goes to school that she’ll have good friends, good grades, and never ever get hurt or harassed or get in a fist fight or find herself depressed because of what other people think of her. But I also have enough sense to know that taking away her childhood is not the way to keep these kinds of things from happening. Little boys will kiss little girls because they’re curious and they don’t know how to express themselves yet. Kids will express violence and anger, not because things like guns exist, but because it is part of human nature to get mad and want to express that anger physically. Kids will get upset over loss and failure, but that doesn’t mean that we take loss and failure out of the equation…all that accomplishes is that they’ll get more upset later in life when they find out that the world does not cater to their delicate sensibilities.

The trick is not to take all of the factors that bring the issues to light and try to completely remove them from the equation. The trick is to come back to the time when parents and teachers and other authority figures actually put in the time and effort to teach kids how to be good people. We need to explain to our kids why something that they might do is not necessarily appropriate. We need to teach our kids the difference between right and wrong and how to deal with their feelings instead of expressing them in cruel and violent ways. We need to let our kids learn what failure feels like and subsequently show them that it’s not the end of the world and that they need to work hard for the things they want, even if there are other people out there who will always be better than them. We need to put real effort and care into shaping our children into good, all-around balanced people, instead of enforcing rules that make them terrified to even breathe, and warping their childhood so that each of them graduates high school with the genuine belief that everything they want will be handed to them on a silver platter just as long as they want it enough.

I can’t tell any one person how to raise their kids, and I certainly can’t tell the schools how to deal with kids (I do, in fact, respect the fact that this job just gets harder and harder as the years go on), but I can say this. If my daughter comes home from a day in her preschool class and tells me that a little boy she likes kissed her on the back of the hand, my reaction will be to talk to the little boy’s parents just so they know the situation…not to run off to the school and demand that that little boy have his life torn apart for doing something that innocent little boys have been doing since the dawn of time.

Keep Yourself Out of Internet Mud…or You Might Never Get Clean Again

As previously mentioned, I’ve been taking a bit of time to read some “craft books” on writing, and the first one I’ve been looking at is Kristen Lamb’s Rise of the Machines. The focus of her book is social media and how writers can use it to create a working “author platform”, but she also touches on other subjects such as traditional vs. indie publishing, marketing, and occasionally a little bit of (related) neuroscience. Yeah, you heard me.

One of the side-topics that has come up in what I’ve read so far (enjoying it so much!) is this idea of ruining your platform without even realizing it. In other words, turning your name to mud by accident. In a world where everything can be re-Tweeted half a million times before you blink, it’s easy for one stupid mistake to go viral and effectively ruin your good name for, well, for good. This doesn’t only apply to writers (or the celebrities we so often see spiraling the metaphorical toilet bowl); it applies to everyone. That’s why I wanted to talk about it today, because this is the kind of thing that everyone should know, but which most people never think about.

I’ve spoken before about how anonymity does not truly exist on the internet and how we should watch what we do and say because it can come back to bite us in the ass. In that previous post I was focused on what I called “The Golden Internet Rule”, which is simply “don’t be a jerk on the internet”. This time I’m not talking specifically about being a jerk, but simply about understanding that whatever you choose to talk about on the internet has now become searchable, findable, and quite possibly eternal.

Don’t want to be wearing this for the rest of your days, do you?

I’ll give a personal example, because what better way to show people what you mean than by sharing your own morbid embarrassment?

When I was in university, studying to be a technologist, I had ups and downs. I had chosen my path partially on a whim because of a stressful situation (the course I had originally chosen was cancelled two months before the start of the semester, so I had to pick something else quick or simply not go to school). The result was that I often wondered if I’d chosen the right thing, whether or not I should drop out and choose something else, and was I really suited for this kind of career? I kept pressing forward because change is scary, and eventually I found myself in the fourth and final year of program, having an all-out panic attack. It began to occur to me that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I graduated. I didn’t know what kind of jobs I was even qualified for, how I would go about applying for them, where the work would end up taking me, or whether I would even be any good in the field. Sure I’d made pretty great grades in school, but the real world is a lot different from the class world. I didn’t know what kind of work I would be doing, but I was pretty confident it would not be writing short lines of computer code to set tiny LED lights to flash on and off at timed intervals.

One night when I was particularly stressed, I went online to a forum that I frequented in those days. I wrote a long post about my concerns, my worries, my stress level. I ranted about things like “wasting time and money on a degree I don’t even understand” and how I would disappoint my parents if I suddenly up and decided to do something different, and how I was terrified of the idea that I might have to move away from home for a job and “why oh why didn’t I choose a career path with a clearer future?!”

It was a rant born of stress, passion, and an overwhelming desire for someone to wrap their virtual arms around me and say that it was going to be okay. I did get that virtual hug from my virtual companions, but I also made a teeny tiny mistake. Within the confines of that rant, I used my full, real name. It wasn’t a concern because most of the folks on this forum knew my real name anyway, but in this particular post I wrote one line that described what my diploma would look like when I graduated, with my full name in the center of it. I added that bit in to make a point concerning my rant, but I didn’t consider what adding my full name in actually did to that post.

Haven’t figured it out yet?

It made me instantaneously  and easily locatable on Google.

For the most part this was a non-issue. I was a nobody that no one cared about. Who would even go looking up my name on Google, and if they did find my post, why would they care? At least that’s what I thought until someone did happen to Google my name and did click on the link that led them to my post. It was my uncle. I can’t recall the reason that he searched my name in the first place, but when he did he happened upon my post, read it, and subsequently wrote me a very long, very concerned email.

I was mortified.

My uncle was just trying to be helpful and calm my concerns, and he was very sweet. That’s not the mortifying part. The mortifying part was that he read my post in the first place. When I wrote that post it was with the intentions that only my internet friends ever see it. I just wanted a little bit of anonymous support from people who I never had to deal with face-to-face. For good or ill, I’ve never been the kind of person who can share their pains and emotions with their closest loved ones, so when one of those close loved ones found my whining, complaining, melodramatic post I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. And while in this case I had the opportunity to go back and change what I’d written (posts on this forum were editable), in another place I may have been stuck with what I’d written forever.

This is what we’re dealing with when we put ourselves out there on the internet, and my example is absolutely nothing compared to what some people have put themselves through. Every one of you reading this right now has seen at least one photo of someone who uploaded their pic on a social network site only to realize later that there was something excruciatingly embarrassing about it. One particular photo that comes to mind is of a teenage girl who took a “selfie” of herself and uploaded it to Facebook before noticing that her vibrator was sitting in plain view in the corner of the pic. As if that’s not mortifying enough, before she noticed it dozens of people had copied it and posted it elsewhere. The picture went viral. Because this girl failed to take a few seconds to actually look at the photo before posting it, she is now an internet meme that will never die.

Whatever you say, whatever you post, whatever you do, it only takes one opportunist to back-up your mistake on his computer before you can backtrack. In this way the internet is forever. Ask anyone who has ever found themselves depicted as a cruel jape on sites like 9gag. It doesn’t matter how much you beg or cry or scream, you can’t erase something from the internet once people have decided to use it at your expense. Even if it is an extreme example and you have grounds for legal action, it only takes one person to store the quote/pic/post away to whip out again at a later date. And the bigger a deal you make out of trying to abolish a bad rep, the bigger a deal people will make out of making sure that it never dies.

This is why we have to be careful, not only when dealing with touchy issues like religion and politics, or when letting our tempers get the best of us online. We also have to be careful with everything we say or do on the internet. Before you say or post or upload, step back and think. Think about how you would feel if your parents (or your children) happened across your post. Think about the repercussions if your employer saw that pic. Think about the veritable shit storm you might inadvertently stir up with your status update.

Basically, just THINK. It’s something we don’t do enough of these days, and with the Internet playing the part of devil’s advocate, one stupid mistake can mean that you name is mud for a very, very long time.

Have you ever said or did something on the internet that came back on you in an embarrassing or painful way? Do you know anyone else who has had to deal with this kind of unintentional reputation ruining? Thoughts and comments?