Digital Age Parenting

Digital Age Parenting; Removing the Stumbling Block

I talk with parents a lot about social media. It has become so institutionalized that if you don't figure out how to navigate it, you'll get left behind. Most of us, as parents, are digital immigrants raising digital natives. Many of us are doing our best to immerse ourselves in this world so that we can guide our kids through its complexities. At the same time, we worry about our kids. We worry that the digital age is putting less value on real conversations. We worry that this digital world is not preparing our children to have significant and lasting social relationships.

So what happens when you add in a child's learning issues or disabilities?
I recently had a fifteen-year-old student with Asperger’s syndrome tell me that Facebook has helped him improve his social skills. Facebook eliminates the challenges he faces of reading facial expressions or body language and gives him the time needed to think through an appropriate response. (This is also the reason he does NOT like the fast pace of Twitter.) Facebook allows him to engage at his own pace, reducing his anxiety and enabling him to enjoy the benefits of social relationships, a challenging area for children with autism spectrum disorders.  

This got me thinking. The very tools that we worry may be the end of interpersonal relationships can, in fact, help those who might otherwise struggle in conventional social settings.

This cliché "special education is just good education" is built on the premise that the strategies for teaching and supporting students with disabilities are, in fact, just good teaching strategies for all students. So with that in mind, here are some guidelines for navigating social media with your child who has a disability, realizing that these are good strategies for all parents:

1.  Be diligent in monitoring content
All children need supervision; no matter their age, no matter their need. During my second year of teaching, I heard a veteran middle school teacher advise a parent, "This is middle school. You may think your children are ready to be independent, but they need you now more than ever. Resist the urge to "let them go." This applies all the more to social media. Know where your kids are, who they are interacting with and do not be afraid to connect with them in these same spaces.

2.  Make them aware of dangers
Talk to your children about online predators. Talk to them about online bullying. Open the lines of communication. Encourage them to talk to you about anything suspicious they encounter and do not be afraid to cut them off if you notice something inappropriate.

3.  Set limits
Even if these tools help your child to socialize and/or build relationships, it is not healthy to spend hours upon hours a day staring at a screen. Just as you would limit the amount of television your child watches or the amount of video games he or she plays, you should also establish limits on the use of social media. 

4. Trust your gut
You know your child best. If something feels off, it probably is. Trust your instincts and don't second-guess yourself. You have to decide if an online presence is safe and beneficial for your child. And you have to decide when it ceases to be. You are your child's greatest advocate and it is your responsibility to guide, support and teach your child to advocate for him or herself. If social media can help, use it. If not, avoid it.  You are still the parent. 

Be sure you don't miss a post from Removing the Stumbling Block:

Max and Wayne: Reflections of Shabbat Together

In my role as a Jewish educator, I take many students on weekend retreats.  Such experiences are a wonderful opportunity for teens to live and learn together as we celebrate Shabbat, socialize, talk and play. At retreats, teens build relationships and their Jewish identities, and such experiences expand exponentially on what we accomplish within the walls of our synagogue. Living together in Jewish time and sharing the joy of Shabbat in a unique setting is an amazing springboard from which we can launch our kids into so many other significant opportunities.
Our commitment to including kids with disabilities doesn’t waver when we leave the temple, but these students can have unique needs, especially during an overnight stay. To help one of our students navigate the social dynamics and abstract learning of this year’s retreat, we brought another high school student from our congregation as his “shadow.” I was confident that this would be a successful model, but little did I realize the gift I was giving to both of these young men.

Here are thoughts shared by our teen support, Max Levinston, a high school junior:

“The [Temple Beth-El] 8th and 9th grade two-night retreat was a great experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was really honored to have the opportunity serve as Wayne’s shadow. Before the retreat I was excited; however, once I walked through the vestibule and it got real, I was a little bit anxious. Wayne and I met up and went to our room and talked for a while before Shabbat, and I was excited again; because the thought I’d had earlier was ridiculous.

It was really great to see Wayne socializing and making new friends from other temples. When programming started, I was a little worried about how I was going to explain some of the abstract things to him if he had a hard time understanding.

However, he did a great job of communicating when he had trouble understanding something. One thing that really stood out to me was the time capsule that a group of kids created. Wayne decided to write a letter to himself so he could read it in the future. I helped him format the letter, but he came up with its content, and it was really interesting and rewarding to see what he thought of the weekend and have him express his thoughts by writing a letter to himself.

We had fun together. We had interesting conversations about movies, actors and countries while we were in our room or walking around the hotel for a quick break. He never failed to surprise me with some of the things he would bring to our conversations and I really enjoyed spending time with him. He taught me a lot and I hope that I did the same for him."

Here are Wayne’s thoughts from his time capsule letter:

“Dear Wayne, the trip was fun. We stayed at the Doubletree Hotel. The hotel was nice.  We learned about community. I think it is great to be nice to everyone. I was listening to Big Joe Henry [with Max] on New Jersey 101.5. Sincerely, Wayne”

We are taught, “All of Israel is responsible for one another.” (Shavuot 39a) 

I am so proud of these young men. They looked out for each other in ways I never would have expected. Each of them has a beautiful neshama (Jewish soul). I just happen to have the good fortune to help nurture them.

There are such obvious benefits of including people with disabilities in the Jewish community. With commitment, anything is possible.

Turn Meaningful Reflection into Positive Action - A Look Back at Jewish Disability Awareness Month

It’s May.  Can you believe it?  Every year it seems to sneak up on me.  But here it is.

Most synagogues and Jewish professionals are at the point in the year that I typically call the “race to the finish line”.  We are busy completing our program years, winding down religious schools and looking toward Shavuot as a point where we might briefly catch our breath; all while planning for next year by finalizing calendars and budgets. We can probably agree that the much anticipated summer months will allow us a chance to regroup, reflect and start it all over again.

I think this is a good time for a check-in. 

Do you remember that February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month, or is it just a flash in your rear-view mirror at this point?  Did you check JDAM off your program list as you moved on to the next activity, event or holiday?  Now is the perfect time, despite the crazy, hectic days of budgets and calendars, to be thinking about JDAM. 

Take a moment or two for reflection.  Did you experience something meaningful?  Did you learn something new?  What inspired you?  Please share it here.  Let's learn from each other, share our experiences and use this as an opportunity for meaningful reflection.

Meaningful reflection can lead to positive action! 

Some thoughts for you to consider:

  • As you plan next year’s calendar, dedicate specific days for disability awareness/acceptance opportunities.
  • Even better, look at your entire calendar with an eye toward ensuring that all your programs will be inclusive.
  • Form an Inclusion Committee or task force now, so that it can guide your conversations in the program year to come.

  • As you plan your budget, set aside funds for professional development, teacher training and/or guest speakers. 

  •  Even better, make the commitment to hire a dedicated professional to specifically focus on issues of inclusion.

It’s May.  And if you are like me, February seems like a year ago.  I hope you don’t let Jewish Disability Awareness Month become just another “program” that you “did” this year. 

Inclusion is too important.
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