Happy Parents, Happy Kids: Ann Douglas on Building Your Online Village

Our focus on community continues with this excerpt from parenting expert Ann Douglas's exciting new book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids (and there's an incredible idea, right?). From the book's chapter on the necessity of connecting with community ("finding your village"), Douglas shares tips and advice for parents about the challenges and rewards of online support. 

Happy Parents, Happy Kids is out on February 19.

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There are times when parenting can feel particularly lonely and isolating, like on days when you're caring round-the-clock for a sick child or are temporarily stuck indoors in the wake of an ice storm. These are times when you badly need support and when that support can feel impossibly far away—unless, of course, you are able to find community online.

 

THE UPSIDE

Online support is the modern equivalent of the 1970s mom­ to-mom phone call, during which stay-at-home moms found themselves holding on to the telephone receiver for dear life. In many ways, online support is better than that old-school land­ line connection, instantly connecting you to the entire world of mothers, or at least those who choose to congregate online. For one thing, there's the 24/7 nature of that support. As Janette, the mother of three young children, explains, "With social media, you can catch up in the middle of the night with groups of people who are feeling the same way that you are."

Then there's the fact that you can connect with parents who are grappling with the exact same issues as you are, even if those issues are anything but common or mainstream. Somewhere on the internet—and likely on Facebook—you'll be able to find a support group or discussion board devoted to your parent­ing challenge du jour, whether it's coping with postpartum depression, co-parenting with your ex, raising a child with a complex medical condition, or parenting a hard-to-parent kid. "The closed, carefully screened groups are especially valuable if you need to share personal stories and questions without your neighbours, co-workers, and mother-in-law reading about it," says Sarah, the mother of seventeen-year-old triplets.

Online support can make a real difference for parents who are struggling. A 2014 study conducted at Michigan State Uni­versity found, for example, that people experience increased feelings of social support, a stronger sense of community, and increased life satisfaction after they have supportive interactions on social media. "Social media can be our village if we let it—if we're particular about how we use it," notes Lara, the mother of a ten-year-old son.

The challenge, of course, is that social media isn't universally positive. There are times when posting to, or scrolling through, your social media feed leaves you feeling worse, not better.

Online support can make a real difference for parents who are struggling. A 2014 study conducted at Michigan State Uni­versity found, for example, that people experience increased feelings of social support, a stronger sense of community, and increased life satisfaction after they have supportive interactions on social media.

FEELING JUDGED

"Social media can be a nightmare," says Andrea, the mother of an eight-month-old daughter. "If I take a photo of my baby in her car seat, I'm really careful to check and double-check where her straps and snaps are. I need to make sure everything is perfect in order to prevent criticism on Facebook." Andrea isn't the only one to encounter the heavy hand of online judgment. Roughly a quarter of parents (27 percent) report similar experiences of being judged after sharing something about their children or their approach to parenting.That was one of the key takeaways from a 2016 study of a thousand Canadian parents conducted by Today’s Parent magazine.

Certain parents are particularly vulnerable to such judgment: moms who hold themselves to impossibly high standards as parents and who attempt to feel better about their parenting by seeking validation for their parenting efforts via social media. It's pretty much a recipe for disaster, according to Ohio State University professor Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan. As she and her co-authors reported in a study published in Sex Roles in 2017, "These mothers may seek the readily available validation Facebook promises for their strong investment in the domestic sphere and confirmation they are meeting society's impossibly high standards for parent­ing. However, their dependence on external validation via Face­book activity, which will never bolster their fragile self-worth, ultimately undermines their well-being." They end up feeling less confident and more depressed.

 

FEELING LONELY

While heading online allows us to connect with others, connect­ing with someone online doesn't allow us to reap the same benefits as connecting with that person face-to-face. There's this disturbing sense of faux connection. You're connected, but you're not. Not really.

Too often, we have operated on the basis of a misguided expectation that tech will fill in the blanks in our relationships when we don't have time to invest in them. Want to know what's going on with me? Go check out my Facebook update. Who knows, maybe I'll read yours as well. It can feel like some sort of self-serve faux intimacy. As Sherry Turkle notes in her book Reclaiming Conversation, "Computers offer the illusion of compan­ionship without the demands of friendship . . . the illusion of friendship without the demands of intimacy." Instead of nourishing ourselves with real connection, we settle for the relationship equivalent of fast food.

It's easy to have the illusion of connection when stories about family members and friends are flying by in your social media feed. You feel like you know what's going on in the lives of your nearest and dearest—until you don't. "I miss big things and then I feel awful," confesses Karen, the mother of two preteen girls. "I'll say to myself, 'Where was I when this person was going through that?"' Instead of seeing the entire movie of our friends' lives, all we have is the current snapshot. We lose the narrative thread that weaves together the entirety of our friends' lives. Because of the way our social media feeds work, serving up an endless diet of good news, bad news, random trivia, and memes, it's easy to skip over a post that asks more of you as a friend than you are willing or able to give at the moment.

It's easy to have the illusion of connection when stories about family members and friends are flying by in your social media feed. You feel like you know what's going on in the lives of your nearest and dearest—until you don't.

"Sometimes, I'll see things but I'll pretend that I didn't, because I know I just can't keep up with that particular crisis right now," says Karen. And she isn't the only one who is choosing to look the other way. A 2015 Pew Research study found, for example, that parents are much more likely to respond to social media posts sharing good news than bad news. While 88 percent of moms and 71 percent of dads reported that they responded to good-news posts, just 61 percent of moms and 53 percent of dads reported doing the same when the news was bad.

 

FEELINGS OF JEALOUSY OR INADEQUACY

Ever have the sense when you're scrolling your Facebook feed that everyone else you know is leading a totally fabulous life and that they also have a lot more friends than you do? Apparently, it's a fairly common feeling, and it happens because we have a front row seat to our own lonely and miserable moments but no one else's. As a result, we end up with a pretty skewed picture.

Economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz wrote about this phe­nomenon in a recent article for The New York Times and offered some wise advice. "Don't compare your Google searches with other people's Facebook posts," he urged. He then went on to make the case that the best way to get a sense of what ordinary people are actually struggling with in their lives, as opposed to what they are posting on Facebook, is to venture into the weird world of Google autocomplete. When you begin to search for something on Google, Google presents you with a series of auto­ complete possibilities, based on similar searches conducted by other users. If, for example, you type in the phrase "my family is," it offers the following suggestions: "toxic / my everything / crazy / my life / boring / so negative / broken / special because." Clearly, families are a source of considerable anxiety—but you already knew that, right?

Danielle, the mother of two school-aged daughters, one of whom has autism, tries to remind herself that social media posts only tell part of the story. Still, there are days when a particular social media post ends up rubbing her the wrong way: "I see posts on social media from moms who cut their kids' sandwiches into fun shapes. Meanwhile, I'm over here silently grateful that my kid didn't wet her pants at school."

That's one of the reasons that Olivia, the mother of a tod­dler, chooses to keep it real on social media—because she doesn't want to make things harder for other parents. "I feel like I'm being more authentic if I post true accounts of my life on social media," she explains. "Don't get me wrong. I don't post every­thing. My 'friends' don't need to know everything about me. But I have posted at times when I've had a bad day or when my son is sick or when life generally sucks. And I hope that doing so inspires others to do the same." It turns out that Olivia isn't just helping her friends by deciding to go this route; she's also improving her own social media experience at the same time. As a recent Michigan State University study revealed, people who choose to keep it real in their social media posts are more likely to perceive feelings of support from their social media friends than people who choose not to post about their struggles.

People who choose to keep it real in their social media posts are more likely to perceive feelings of support from their social media friends than people who choose not to post about their struggles.

Of course, there's a fine line to be walked in terms of how much you decide to share, to say nothing of where and with whom. The internet never forgets, and yet children have "the right to be forgotten"—or at least the right to have a say in shap­ing the digital footprint that parents and others are creating on their behalf. It's an issue that government privacy agencies, children's rights advocates, and others are likely to continue to grapple with for quite some time. In the meantime, it's up to you to make conscious and deliberate choices about what you do and don't decide to share about your child online, and to guide your child through the process of making such decisions too.

 

MAKING ONLINE SUPPORT WORK FOR (NOT AGAINST) YOU

So online support, and social media in particular, isn't inher­ently good or bad. It's all about how you choose to use it. You want to use it in ways that leave you feeling more supported and connected, not less. For Julia, a first-time mother, that meant posting "Daily Jocelyn" photos of her infant daughter to her lnstagram feed so that she could share her motherhood journey with far-flung friends and family members, and arranging to meet up at a nearby park with a group of moms she met on an online message board—using online connection as a spring­ board to real-world community, in other words. It's all about being more mindful about your use of technology and consid­ering both what you stand to gain and what you stand to lose by spending a lot of time in the online world. If your goals are to make connections, feel supported, and create community, how well are you achieving that goal? Are there different avenues you might want to try, either in addition to or instead of heading online? And if you're craving that online connection, are there other ways of making it more intimate and interactive perhaps by connecting via video conference call with a handful of your nearest and dearest?

It's all about being more mindful about your use of technology and consid­ering both what you stand to gain and what you stand to lose by spending a lot of time in the online world. If your goals are to make connections, feel supported, and create community, how well are you achieving that goal?

Online support can be incredibly valuable, but we don't want to get in the habit of escaping into tech simply because it's easier to stare at a screen than to look deeply into the eyes of another human being. We need to spend face-to-face time with people we care about, or we risk having once-powerful friendships devolve into casual acquaintanceships. As Nancy Colier notes in The Power of Off, "Sadly, with technology, we risk winning the world but losing our village. We can be part of a community made up of people all over the world but not talk to the few people who share a bus stop with us every morning. Though known about by everyone, we are increasingly known by no one.''

At the root of the problem is the fact that it can be difficult to connect with other people, even when you are in the same place. "Parents may sit together on the bench while their children swim or play hockey, but even then, how much of that time is spent checking our phones, and perhaps even talking on our phones, rather than talking to the person next to us?" asks Melanie, the mother of two young children. It's a poignant reminder to look up from our phones at least a little more often and challenge ourselves to dare to lock eyes with our fellow villagers.

Excerpt from Happy Parents, Happy Kids, by Ann Douglas. 2019: Harpercollins Canada. Appears with permission of the publisher. 

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About Happy Parents, Happy Kids

Parenting without anxiety, guilt, or feeling overwhelmed

Happy Parents Happy Kids is the ultimate no-guilt guide to boosting your enjoyment of parenting while at the same time maximizing the health and happiness of your entire family. You can find ways to take care of yourself while you’re busy raising a family—just as you can choose to use parenting strategies that work for you and your kids.  This practical and encouraging book will help you

  • Discover what less-stressed-out parents know about minimizing the fallout from work-life imbalance (to say nothing of all the other things our generation of parents can’t help but feel anxious about)
  • Tackle the challenges of distracted parenting(in a way that helps kids to develop healthy relationships with technology)
  • Balance your hopes and dreams for your children with the demands of the rest of your life
  • Manage screen time for your whole family with simple and effective strategies
  • Learn mindfulness strategies that can make parenting easier and can be effortlessly worked into your daily life
  • Live healthier (including a crash course on the science of habit change)
  • Become a calmer and more confident parent so that you can stop feeling bad and raise astonishingly great kids

The takeaway message is clear, powerful, and potentially life-changing. You can lose the guilt, embrace the joy, and thrive alongside your kids.

January 28, 2019
Books mentioned in this post
Happy Parents Happy Kids

Happy Parents Happy Kids

What Happy, Healthy Parents Know About Raising Great Kids
edition:eBook
also available: Paperback
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