Meg Muñoz lives in Southern California with her husband and four kids. She’s a former sex worker and survivor of sex trafficking who founded and runs Abeni, an Orange County, California nonprofit that serves those working the spectrum of sex work. She’s a big fan of deep conversations, sarcasm, and harm reduction. We often bring Meg into conversations around risk reduction for youth, so when she shared this story about a moment of vulnerability her son experienced through Kik, an instant messaging app, we asked her if she would write about it as a helpful example of how to demonstrate harm reduction principles in everyday life. We hope what she has captured below adds insight to the challenges posed by new technology, and will be useful to parents and caregivers as they navigate conversations with the children they care for.
For some unknown reason, people tend to think that because I have four kids who make it to school and bathe (semi) regularly that this is somehow an indication of my parenting prowess. I assure you, it is not. A few months ago, I was at church and our friends who have been parents for less than a year wanted affirmation that it “gets easier.” I think my spontaneous laughter unsettled them. Oops. I explained to them that it’s not a matter of the work of parenting getting easier; it’s more of a shift as physical care-taking evolves into emotional labor. Once in diapers and car seats, our kids eventually graduate to skinny jeans and wanting to be dropped off at the mall … Our responsibilities don’t diminish, but they do change.
Helping my children navigate a world that looks markedly different from the one I knew growing up has its challenges and it requires me to continue growing, too.
I like to refer to my 12-year old as “spirited.” This kid is the funniest, wittiest, most forgetful, sensitive, smart, sly, stubborn, life-of-the-party kid I know. Recent studies assure me these character traits confirm he’s going to win at life, but unfortunately, I have no time for them because I’m too busy begging him for the hundredth time to pick up his socks. For all of his verve, my second-born is also prone to internalizing disappointment and disapproval. He feels it deeply and all of that can result in shame and a tendency to hide if we’re not gentle enough with him. We’ve learned the hard way that how we handle disagreements and corrections speaks volumes to him about whether we’re safe people, if he can come to us when things go south, and how our responses to him shape how he sees himself.
Last October, we found our son sneaking his tablet after bedtime and perusing Instagram when he should have been asleep. I took his tablet, gave him the raised-eyebrow, and headed back to bed. But because he was working so hard to hide his screen when I walked in, we opted to go through his apps and messages. Kik was the first one we opened.
And that’s when we discovered “Laurie Bartlett.” This attractive, 20ish, flirty blond with great taste in underwear had, for some unknown reason, taken an interest in and privately messaged my 12-year old son.
Based on the persistent conversation that this person had attempted to initiate, we surmised that this was not a bot trying to get my child to click on anything. It was most likely an adult posing as a young, attractive woman hoping to engage my son in more conversation. Though she was being subtle, it was clear she was trying to figure out where my son lived.
After quietly and briefly freaking out, we called him in and gently, lovingly coaxed what had happened out of my now very nervous child. He was a 12-year old who was unaware of how serious it was and far more worried about losing his social media access and Trick-or-Treating the next night. His shame and longing to hide was palpable. We sat with him, assured him he’d done nothing wrong and reminded him he had no reason to feel guilty about a conversation he hadn’t initiated. Despite all of the times my son’s judgement has left me wondering if he can cross the street alone, we read his responses and were amazed at how well he handled it. He answered none of her questions, responding only with ‘leave me alone’ and ‘go away’ … OK, there was that last response of ‘Send more pics. JK, go away,’ but I have to confess that I laughed because it’s not only a great example of my son’s off-the-cuff and quirky sense of humor, but an indication that he felt he had things under control.
For the next 24 hours, we sat with him and helped him unpack some of the feelings behind his fear and shame and talked about what harm reduction and minimizing risk in an online setting looks like.
While he lost his Tablet privileges for a few days because he wasn’t supposed to be on it, we didn’t kick him off social media. We didn’t even force him to delete Kik, but it opened a much greater dialogue about safety, what to look out for, and when he needs to come to us. We knew that removing him from his social landscape would be viewed as punitive and be counter-productive to the trust we wanted to build, so helping him learn how to navigate those spaces with forethought and intention seemed the best route for us to take. As things turned out, it served as a valuable opportunity to reinforce trust and communication, with all of us gleaning some valuable wisdom along the way. And bonus points for my son when he opted to delete the app on his own shortly thereafter! It was one of those parenting moments you wish you could frame and trot out when you remember all those other mom moments you wish you could forget.
Kids don’t know what they haven’t had time to learn. Frances Jensen, a Pediatric Neurologist in Boston states it perfectly when she says, “a teenage brain is just an adult brain with fewer miles on it.” We often expect children to have logic that their experience cannot support. We expect them to have acquired critical thinking skills beyond their years. We expect them to have a mental and emotional toolbox that we have not yet imparted. And our frustration at those age-appropriate mistakes and missteps can sometimes leave them feeling like they’re just not good enough and that we don’t approve of them. But we’re missing it entirely when we don’t take these opportunities to dig in and not only help our children understand the world better, but teach them to think critically about it. It’s our job to help ready them for the world ahead of them, but we often act like it’s an inconvenience to do it. It’s healthy for us to admit that sometimes we’re the ones who need the attitude adjustment.
When children don’t feel accepted for who they are, when they fear rejection and judgment, they are more apt to hide. They hide their activities, their friends, they hide themselves. And nothing is more painful or dangerous than for a child to feel as if they are not safe or accepted and have to hide. For all the hard decisions that parenting requires of us, I think it requires even more tender ones. I don’t ever want my children to feel as if they are merely being tolerated … I want them to feel seen, embraced, and wholly loved.
I’m human. I drop the ball. I get lazy, impatient, agitated, and have bad days. The way my kids respond to me on those bad days is usually motivation enough for me to slow down and take an inventory. Are my words and actions drawing them in or encouraging them to hide? Am I talking to them the way I wanted to be talked to? Am I a safe person to come to for both the good and not-so-good stuff? Am I assuming the worst before I even know anything? Am I critical or encouraging? Am I letting them know how amazing I think they are?
I’m acutely aware of my limitations and know that parenting in a vacuum has not been a successful path for me… or my kids. So what I do? I have friends whose parenting I admire and respect, and I tap into that for perspective and guidance when I can. Not the perfect ones, but the real ones. I have Sharna… Seriously, everyone should have a Sharna in their life. I want to be around those parents who can actually show and remind me what patient, loving, boundaried, healthy, thoughtful, nurturing, reflective, balanced, humble, and most of all imperfect parenting looks like.
And that’s the kind of parent I want to be. So, in the spirit of trying to channel my ‘inner Sharna,’ I’ll keep checking my kids messages, snuggling with them at night, answering ALL of their questions about drugs, asking about their friends, explaining why most of us really have sex, and apologizing when I need to. And for all the other things I can’t figure out, you can find me huddled in a corner, texting Sharna.