In light of the recent bomb threats in one of the biggest small towns in New Jersey, the new superintendent left messages for the parents of each student enrolled in the district. Every building in the school district will reopen after an emergency closure resulted from a threat that went viral on social media. This was not the first threat the district has endured. But this time, the adversity has directed the energy where it may be best felt—a conversation between parents and students.
As I listened to the plea for help, I prepared my mind as both an educator of ten year olds and a parent of a seventeen year old. I considered my students who confide in me how messy the bathroom has become (as a result of TikTok inspired vandalism). Their little hearts conflicted as they exchange their thrill of the chaos for their need to be exonerated. They don’t want to get in trouble for something that another student did.
I considered my son who is on the cusp of getting his driver’s license and applying for jobs and preparing for graduation. I also think about how smart he is, his potential, and his likeliness to stay out of trouble. It’s his affiliations that bring me pause.
The superintendent’s message was a call to action for parents to have a meaningful conversation with their children. There’s a need not only to prevent future occurrences, but to discuss the implications of this kind of behavior.
We must be cautious to label these acts frivolous or thoughtless! There could be nothing more contrary. A LOT of effort went into concocting these challenges. The social media mileage that it’s been getting is not accidental. Somewhere there is a proud troll. The impact ripples throughout communities across the nation. How long have we been telling our youngsters to think globally? We had no idea how that might manifest.
When I picked my son up today, I greeted him with the love that comes from missing him for a few days. I asked him his thoughts of the “day off from school” as a result of the recent threat. He was appreciative that it wasn’t a “remote instruction” day. Beyond that, it all seemed to be outside of his purview.
I replayed the superintendent’s message for my son. I cautiously approached the need to have this conversation in a way that he could “buy” into the the resolve. I watched my son’s expression fade from disinterest into something that resembled “are we done here?”
I began by reminding him of the various occasions that he thought he had things under control only to realize that situations can be cumbersome or overwhelming. I then affirmed how smart he was and how much trust I have in his decisions.
I reminded him of my role to guide him rather than restrict him or hover over him. What happened next surprised even me. My son picked up a fruit and began to toss it into the air rhythmically. Up and down, over and over. Seemingly not paying attention, it wasn’t until I hit upon a nerve that he missed his mark and dropped the fruit.
He couldn’t focus on his toss and grasp the points at the same time. He offered little as a rebuttal as the conversation morphed more so into a lecture. Sure enough, each time I hit upon a valid point, he dropped the fruit.
Despite the easy analogy that could be made between regretful decisions and this pummeled fruit, I narrowed the talk to three points.
1) Students have some knowledge of what is happening here and may not have fully considered the consequences. Nonetheless, it does not require hard evidence to charge another student with vandalism. It merely requires a witness or mitigating circumstances to transform an investigation into formal charges.
2) Someone will speak up to either put an end to the destructive behavior or they will direct that negative energy from themselves (to ensure that they are not blamed).
3) If even half the parents had this “meaningful” talk with their child, the kids would likely steer clear of the kids that they KNOW are engaging in this activity.
I call this “oil and water.” Both are powerful, but neither wants anything to do with the other. Students who desire to be on the path to success want nothing to do with behavior that will create obstacles. For other students, misdirection will continue until they experience a consequence for themselves or until they witness someone else get caught.
I’ve asked my son to consider “oil and water” as he witnesses these TikTok challenges unfurl. From this point on, he can no longer claim that he doesn’t know any better. And as his parent, I can no longer say that I didn’t at least start the conversation.