How to Support Your Kids in Having Responsible Dialogues Online

It appears our culture is having growing pains. Though it’s far from perfect, on good days we are learning to value difference, and at the very least we are learning to tolerate it. One thing is for certain: For most kids growing up in the US, technology of the 21st Century has expanded their communities far beyond city limits.


In their classrooms and their future boardrooms, kids’ can count on collaborating with colleagues come from all over the world, each with a different world view. In order to thrive in their educations and future careers, the pressure is on for kids to embrace a global world view rather than a local one. They are asked increasingly to collaborate across gender, race, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. They will meet their colleagues in virtual meetings that span continents, oceans, and cultures.


There is no time like the present to begin working together in a manner that respects and embraces difference. On school campuses and online, people they speak with are more likely to come from different backgrounds than ever before. When you combine the biologically necessary passion of a teenager with the highly charged political air we’re all breathing; you get explosive potential. Kids’ communication online is already volatile enough, but these days, they’re attempting to engage in civic discourse. Let’s just make sure it’s civil.


Take a moment to review these guidelines with your teen. Help them have the conversation they want to have in a way that could actually help create change – rather than perpetuate division.


Before chiming in, check in with yourself.


What’s your purpose? If you want to engage in dialogue with someone whose views are different from your own, be very certain of what your intention is. Is your contribution helpful? Are you reacting out of anger? Trolling is not responsible. It’s the same thing as picking a fight.


Say what you are for, not what you are against.


Don’t waste time dissing what you dislike – it’s not productive, and it turns people off. If you want people to listen, speak in the positive, not the negative.


Be curious, not convincing.


When it comes to our strongly held beliefs, it is extremely unlikely you will change anyone’s mind. The brain experiences challenges to our political beliefs as personal attacks, which elicit negative emotions and defensiveness. So, trying to change a stranger’s mind could well be an exercise in futility (remember, no trolling). If you are looking for your opposing viewpoint to be understood, empathizing with the other’s point of view will get you a lot farther. Ask them how the issue affects them personally, with kindness and compassion – not skepticism. Curiosity about the other’s experience, as well as expressing your personal experience that has led you to this belief, goes a lot farther than soapboxing.


Be self-aware.


If your intention is to come to mutual understanding and to have a productive dialogue, then you must be willing to put your own ideas on hold and empathize with the other. Think about what unique experiences in your life contribute to your perspective. How are they different from the other person’s? Remember that differences are opportunities for growth, they don’t make you better or worse than the other. Put yourself in their shoes and see how it changes your point of view.


Would you say it to your teacher?


If you’re having a hard time knowing if your communication is respectful enough, give it the teacher test. Would you use those same words to speak to your teacher or principal? If not, find another way that uses less inflammatory language. Added bonus: Kids have to stretch their brains to find the vocabulary that expresses their ideas, rather than relying on the charge that comes along with vulgarity.


Adolescents need to be allowed to develop their ideas and world views. They need to be able to speak with you and with peers about them. This is a stage in their development that is designed to prepare them to brave the world outside the nest, so they seek out novel experiences, and they get really excited about the things they believe in. Done safely and respectfully, it’s a great thing! Help them develop their ideas and collaboration skills by supporting them as they learn to speak respectfully with people of different perspectives. If they’re going to succeed in their educations and careers, they have to.



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