Sunday, February 23, 2014

Internet Safety for the Children in Your Home

As a school administrator, I'm having an increasing number of conversations with parents regarding problems they're having with their children and the Internet at home. Social websites have impacted many students' emotional well-being and/or social development by exposing children to around-the-clock access to their friends. Video and image sharing websites have negatively affected many students' developing sense of beauty or purity.

After so many of these conversations, the realization struck me-- students are well-protected while using the Internet on our school grounds, but so few of our families are aware that they can provide this same kind of protection at home, free of charge.

In my mind, there's no good reason not to set up a content filter (a means of controlling which websites can be accessed) at home-- I have one on my home network, and I'd recommend that every parent, regardless of the age of their children, thoughtfully use at least one form of Internet safety tool. Though the Internet is a powerful tool for education, communication, and entertainment, the reality is that it is just as powerfully capable of causing intellectual, moral, emotional, and spiritual harm to our children. 

This recommendation is not about censorship. It's about protecting our children from exposure to images, ideas and experiences before they have the tools to deal with that exposure. Unrestrained, the Internet is clearly having an impact on our children's moral development. I think it's time we stopped playing "catch up" with the fast-paced spread of the Internet into every corner of our family life, and we start to make thoughtful, informed, effective decisions about what role it will play in the growth and development of our children. As a parent, it's our right and duty to be the primary educators of our children.

Offering these thoughts, I'm fully aware that I could be accused of advocating Big Brother-esque control, or censorship. Although I assure you this is not the case, I encourage anyone with concerns or counter-arguments to leave comments below so that we can have a civil discussion. As I've said to parents on many occasions, "I believe that our children must develop the tools to integrate the Internet into their lives properly, and this comes from experience with these tools. However, there's a reason why we don't give drivers licenses to kids under 16!"

Tools for Content Filtering at Home
I have personal experience with two specific tools, which I'd recommend any parent looking into. They're free, simple to set up, and effective for protecting your children. Please note-- these recommendations are not the result of exhaustive research and comparison. I'm sure a simple Google search will reveal sites that have done this. I simply offer these two tools to exemplify what is possible.

Before implementing either of these tools, I recommend you set up your child on a limited user account. (I apologize to Mac users for my lack of experience with OSX-- this first recommendation is PC-centric.) Allowing your child full "administrator" access to a computer enables them to bypass any security restrictions set up. If this recommendation isn't familiar to you, or you need help setting it up, visit this link: "How to Teenager-Proof a Windows 7 PC."

Tool #1: Microsoft Family Safety 
If your child uses a PC that runs Windows 7 or later, setting up Microsoft Family Safety is simple. It does require that you have a Microsoft email account (i.e., Hotmail, Live, or MSN). Once set up, Microsoft Family Safety enables you to implement an Internet "whitelist" or "blacklist" on your child's limited computer user account. With a whitelist, your child will only be able to access the sites you specifically clear for him or her. I have this set up for my 6 year old's account on our home PC. He's currently whitelisted to visit our school's math practice website, National Geographic Kids, and PBS Kids. If he tries to visit any other site, Microsoft Family Safety blocks it.

Even better is the weekly report I receive via email from Microsoft Family Safety. Each Sunday I get an email that charts out how much time my son spent on the Internet each day, which websites he visited and for how long, and which websites were blocked (if any). I haven't found anything that is this easy to set up and maintain, and is this useful.

Tool #2: OpenDNS
Where Microsoft Family Safety only filters the activity that takes place on the particular PC on which it has been configured, OpenDNS has the ability to filter Internet activity on every device that connects to the Internet at your home. This is key with so many mobile devices in the home today (iPads, iPods, laptops, cell phones, etc.). You'll need a little more technical know-how to set this up, but OpenDNS provides clear, step-by-step instructions here: and a video introduction on this page:

When you create a free OpenDNS account and set up a content-filtering profile, you'll be able to block websites by category (weapons, alcohol, pornography, etc.), or by setting up whitelists or blacklists of sites. My school used OpenDNS successfully for about six years, and we never experienced any problems. If you're unsure about any of the technical aspects at the links above, it's best to seek out the help of someone who can assist you. 

I offer these as examples of two simple, quick steps parents can take to provide safety and security for their children. If we are to grow faith-filled kids, should we do any less?


Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Kids We Have

I'd like to riff off Dr. Maxwell's now famous quote, meant for teachers, for the purpose of relating an idea that I admit to finding difficult to accept at times:

Our calling is parent the children God gave us.  Not the children we would like to have. Not the children we were when we were little. The children we have right now.

Perfect Children
My kids aren't perfect. 

Yes, they make messes everywhere. (I actually cleaned spaghetti sauce off the ceiling once . . . and before you ask, I have no idea.) 

They whine. ("Shall I call the 'waaaaaambulance' for you?") 

They fight. (I swear there are two cushions on the couch, but they both seem to see only one . . . and each must possess it.) 

Ironically, Sunday Mass seems to bring out the worst in them. (I wrote about this in more detail here.)

And yet, my kids are small-- my youngest only about to turn two. I'm not complaining. These misbehaviors are normal, routine, and entirely understandable. 

So, why do  I sometimes wish they behaved even better? I believe it's because I've fallen into the trap of wanting to parent the children I wish I had, and not the children I actually have.

To use the classroom metaphor, it is ineffective for a teacher to approach his or her class with the expectation that the students will "be" precisely what he or she expects them to be, sight unseen. Teachers can't direct and orient their teaching to the "ideal" student or to past students. They must adapt to and address the needs of the students sitting before them at the moment.

The same goes for those of us parenting imperfect children. (Yeah . . . that's all of us.) We can lament the fact that they don't behave a certain way, or that they aren't as good as we were when we were kids (or as good as a brother/sister). Ultimately, this does our children no good, and it creates a harsh environment for learning and growing.

I'm not suggesting we do away with standards of behavior and accept misbehavior as the norm, just like I wouldn't suggest that a teacher forget the subject area standards or codes of conduct.  What I am suggesting is that we focus less on the "wishes" and "wants," and more on embracing the children God gave us, faults and all. Their flaws are opportunities for growth. Their sins are doors to God's grace. 

The fact is, I love my kids more than my own life. I owe it to them to parent the children God gave me.


Not "Shy" at All!

Odds are that one of every three people (or so) who reads this blog post will feel like the following bullet points describe him or her (they definitely describe me):
  • Large crowds and loud noises are tiresome, even overwhelming.
  • Hearing the words, "Now turn to the person next to you and make a new friend!" while sitting in a class or conference is a source of panic and/or simple frustration.
  • Being put on the spot to "share" thoughts or feelings actually freezes brain function and/or halts thought processes.
  • A quiet lunch and good conversation with one close friend is preferred over a party or gathering of many people.
You may not be familiar with the characteristics of introverts because extroverts are so much more common in our society, and in many cases even more prized-- "He's so outgoing!" or "She's so friendly!" being common refrains. Introverts are typically (and mistakenly) characterized as shy, withdrawn, or even brooding. In reality, being an introvert means that one's energy comes from being alone (whereas extroverts are energized by being around people). Read more about the differences here:

In her fantastic TED talk on the power of introversion, Susan Cain describes how our society has come to prize extroversion over introversion, and how this hurts people and ultimately damages our world.  (See it here:

Introverts in the Classroom
As a parent and educator, my primary concern is that my own children and my students are learning and growing to their fullest potential, especially in their faith. There are introverts in our classrooms who need quiet time to think, ponder, and assimilate new ideas. If you're an extrovert, this may not make much sense to you since you think aloud, by talking out your ideas with others. 

As an introvert, however, my process is very different. The best illustration I can offer is what a college professor once told me. She said that she could actually see me process new ideas during her class, "It's visible," she said.  "You wrestle with the ideas, taking them inside of you, turning them over and over, and making the connections needed for that idea to have meaning to you." This is how introverts make meaning-- by taking ideas in and bouncing them off of prior knowledge, challenging preconceived notions, and fitting the ideas in with existing knowledge.

If 1/3 of our students need time to make meaning like this, then silent time for reflection would seem to be essential to the classroom environment. Even more so, silent time in faith formation classes is an absolute necessity, as we strive to help young people develop a personal relationship with Christ.

How to Care for Introverts
Following some great educators and Catholics on Twitter, I came across this recent image through a tweet, and hosted here:

It's easy to see how this list can be applied to classroom or work environments. For students who are introverts (who process ideas internally), constantly forcing them into group activities can be detrimental to their learning and even lead to their frustration with the classroom. It's in the best interest of students to give them time to process, quiet time to think, and periods of peacefulness. These 12 guidelines are a great start.