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Trauma Ain't Training: An Open Letter to Parents Planning to Dupe Their Teens

An adult, posing as a kid, goes online to lure a teenage boy or girl into what could have been a dangerous situation. When the unsuspecting teen reaches the target location, his or her reaction is captured on camera, along with the reactions of the parents.
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An adult, posing as a kid, goes online to lure a teenage boy or girl into what could have been a dangerous situation. When the unsuspecting teen reaches the target location, his or her reaction is captured on camera, along with the reactions of the parents. They, of course, are in on the ruse and more or less behave abusively to their kid when they discover he or she was fooled - and then engage along with the TV host in a chorus of "I told you so."

I have now seen multiple variations on this reality-TV theme, and I'm fascinated that the combination of rolling camera and parental consent allow for this sort of abusive behavior. What else is allowable? Can I start a child labor coal mine as long as I film the kids suffering and serve chilled Chablis to the parents watching them from the lounge? Can we hire big kids to bully little kids on hidden camera, as long as there's an object lesson in there somewhere?

I posted this on Facebook a few weeks ago, in frustration at the futility and the meanness of this approach. In response, a friend asked what I recommend instead. He's right to ask: Although this method is questionable, the lesson it aims for - the importance of practicing what my father would call "street-smart" behavior in the context of social media - is crucial. So, as an answer to that question - and maybe also as a jab at our ridiculous reality TV culture - I interrupt my normal business blog to offer an open letter to any parents considering signing themselves and their children up for this sort of entertainment-masquerading-as-learning :

Dear Parents,

Are you thinking about signing up one of your children to get lured into a faux dangerous situation by a mock newly formed friend in social media, only to be caught on camera by you and a TV host scolding them for being so stupid as to place themselves in danger? If so, I applaud and share your idea that it's important to teach our children safety. But I'm writing to ask you to reconsider your approach. To beg you, actually.

Why? Because while your goal is admirable, your plan is crummy - for several reasons.

First, humans learn positives, not negatives. You don't teach someone to "not drown," you teach him how to swim or float. You don't teach someone to "not crash," you teach her to drive safely. Anything you do well or correctly, you do by way of behavior - you do the survival float, and you drive the car in your own lane. That's why your best teachers taught you what behaviors to practice, and then let outcomes - like not drowning and not crashing the car - take care of themselves. Imagine for a moment the futility of a driving instructor who only says "don't crash" over and over, but never mentions how to operate the vehicle or where to focus one's eyes.

Teaching your children to avoid unsafe situations is necessary, but the focus of your "teaching" has to be on the behaviors of which safety is an outcome. "Meet new acquaintances in a public setting" might be one example; "validate in real life what people tell you online" might be another. "Don't be unsafe" is about as useful as "don't crash."

Second, humans only change behaviors if the change makes sense within their real environments. Can you teach a person with no access to water how to scuba dive? Sure! You can rent out a pool, supply the equipment, talk theory, require practice, and get as far as demonstrated competence. But if your desert-dwelling protégé isn't ever going to be near the water again, your chances of a behavior change are nil.

Our children exist in the hyper-connected age of social media and online interaction. Trying to convince them that "they shouldn't ever make friends on the internet" is like trying to teach your smartphone-addicted adult friends to go back to the rotary dial wall phone with the curly handset wire. You won't get anywhere, because you're asking for a behavior that doesn't match reality. If you want a change, you must define new behaviors that fit the environment. So, "how to vet new social media acquaintances and build trust appropriately" has much better success odds than "don't ever meet a new friend online because it might be dangerous."

Third, humans learn best from success. The satisfaction and endorphin-driven pleasure that neurologically accompanies an achievement wires the brain to repeat the behavior. Maybe you're packing for a trip, and you want to fit three days' worth of business attire into a carry-on bag unwrinkled. Once you find an arrangement that works well - shirts over here, shoes on the bottom, belts rolled like so, you use it again.

Humans learn from failure too, of course. If you've crumpled your business shirts under your shoes once, you probably won't again. But learning-by-mistake has an important requirement: the mistake must be yours. If you try the wad-of-shirts approach unprompted, you learn your lesson and move on to another option. But if I tell you to pack that way, then return to exclaim that "I knew you'd fail and I hope learned your lesson," what you learn about packing is eclipsed by what you learn about me: I'm not to be trusted.

You can ask, even order, your child to try something that will work - like taking specific actions to vet safely a new online friend. Then, you can debrief afterward about went well - like whether he or she felt safe instead of pressured. That's what learning by success looks like. On the other hand, if you feel it's safe to do so, you can leave your child to make her own mistakes and suffer her own consequences. That's what learning by failure looks like. But you can't aid the learning-by-failure process by tricking your offspring into committing the mistakes you consider most instructive. If you do, the lesson you teach is that you're untrustworthy. And that's a lesson that will make all the other lessons you want to teach a whole lot more difficult.

Have I convinced you to take a pass on the whole reality TV spectacle? I hope so, but I realize I may have failed. Maybe you don't believe anything I've said, and you still think the best plan is to trick your kid into making a mistake, then try to extract a lesson in the form of "I told you not to do that."

If I can't get you to abandon this ill-conceived plan, can I at least convince you to keep it private? Turning the event into a public shaming by televising it benefits no one. Your child won't learn more - if anything, he'll experience less learning because of the trauma of humiliation. Nobody learns anything while embarrassed on stage in front of the world. And, while it's tempting to cite some sort of "greater good" argument for the broadcast, please realize that no other children will learn from your charade, either. Every other kid watching will assume, as humans do, that your kid was fooled because he or she wasn't smart enough, and leave it at that.

The only thing you'll be doing is building the portfolios of the producers, and entertaining the other parents (who will likely have the "not as smart as me" thought about you). I suppose you'll also be satisfying your own need for action. After all, creating the spectacle feels like you're doing something, while the type of coaching and training I'm advocating is slower, with fewer visceral feelings of success. I can see the draw, but the cost of all this entertainment is high, and paid by your child.

So if learning safety is your goal, please: try something else. And, if entertainment is your goal, might I suggest instead that you force your kid to pay the monthly tab on your Netflix account? You'll both get more televised drama, less personal trauma, and probably end up with a better relationship in the long run.

Respectfully,
Ed