Overprotective? Who Me?

The light from the bathroom cast a green glow across the room, which otherwise was pitch black. I sat up in my hospital bed, my eyes fixed on the shaft of light that fell across the tiny face of my newborn daughter, committing her perfect features indelibly to my memory.

She had fussed, then nursed, then napped in my arms. I would have let her stay with me until sunrise if I had been a less experienced mom, but I knew my opportunity to rest was waning. The next day we would be going home, leaving behind the staff of nursery nurses and their round-the-clock assistance.

Reluctantly, I pressed the call button, and soon enough, the door opened and a shadowy figure approached my bed. “Ready to send your sweetie back to the nursery?” she asked.

“Who are you?” I asked her, searching for the hospital ID that should have been affixed to her scrubs. She wasn't the nurse I had expected to see.

“I'm Nicole, an aide. I work the night shift.” She reached toward me to take my baby in her arms.

Suddenly, a potential headline flashed across my mind: “Mom gives baby to phony nurse's aide; kidnapping confirmed.”

“Um, thanks anyway, Nicole. I think I'll keep her with me.”

Hey, call me overprotective, but at least you won't be reading about my misfortune in the Sunday paper.

That incident pretty much defines my approach to parenting. For nearly 17 years, I have made decisions with regard to my children that are intended to eliminate the possibility that a chipper news anchor can ever begin a story about my life with the phrase, “And here's one that will baffle you moms and dads.”

Thus, while parents from coast to coast are convinced there is nothing they can do to prevent their teens from engaging in hour after hour of online socializing, our house rules include “no instant messaging” and “no blogging or participating in social sites.”

A few weeks ago, I realized my overprotective nature might have kept me off the front pages once again.

It seems a 16-year-old Michigan girl met a man who claimed through the social networking site www.MySpace.com to be a 25-year-old West Bank resident. If you don't know what this site is, you are either (a) not a parent or (b) comfortably resting in a coma.

Approximately 72 million people use MySpace to post photos, blogs and personal diaries. Supposedly the site allows open access to users older than 18 and has “closed” sites for younger users (meaning the pages of younger users can be opened only if you know a password available from the page owner).

Yeah, right. Teens never lie about their age. But I digress.

The Michigan girl, having fallen deeply in love with her West Bank Romeo, trumped up a lie about traveling to Canada with friends so her parents would allow her to get a passport. Then she managed to fly all the way to Jordan before authorities caught up with her and persuaded her to turn around and go back.

A wire story quotes her dad as saying his daughter is a straight-A student and student council member who is a good girl. “Never had a problem with her,” he said. Maybe not, but there's a problem somewhere.

Some people think the central issue is one of homeland security. After all, with safety measures that include X-raying our flip-flops before we depart on an aircraft, it seems someone would have noticed an unaccompanied teen boarding a plane destined for a danger zone.

I think the security problem lies closer to home. In fact, I think the security problem is at home. In short: Too many parents are too comfortable with the Internet and not nearly protective enough about its role in the lives of their families.

Being a “good kid” is no guarantee that a child won't use the Internet inappropriately — or even innocently with all good intentions. That Michigan girl apparently didn't do anything but fall in love for the first time. Unfortunately, in the Internet age, even falling in love can be dangerous.

For years, our family has been among a handful we know that don't permit our children to use instant messaging or social networking sites to communicate with or make friends.

Though our policy sometimes has meant our children are out of the loop socially, it also has protected them from encounters that could corrupt their innocence and even endanger their personal safety.

My children haven't always been thrilled that our Internet rules are stricter than those of “everyone we know,” but when the story broke about the good girl from Michigan, they finally understood how serious an issue online communication can be.

There are people who think our house rules about the Internet are unrealistic and unnecessary. I even heard from someone that our strategy of sheltering our children “can't be done.” Really? Ask my teenage daughters.

We don't just set rules and leave it at that. We talk openly about the reasons behind them, and we maintain vigilant supervision so that our children can enjoy the Internet safely.

This way, if there's ever a headline about us, there's a chance it will say: “Overprotective parents keep dangerous strangers away from children; raise happy, wholesome young people.”

(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 19 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)

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