The first piece of advice you get when you’re the parent of a teen with a social media presence is “make sure you friend them on Facebook.” I know this because I’ve heard it dozens of times. I’ve even said it myself to other parents. It’s solid wisdom for the social media age. Unless, of course, you apply it to yourself when your 73-year-old mother sends you a friend request.

It’s not uncommon these days to have three generations of a family connected via Facebook. And there’s something wonderful about that! But there’s a downside too, of course (because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about social media it’s that there’s always a downside).

There’s no photo attached to my mom’s account, just Facebook’s default grayed-out silhouette. I notice she has fifteen friends already (ten of whom are also default gray—this could be what they have in common!)

I have no choice but to follow her. Because she will hound me relentlessly if I don’t.

This puts a whole new spin on my previously sound advice about friending your teens.

For me, it’s still a largely academic exercise. My oldest child just turned fourteen, and doesn’t yet have a Facebook account. So until now I haven’t had to take my own advice. But having my own mother as a “friend” has changed my outlook on being friends with my children. In fact, my new strategy is to hover silently in the background of their Facebook feeds—lurking. Because I’m wary now of doing to my teenage daughter what my mother does to me: leave a comment on every single thing I post. My mother loves me desperately, you see, and wants everyone to know how terribly proud she is of me. She’s killing me with kindness.

I’ve got loads of friends in this same Facebook sandwich—stuck in between their parents and their kids. More than one of them has parents on the opposing end of the political spectrum, who consistently post things that make those friends cringe. One friend’s mom got ahold of a scanner and posted dozens of embarrassing childhood photos.

Oversharing from parents (“This is us at our salsa-dancing class!”) is also a common theme. Also, when you tell your parents that they’re giving you TMI, it’s just another acronym you’ll have to explain. Sigh.

Over-sharing

I recently read an article that took this idea to its logical conclusion. Parents today are getting so involved in their children’s lives that the involvement itself is starting to change the outcome.

80% of adults say they’ve seen parents put their attempts to get the perfect photo ahead of their child’s enjoyment of an event, according to a recent survey. One mother of a 3-year old child told researchers, “I disciplined my son and he threw a tantrum that I thought was so funny that I disciplined him again just so I could video it. After uploading it on Instagram I thought, ‘What did I just do?’” Another parent snapped photos of a crying child who had lost a tooth rather than console him. Other admissions involve making children recreate happy “spontaneous” moments for the camera.

Social media is a new development for everyone, even grown-ups. So we have to learn our lessons now, right alongside our kids. Learning not to over-share, keeping respectful boundaries about what to post and what to keep to yourself, and respecting other people’s privacy—these are lessons we all need to practice.

Now that I’ve been subjected to parental involvement in my own social media life, I have no choice but to look at it from a different angle. My daughter Claire isn’t on Facebook, yet, but I realized that hasn’t stopped me from posting photos of her on my wall. Mostly I get her approval before I post—but not always. Two years ago when we moved from Maryland to Massachusetts, I snapped a photo of my family as we arrived at the Boston airport for a house-hunting trip. The photo so perfectly summed up our whole family’s attitude toward the impending move that I posted it, even knowing Claire would likely not approve.

I didn’t do this to improve my social standing or to see how many likes I could collect. I was sharing a difficult moment with my far-flung friends, in the hope that the ones who’d been through a similar experience—having to move a middle-schooler across state lines—would relate, and maybe even share my pain. But the point is that I didn’t ask my child if I could share a photo of her, one that she might have objected to. And I should have.

Lessons learned

This time around I did things differently. I showed her this blog post and asked permission to share it. Two years has given her the emotional distance not only to tell me I could use the photo, but to laugh at it herself. She went on to talk about how much she likes it here now. Which brings me around pretty nicely to the upside of social media. Claire still has friends back in Maryland, and sees some of them weekly via Instagram or FaceTime. It’s a bright-side I can’t ignore because it’s made my daughter’s life demonstrably better. Social media has given her something that no amount of long-distance phone calling could have—a steady face-to-face connection with faraway friends.

One last thing

As I was getting ready to publish this post it occurred to me it would almost certainly be shared on Facebook. Which would mean my mom would see it. Having learned my lesson, I gave her a call in advance. I told her what I was doing and why. Luckily, she laughed. Her lack of a profile picture, she said, just might be on purpose. “Maybe us old folks don’t want everyone to see us old and wrinkly.” She also pointed out how much she enjoys the closer connection she has with her grown children and grandchildren because of Facebook.

And so it all came full circle. From now on I will ask my kids before I post photos of them. From now on I will make sure I’m not letting my desire to document their lives get in the way of enjoying the moment. From now on I will do unto my daughter as I would have my mother do unto me (at least when it comes to Facebook.)

And as a bonus, my mom has promised to lurk a little more and comment a little less. Proving that when you open up a conversation with people, good things happen. That’s a piece of advice I can get behind.