Love Them or Leave Them?
At their best, online parent groups are a virtual village to help raise a child. At their worst, they mirror the darker parts of the internet with judgment and drama escalated by lack of personal contact. Most online parent groups probably have at least some of these best and worst, but I’ve heard from (almost all) women that some groups are better than others. After my own experience with the dark side, I decided to try and figure out, what is the art of online parent groups?
So Much . . . Parenting
Since I never got the hang of message boards, I did not discover this concept of connecting with other parents online until well into my parenting journey. I envy those who optimized support from the beginning with this virtual network, but I wonder if it would have spiked my already high levels of stress and worry. So many opinions. So much information. So much support. So much judgment. So much . . . parenting.
Now that I am part of a few of these groups, I can see that they have different personalities, even if similar DNA, kind of like siblings. Even though parents NEVER have a favorite child, it’s clear that certain groups become favorites, while others may become a voyeuristic curiosity, or even act up enough to be abandoned.
I am typically the lurker. Contrary to the whole writing a blog thing, I’m actually a very private person, and a very sensitive one who stays away from Twitter drama and misunderstandings borne from the limitations of typing communication. I’m the farthest thing from an instigator, always considering other perspectives. I will edit and rewrite a comment for several minutes to make sure my phrasing best communicates my intention.
This is why a recent negative experience with one of my online parent groups drove home how when we rely on these groups for support and insight, finding judgment and hostility can shake up trust and confidence, puting cracks in one’s sense of community.
Assuming Good Intentions
Having high sensitivity serves me well as a psychologist, but maybe not as an online group member. I realized I needed to come at this topic of finding the art of online parenting groups with more than just my own limited experiences. So I reached out to get other feedback from a whole bunch of different types of people on what makes a great online parent group, and what gets in the way.
What amazed me the most was how similar the themes were across different groups of people. Shocker: Nobody appreciates judgment, negativity, or disrespectful comments (or too much marketing). Some people who responded asked amongst each other why the conflicts and drama pop up when clearly no one wants this or benefits?
Of course we are probably all dealing with overwhelming stress and high emotions at times, and may not fully think out what we impulsively type into the universe in the flash of a “post” click. But one of the comments I heard repeatedly was what makes a good group great is “assuming good intentions.” The whole culture of the group matters, whether that culture is one of respect and openness to different opinions, or of snarky comments and competitive bragging.
These groups have the potential for great power of community building. I heard from several moms who found smaller online groups with a more specific focus (like breastfeeding, pregnancy complications, or same-age children) that bred strong, positive communities, possibly due to sharing more in common than just a general “we all have children.” One friend shared an example of a small online mom group that engaged their children with each other virtually, and even branched into real-life outings that further bonded the mom community.
We all agree we want respectful discussion, support, and honesty wrapped up in a positive culture of acceptance. This is not earthshaking in any way, but I think the fact that it doesn’t ALWAYS happen is important to think about. How are we getting in each other’s ways? We likely have a lot of common ground, but then why does the judgment and criticism happen?
I know the simple answer may be human nature, but I could flip that and argue that it is also human nature to be kind, supportive, and wanting the best for a group as a whole. Maybe the answer is having too many different types of people in one group, but then again I heard from many how diversity of group members offers a richer, more balanced experience.
I want to blame the internet and today’s new norm of speaking to people online in a way we would never do in person. When I felt very misunderstood and somewhat attacked in one of my groups recently, I thought this person would never say this to me if we were sitting next to each other, in a real, personal interaction. Part of this may be my own delusion that I would project differently in real life, in a way that couldn’t be so misconstrued. But I actually heard from people that they “behave” better when they have good friends in a group of others they may not know in real life. It helps them monitor themselves more, and be more aware of how they may come across.
As we know from every great superhero story, with great power comes great responsibility, which is where group moderating comes in. A group for women who have endured a similar pregnancy complication, for example, benefits from a hands-on moderator team that responds swiftly to interactions possibly driven by understandably high emotions. Having clear rules and parameters for a group helps give clear expectations that can then result in easier enforcement when something starts to go off the rails. I have personally witnessed this succeed beautifully, and crash spectacularly, with “admin” who either shine and receive accolades, or resign from the pressure. And it's a lot of pressure, so kudos to anyone who takes that on -- they are truly superheroes!
Just Scroll On By
The way we act and treat each other in online parent groups reflects a values decision point. We know the stresses of modern parenthood pile on pressure from every direction. So do we let these strains infiltrate and add to the pressure, or do we allow the potential of a supportive community to act as an antidote to the pressure?
Loyal readers know I have some strong opinions about some hot parenting topics like attachment parenting and letting babies cry when sleep training, but within these, I respect the choice of each parent to decide what works for them and their family. We can have our opinions and still be kind and supportive, remembering the common thread of community that keeps us strung together. Because if we don’t, that thread will tatter and stretch until it breaks, and the community we sought for support will have been snapped into pieces.
We are all trying our best with what we have and what we know, in this moment, for our children. So I plead with all of us, when in doubt, or the impulse strikes to react with judgment, it’s okay to just scroll on by . . . we can be honest and kind at the same time.