Parents today enjoy greater digital connectivity with other parents via chat groups on platforms such as WhatsApp and WeChat. In this post Sun Sun Lim, author of Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age (Oxford University Press, 2020), argues that while these parental chat groups can be beneficial, they also enable parents to confront each other over differences arising from their children’s social interactions. [Header image: Kelman Chiang, Singapore Photobank]
The adage goes that what happens at the playground stays at the playground. Scuffles and squabbles between children are meant to resolve themselves amidst the see-saws and the slides. All differences should be buried in the sandbox after a good cry and a wobbly handshake. But with parents increasingly connected to other parents via WhatsApp, Facebook or WeChat, friendships between children are increasingly managed by their parents online. So too are feuds between children, be they petty or weighty!
Growing phenomenon of parent-parent connectivity
My book Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age, focuses on digitally-connected families whose use of technology has lubricated their lives but also intensified the parenting burden and complicated the parent-child relationship. This heightened connectivity thus enables but also encourages parents to transcend the physical distance between them and their kids, to transcend every online and offline environment their children travel through, and to also transcend ‘timeless time’ and parent relentlessly.
There is a growing phenomenon of parents being digitally connected to other parents when their children are in the same playgroup, day care centre, classroom or sports team. In Singapore, where I conducted the bulk of my research for my book, such connectivity is par for the course for parents of school-age children . With every new school year, parents are added to WhatsApp chat groups comprising parents of all the children in a child’s class or playgroup. This rise in parent-parent interaction has also been noted in many other urban, digitally-connected cities in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. But what are the implications of this growing trend and are they all positive?
Pluses of parent-parent connectivity
To be sure, such connectivity has distinct merits, as parents can share information on opportunities for play and learning, or on logistical matters such as school reminders and childcare. First-time parents can gain tips from their more experienced counterparts, and newcomers to a community can adapt more quickly through mutual sharing. In a pinch, parents whose children are confused by school reminders or who have misplaced a particular document from the teacher can request help from other parents. Such support is even more acutely appreciated in environments where great stock is placed in academic excellence. Parents can also seek emergency assistance when a sudden schedule change disrupts their school pickup routines.
Beyond chats that are connected to face-to-face groups, parents’ online support groups can also provide a network of mutual assistance. For parents of children with special needs in particular, such groups can be even more critical for resource pooling and emotional validation, albeit with limitations such as privacy concerns and the long-term sustainability of online relationships.
From ballpit to pit of vipers
However, adverse consequences can emerge from heightened parent-parent connectivity, when parents become too immersed in their children’s lives and allow playground politics to seep into adult interactions. My research found that some disputes between children that took place in school continued to be waged by their parents in the online chats, with other parents taking sides and even offering support and solidarity, solicited or otherwise. These exchanges exacerbated tensions within the group and spilled over into the parents’ and children’s face-to-face interactions as well.
Within the online chats, some parents would publicly bad-mouth other children who were perceived to be misbehaving, warning all parents and children to beware of said child. My interviewees explained that these ‘difficult children’ were found to have certain conditions that led to their aggressive behaviour but that these other parents were unaware of.
In a recent media report, one mother was shocked to find that another parent had openly shared a photograph of some children in her daughter’s class with her daughter’s face circled, demanding to know who her parent was. There had apparently been an altercation between their two children and the mother in question eventually reached out to the other parent privately to resolve the matter.
As I explain in my book, which recounts various interviewees’ experiences, such parental involvement in their children’s squabbles is not entirely healthy. While parents are understandably aggrieved when they perceive that their children have been bullied or slighted in some way, allowing parental protectiveness to rise to the fore and actively intervening can have some unfortunate consequences:
- When parents interfere, it is likely to escalate the situation and complicate the mediation efforts that the teacher or institution seeks to introduce.
- By advocating for their children, parents deny their children precious learning opportunities to assess social situations and engage in independent conflict resolution.
- In being over-involved, parents may amplify their children’s dependence on them for emotional support and problem-solving in the long run.
Forging a positive culture of parent-parent connectivity
How then do we prevent these chat groups from unravelling while retaining the many benefits of greater parent-parent connectivity? And how do we ensure that children are not adversely affected by parental over-involvement?
- In the first instance, it would be helpful for schools and other child-minding institutions to provide an honour code for such parent-parent chat groups.
- This honour code should offer guidance on the do’s and don’ts of such chat groups.
- Parents should be encouraged to interact in a civil manner and to foster an environment of mutual support.
 We conducted face-to-face, in-home interviews with 70 parents with 163 children to understand how they incorporate digital technologies into their everyday lives and parenting practices.
This post gives the views of the authors and does not represent the position of the LSE Parenting for a Digital Future blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.