“It’s like Gossip Girl, Mom.”

My daughter’s school administration called for an assembly this week, because of this “Formspring” thing that has been causing such anguish for dozens of students and consternation on the part of school authorities.

Formspring is a networking site, the newest social media platform keeping kids glued to their computers and mobile phones. On Formspring, an account user invites readers to “ask me anything”. Participants in this real time press conference then type in questions and can choose to leave their own usernames, or remain anonymous.

Launched just last November, Formspring appeared on the microblogging site Tumblr as a way for bloggers to answer questions from readers. Naturally the feature went crazy viral, spiking to 50 million unique visitors last month.

Given teens’ rather unsettling willingness to talk about themselves, Formspring’s popularity comes as no surprise to me. It’s a brilliant and highly addictive combination of Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Participating in a Formspring session can make anyone feel like a celebrity doing a Q and A.

Yet I have seen highly engaging conversations on the Formspring accounts of responsible, mature users: from the very erudite (discussions of books being read; existentialist debates) to typical morning-after chats about the latest episode of Fringe.

Our Very Own Gossip Girl

However, in the scenario being played out in this particular school, students have been posting opinions disguised as questions. Some may appear innocuous enough (“guy in my English class: hot or not?”). But when kids can hide behind anonymity, the statements are attacks: direct, hurtful, malicious; and yes, names are named.

School officials are at a quandary as to how to ferret out the abusive posters, but in the meantime, guidelines have been issued for reaching out to the victims of this treacherous new form of gossip. Like my daughter put it, “It’s like we have our very own Gossip Girl.”

My daughter was at one of the assemblies held simultaneously across her private high school. A graduating senior this year, she’s a digital native who has moderated online discussions and participated in various online communities since she was about 12. She was an active participant, eager to share possible solutions.

What surprised me was how little administration seemed to understand about how Formspring – and other networking sites – worked. And how stopping the abuse will take more than just “shutting down the site”. The perps simply set up another account – like ninjas disappearing into the mist, then resurfacing right behind you.

I’m no educator or psychologist. I just happen to really like technology. And I like keeping up with what teens are up to – it was part of my job as a journalist and music-and-media practitioner. But I’m a mom too; and thankfully my teenagers think it’s cool that I know what’s what. By listening to what they listen to (we swap playlists on our iPods) we are often hanging out in the same places; their world is not alien, unexplored territory to me.

Sandbox Mentality

Kids are blindingly fast in identifying what’s cool and the most tech-savvy amongst them are also very early adapters. What if school administrators weren’t so late to the networking site game, the way corporations belatedly accepted Twitter and Facebook as marketing tools? I make no generalizations here, but maybe authority figures in our kids’ lives need to be thinking more like Millennials – don’t come late to the party (or worse, not get invited at all). Maybe host a party once in a while.

Colleges and universities have already come onboard the Twitter bandwagon, I know. So here’s an idea: what if high schools found Formspring before the bullies did? What if some cool English teacher hopped on the Formspring bullet train as a teaching tool (“ask me anything….about Macbeth”). Or what if the guidance counselors had a Formspring account so students could anonymously “ask anything”? As a bonus, said guidance counselors would be able to monitor or at least shadow (in a benevolent, Jedi kind of way of course; not like stalk students) every kid at school with an account?

The real-life community that is my kid’s school is generally a safe environment; but kids are in their virtual sandboxes all day long. Maybe more of us should get in there with them – sometimes playing alongside, but mostly, keeping a watchful eye so they learn to play nice.

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The Courtesan I

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College Prep 101: Lesson 1

I have this darling aunt whom I absolutely adore, who entered the convent at the age of 17. She’s in her sixties now, sharper than a knitting needle, and living in an abbey in Wales. She told me once she wanted to learn how to use a computer. “So I take the plug,” she said eagerly, “and plug it into the wall. And then what?” Expecting me to explain the intricacies of computer usage in three simple steps is how a few of my friends are approaching the maze that is the college application process.

I’ve received a handful of email requests for bits of advice on what parents can do to get their precious ones into college. The tone is either confused or overwhelmed; at times naive, often frantic. They ask me several versions of the same question: “Can you help me help my kid get to college?” Having one happy and thriving college freshman and one graduating high school senior seems to have turned me into some sort of go-to person for anxious moms of soon-to-be college frosh.

Their panic is understandable, but like my endearing aunt’s question, there is no single, quick answer. But I really, really want to help them, so the process can be as fun and wisdom-generating as it is for me. The learning curve demanded of parents can be a steep one though. The college application process feels like a test that they suddenly need to cram for, and as with all exams, there is a time limit.

Cramming is never a good idea. Getting your kid into college isn’t some graded project, but it wouldn’t be fair to yourself or your kid to scrape by with a C. It also doesn’t imply that your child needs a Harvard acceptance to score an A+. You and your one of a kind offspring deserve an A+ and that takes research, preparation, and the right attitude.

An attitude check is vital. The right attitude will put you on the same page as your kid. If you’re not, he won’t want you in his study group. So do your homework, starting with an attitude adjustment.

1. Remind yourself that your dream school is not likely to be your child’s dream school.

What parent hasn’t lived vicariously through their children, even for a few brief moments? Generation gap notwithstanding teens are faced with opportunities, job prospects, and even college majors and specialty schools that didn’t exist when we were 18. Your child will want to apply to colleges that will best serve his career goals (and other very personal preferences and objectives), and not yours. So keep an open mind.

2. Beware the Branded Sweatshirt mentality! Be cognizant that while every parent dreams of sending a child to an Ivy, there are dozens of schools that might be a better fit for your child. Be wary of adhering to the belief that only brand name colleges and universities are the best.

This deserves a blog post all its own, but for now, ask yourself two questions: a) Why is it important to you that your child apply to Harvard/Princeton/Yale (or any of the top 10, best of the best universities)? b) If your child shows interest in a school with less brand recall, how would you feel?

Prestige-hunting in most aspects of life is just plain tacky. It’s no different when you’re college hunting. Among parents in my social circle, and even in the guidance office, prestige-hunting in the academic sense is discouraged, even for qualified and stellar seniors. Most times, the motives are parent-centric, rather than focusing on what’s best for the student. Today’s philosophy, very relevant to this generation of Millenials and the economic climate, is “look for the best fit”.

3. College is an investment, but it doesn’t have to be expensive.

There is a staggering amount of unclaimed scholarship money available to students that goes unutilized because no one has bothered to apply. There are grants and financial aid packages, available to anyone who takes the time to fill out the forms, and do the supplements required.

While touring colleges with my kids two years ago, the tour guide told us the story of one young woman who applied to every single scholarship competition she even remotely qualified for. She won over a hundred different packages, both big and small. With her scholarship winnings she managed to finance her entire freshman year, an amount totaling about $50,000.

Next up, some advice that any parent of teenagers might find useful, and timely. The name of the game is research, and the winners are likely to be parents who start playing the minute their kid starts high school.

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My 2009: A Status Update

On my best writing days, I can slam words together without much effort. It’s like I’m possessed and the word flow is unstoppable. Ordinarily though, it’s a painful, laborious process.

Yesterday I came across a shortcut for story-telling. It tells as much about how we are expressing ourselves in our SMS society, as it does about what we did last summer. And last spring. And in the last few days of the year.

Here is my 2009, a story stitched together using The Best of My Status Updates.

500 words before I sleep * is grateful her kids don’t mind McDonald’s for dinner tonight * is staying up to watch history in the making * actually went for a run…and liked it * welcomes home her two little wanderbunnies * is living the dream * lo and behold a shopping trolley in my bedroom. must be Moving Day * loved offspring’s reaction when we came home from shopping and gave her a new amp * is eating pink sorbet * listening to Bjork on a Saturday morning * is ready to see her daughter switch that tassle. Thank you my friends, for the free-flow Moet * Up at dawn for a walk on the beach with my dad, then pancakes and sausages * eating cereal at 2am and thinking: my daughter moves away to college next week * loving all the sweet tea, warm biscuits, and Southern hospitality * back in the Windy City: hello, deep dish pizza * why can’t I nurse a coffee the way I nurse a drink? * is going shopping in her closet * coffee makes it all better * hopes to see shooting stars tonight *

The quotidian can surprise, too.

What was on your mind, in 2009? Do share.

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What To Expect During Your Kid’s Senior Year

Muse was a sophomore when we started getting letters via backpack mail about preparing our 15 year-old for college. We sputtered in surprise; we ignored the letter; we were in denial. We felt like we were reading a bunch of spoilers. (I hate spoilers.)

Truth is, there is no better time than your kid’s 15th birthday to start talking about college; or at the very least, thinking about it. Fast forward to your child’s last year in high school (where did the time go?) and trust me, if this is your first time with a fledgling adult in the house, you can be caught unawares. Here’s a bit of a peek into that not-too-distant future.

1. They will talk to you about their college application (apps) process.

Your response: Listen. And hand over your credit card (to cover application fees ranging from $45-$85 per school) or start searching for scholarship money to pay for your child’s tuition (and your sanity). Great source: Fastweb. I cannot stress enough that now is the time to start listening more, and “sharing your opinion” less. As one wise dad has put it, you go from being Head Coach, to Assistant Coach. Get used to it.

2. They will not want to talk to you about their college apps process.

Abruptly in the midst of the whole college application drama, your child will suddenly shut down and refuse to talk about the Big C. Your response: Be casual, act nonchalant, ask if she wants something to eat. Even if you are painfully aware that an application deadline is looming, and your child decides she would rather play Halo or shop the bejeezus out of her Christmas money, say nothing. And take care to not even mention the word “college” in her presence; or to the child’s grandparents as you attempt to update family on the phone, or over Skype. She will hear you.

3. You will feel a strong urge to micro-manage your child.

This includes asking to see your child’s college essay, or hinting at what college sweatshirt you can so see yourself wearing. Your kid’s at the grownups’ table now, and thus will need plenty of elbow room, even if she knocks down a glass or two. She must now make decisions that will directly impact her life (and well, fine, your pocket too – but that’s another post altogether) and that’s pretty epic. Your response: Say to yourself, “my child is a young adult.” Repeat. Repeat until you possibly start to believe it. If this doesn’t work, there is #4, which guarantees it.

4. Facebook and Twitter make the waiting a lot more challenging.

As friends jubilantly post their acceptances throughout the holiday season and the cold months of winter, your child may begin to feel unsettled and insecure. This marks the first time he starts to Think About The Future. You will hear the word “fail” a lot. The pressure at this point is not “will I get into my first choice dream school” but “will I go to college. At all.” Your response: reinforce your child’s strong points. Remind him that there is a “perfect fit” for every single incoming freshman.

The 2008 edition of US News America’s Best Colleges says that there is in all likelihood a college somewhere that will absolutely love your kid. Even if he isn’t captain of the football team, or plays the cello, and or speaks four languages. Even if he’s just a regular kid, like the best of them are. NACAC lists schools with leftover spots in its fall freshman class every May, in the remote possibility that you need a panic button to hit.

5. Don’t be afraid, it’s only senioritis.

When Ferris Bueller ditched school one beautiful spring day in Chicago, he wasn’t just cutting class. He was suffering from senioritis. This afflicts most high school seniors, the high-achieving ones as well as the ones who (frighteningly) remind you of Matthew Broderick. Typically you will see senioritis hit in the second semester, right around Prom. Yet Muse’s art teacher Ms. Harvey tells me it spikes in November, as seniors scramble to complete college apps (see #1 and #2); and again in late April, especially for kids who have yet to choose a college. Meltdowns are commonplace, and dramatic. Response: “We have a saying in the faculty, on the eve of May 1,” says Ms. Harvey. “It’s May,” she intones, ominously. “Duck.”

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Coming Up

Insanely busy week. What a relief that I’m not buying too many presents this year (I’m baking most of them) and I’ve sent in the last magazine article of the year. So as far as paid work for 2009 is concerned, and most of my must-do’s, I am done. And free to do stuff that, well, I do for free. Hah.

So here is a preview of what I have planned for the next few weeks.

1. Write: a checklist for parents with a kid graduating in June 2010 (go Seniors!); a kind of “what to expect when your kid is expecting college acceptance letters” piece. I don’t see too many books about that; or blog posts either.
2. Start: my One Song, One Photo project. I might root around my old stuff to jump-start the process of matching up a song title from my iPod with a photographic image.
3. Think about: What were the absolute top ten albums of the decade?

Your turn. What are your plans this week?

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