Recently, a friend of mine told me about her daughter's friends -- two teenage girls who are touting beer cans in their Facebook profile photos. These are under-aged kids. 14-year-olds.
"Why are their parents letting them put pictures of themselves with beer on the Internet?" I said.
"I think a lot of these parents are more concerned about their kids' popularity than they are with anything else," she said.
What does this mean? Is it a bullying backlash?
Newspaper headlines point to relentless bullying stories that end in suicide -- Phoebe Prince's 2010 suicide which stemmed from slut-shaming, and most recently, Tennessee teen Jacob Rogers's suicide due to severe anti-gay torments, come to mind.
Has the quest for popularity become so anxiety-provoking that parents, who are otherwise involved in their children's lives -- sports, arts, grades, clothing -- would allow their child to pose drunk with a beer can on the Internet? Of course there is the idea that the parents don't know what's happening in their kids' lives, but I don't believe this. Experts have been drilling parents about monitoring Internet activity for at least a decade, so sheer ignorance can't be to blame.
So I asked a friend in another town who generally takes a stand-offish approach with her 13-year-old, "I don't care where she fits in with the social pool, as long as she feels secure," she says. She mentioned a mother who is on Facebook every single day "friending" girls for her not-so-much-of-a-social-butterfly daughter. This woman is an anomaly my friend says in one breath, and then quickly admitted, "There are people who are on top of who's who in their child's life for safety reasons, but I think some people are doing it to see where their kid falls on the social ladder."
Rosalind Wiseman, author of "Queen Bees and Wannabes", who has studied tens of thousands of children and their social navigation, suggests that parents shouldn't confuse what we think is good for our children "and what we're just reacting to through anxiety."
If anxiety (you also know this as helicopter parenting) is the root cause of over-meddling in our children's lives, then a flurry of confusing boundaries have erupted as a result, provoking all sorts of open-ended questions like: how much should I be involved in my child's social life? Am I doing great harm to them if I rear my ugly adult head? And am I doing harm if I don't?
But friendships present different rules. Kids are always going to struggle with some form of social difficulty. What's changed is our level of unease around our kids' discomfort.
Alyssa, another friend of mine and a mother of two boys, admits to a similar experience. "My son might be happy one night to just watch a movie, and I say, 'Why don't you invite friends over?' I'm a 40-year-old woman, but I would feel bad if my son wasn't invited somewhere," she says. "We don't always let our kids fall where they may socially. We're pushing them into the direction of where the party is at."
So what's the answer? I'd like to think that there's a boundary that we can establish with our children that allows them to be individuals and be accepted by their peers without crossing that creepy line. There are always going to be kids who want attention and they'll do it in anyway possible -- holding beers on Facebook, being the class clown, or bullying someone because it makes them look powerful. But it's our job as parent to say: It's not your popularity that's most important. It's your friendships. It's your self-worth. It's your kindness. It's your intelligence. This should be your focus.
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