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Have you Googled your (huggable) child lately?

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Tuesday, April 24th, 2007 — It was a Norman Rockwell moment.

In-laws and out-laws alike, chatting around the table celebrating a family birthday. I asked the birthday boy, our son -- married and the father of two pink-cheeked towheads -- how his business meeting with George, an acquaintance of ours, had gone.

Quite well, I was told. Then our perfectly respectable son and upright citizen chuckled as he told us that George asked him if he was the McGaraghan who had been stopped by police for "breaking into the Paly pool." Apparently, this piece of personal data had been secured during a Google search prior to their meeting.

Right in front of the whole group, including his mother-in-law, for heaven's sake, he said that although he and friends had climbed over the pool fence more than once he did not remember being stopped by the police. Furthermore, since his brothers had also scaled that fence, he couldn't be sure if he was the subject of the Googled rap sheet or if it was another of my offspring.

The moment was no longer Rockwellesque. Instead it brought back all those repressed memories of what it was like to raise four boys in a relatively small town.

I turned to Patsy, the bewildered mother-in-law, and asked her how she and her husband had managed to raise three daughters without leaving a trail of misdemeanors and embarrassing traces on the Internet.

Her answer: Rules. We had rules. The girls knew that if they broke the rules they'd lose their privileges. End of story. (And just maybe, I thought, she had girls.)

We had rules, too. Lots of them. But they didn't always keep our kids in line. To be honest, I guess we didn't have rules for every possible infraction. How could we or any parent anticipate every wayward move?

In my case, my best offense was a good defense. I prided myself on sniffing out clues of errant behavior and confronting the unsuspecting offender.

But even that was not enough to spare our children or ourselves phone calls, lectures and disciplinary action from neighbors, school officials and, yes, even the police.

I remember sitting in the Palo Alto Municipal Courtroom awaiting jury selection. The case in question had to do with interactions between the defendant and the police. The lawyers were questioning potential jurors about their past experience with the police.

I dreaded being called for questioning. Answering these questions would mean dragging family information in front of the entire room full of people. Moreover, I knew the judge from my husband's law school days. Was I going to have to bare my soul in front of her?

I felt like I was the one on trial.

As I slouched down in my seat I heard the judge call out, "Is that Nancy McGaraghan in the back row?" I answered while silently begging for mercy. I must have earned some Brownie points for enduring all the years of lectures and discipline, because the judge said, "I haven't seen you in ages. Come up to the bench at the break and we can make plans to have lunch."

Sometimes we get lucky! I'll never know if that was simply a friendly invitation, a move to alert the lawyers that I wouldn't be a good choice for the jury or if the judge-turned-angel-of-mercy knew about some of the family skeletons and was trying to spare me embarrassment.

What does any of this have to do with the price of parenting in Palo Alto today?

From what I can tell, not much has changed. That includes the power of a warm spring evening to ignite youthful and often foolhardy creative energies of teenagers.

Norman Rockwell images give way to scenes out of a Dickens novel as kids out in packs cruise the neighborhoods and hang out in that local hot spot formerly known as Burger King Plaza. Soon summer will bring more free time and less supervision for some.

Kids will always push the limits and give parents a run for their money -- in my experience, even when you have rules. It's up to parents to pull out every stop imaginable to keep them safe.

But when things go wrong, it is equally important to allow kids and their parents to pick themselves up and move on. When a friend asked me how we managed to raise such good kids -- because, they really were good kids -- I said that it's not about never making mistakes, but learning how to get up after you fall.

Part of parenting teenagers is remembering that, even when there are consequences, life goes on. Being stuck in embarrassment or gloating over another's misdeed is wasted energy.

Friends helped me learn this. Hindsight is also a wonderful teacher. Thank goodness, real life doesn't unfold on an easel and stretched canvas. We would die of boredom, an even less noble death than trial by fire.

But today's young people and their parents face a new challenge: a future haunted by reminders of youthful misdeeds, dredged from this brave new Google-ized MySpace world.