Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Don’t tell children how quickly to grow up

A school principal emails 2000+ parents of her students:

We all know that our world is now engulfed in technology. It can be a great tool but can also be problematic when not used properly. Instagram has become the favorite of many intermediate school students. The #1 item in the “Terms of Use” for Instagram clearly states that you must be 13 years old to use the service. There are very good reasons for this. Most importantly is that it is illegal for the service to collect information from anyone under 13 years old and the site does collect information from any account that is created. If they discover that someone is under 13, they will verify the age of the person who created the account and then delete it if they are under the age of 13. If your child has an Instagram account and has agreed to the terms and conditions of the service, we urge you to rethink that decision. Our children grow up so fast. Let them stay young as long as we can.
Unfortunately, inappropriate use has impacted our students socially because they often don’t have the maturity to disregard hurtful comments. Please help us ensure that our children are not involved in social media at the intermediate level. They will have plenty of time to face those issues. Fifth and sixth graders shouldn’t have more to worry about than necessary.
Our school counselors, [redacted], can help you and your child if you need guidance.

Thank you.

I agree with the parent who reported this letter.  I don’t believe that keeping children ‘young’ for as long as possible should necessarily be a parental goal and it certainly shouldn’t be a school’s job, or a school principal’s.  Isn’t the main job of schools to prepare children for adult life?  We need to protect our children, of course, but covering them in bubble wrap isn’t always a great solution.  I gave a talk to a group of ~11 year olds recently and as part of the discussion I asked about comments they’d received on Youtube videos they’d uploaded.  They said, as if reading from a script, “we haven’t uploaded any videos because we’re not 13 yet.”  Not very convincing and a little too practiced.  Interestingly, several of them spoke about their experiences with Instagram: perhaps they didn’t know there was a similar age limit of the reason for the age limit (it’s a legal requirement.  I’ll write about that another day.) 

The parent writes:

In fact, taken at face value, I’m confident this parenting strategy would do more harm than good. It is a goal of mine to foster a child-like perspective which produces imaginative play and a sociable personality, both of which allow my kids to be kids and provide a good foundation for being a successful, functioning adult.

That seems right to me. A child-like, playful attitude is a wonderful thing to foster and if more people retained it in adulthood, perhaps the world would be a batter place.  I’d like to think a playful attitude is a defining factor in geeks like me. But a child-like attitude doesn’t require bubble-wrap. It requires a safe space, but there are better ways to provide one than insulation from reality.

Instagram isn’t forcing my son to grow up faster. In fact, it’s helping him maintain an open mind and a playful imagination. It’s also providing me a window in to his world, which I love. I’m his biggest fan.

Right again.  Growing up in what was universally agreed to be the middle of nowhere, my access to interesting people and thought was limited to books.  I didn’t see books as limited, but I later learned that interesting people are even more interesting than interesting books. These days, kids have access to a really important resource: people recording themselves committing blithering acts to see what would happen. It’s inconceivable to me that children be shielded from this wealth.

The email subsequently explains that children “…often don’t have the maturity to disregard hurtful comments.”

I’m 37 years old, and I’m not sure that I have the maturity to disregard hurtful comments!

Not disregard, no. I tend to attract quite a lot of nasty comments and they don’t really upset me, but they certainly get my attention.  I suspect that the ‘maturity’ to deal with such comments is better approached by exposure coupled with a safe space to discuss them than by denying they exist.

The email goes on to say, “They will have plenty of time to face those issues.”

Spoiler alert

They are already facing those issues at school.

And, whether you know it or not, they are already posting Instagrams and Youtube videos.  And before you know it, they’ll be having sex as often as they possibly can.  We know that not teaching kids about sex is a really bad idea. We know that demonstrating that they can ask about sex and relationships and anything else is a good idea.

Kids want honest answers and we fail as adults when we lie to them.

The parent suggests an email better than the principal’s, which answers the same concern:

It has been called to our attention that many of our students are using Instagram, a popular photo-sharing app. We understand that keeping up with the technology your children use can be daunting, so here are a few ideas to help out.

1. Talk to your children about the apps they use and why. Ask to see them, let your children teach you, and try to see the world through their eyes and their apps.
2. Consider if and where your children might have unsupervised access to online services and ensure that you are comfortable with those situations.
3. Talk to our counselors about any concerns you might have. We are here to help!
Thank you!

I’d change one thing: I think point 2 should read “ensure that you are both comfortable”, but I get the impression that’s implied. Rather than trying to control our offsprings’ race to maturity, we can let them set the pace and be there and attentive to what they discover.  Let them explore and learn what they’re looking at and all learn from that. They’re going to do inadvisable shit anyway. If they don’t, we’re probably doing parenting wrong. 

Haven’t (successful) parents always held the same attitude about sex and relationships and shit like that?  We know that abstinence-only sex education is no education at all. We know that porn can be useful in many respects, but that it’s not terribly helpful in teaching humans how to relate to the various objects of our sexual desires.  In some places we’ve graduated towards better sex education. Let’s hope better porn follows. And let’s hope that we can manage better safety education than stranger-danger.

We know that kids are more at risk from people they know than from slavering strangers. Technology can be a way out of danger as well as occasionally a way into it.  Let’s teach our young to know the difference. Let’s not teach them to be the idiots we were.

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