Please don't look at the children

BlogHer Original Post

Lenore Skenazy has been stirring up the parenting world with her book Free-Range Kids and blog of the same name for quite a while, now -- I first wrote about her about eighteen months ago, when she allowed her nine-year-old to ride the subway alone. And while I applaud her challenge to the world to think more about how we treat our kids, and whether we are overprotecting them to their detriment, the latest brouhaha leaves me feeling a little less like Skenazy is championing a different way of thinking and a little more like maybe she just enjoys the controversy.

In a nutshell: Skenazy shares on her blog that YA author Eric Berlin was asked to speak to a classroom of 4th graders via Skype, but the teacher then asked if there was a way for the kids to see him without him being able to see the children. It's even noted in the retelling of the story that the teacher cited "confidentiality and other school district guidelines" in her request.

Skenazy's footnote on Berlin's story is: "Hey Eric: Children are our most precious resource. If we don’t protect them from technology-assisted remote-site author visits, who will?"

The bulk of the comments that follow are mockery of the teacher, the school, the parents involved; ruminations range from whether or not that teacher even understands how Skype works to whether people are truly afraid of Skype accounts being hacked so that pedophiles can see images of Little Susie in the third row, etc.

The story was subsequently picked up by Boing Boing, where it's tagged with "ZOMGWEREALLGONNADIERUNHIDE" and the mockery in the comments is continued.

One of the anonymous comments at Boing Boing took a break from the taunting to make what I thought was a salient point:

Yeah, yeah, snarky outrage. You folks have to understand the policy environment in which schools do their work. There are a lot of regs from the feds and states that are there for very good reasons. Unfortunately, this encourages a somewhat defensive, anti-innovation mindset. How do we start solving this problem? Find out if the school has a "visiting speaker" policy. Most do; I doubt any of those policies prevent the visitor from looking at the children. So the teacher (or better yet, district technology coordinator) gets the board or superintendent to extend the policy to "remote visitors". Better still: get remote visiting added to the district's technology plan so it becomes not only permitted but encouraged. See, bureaucracy is your friend! Schools are no worse than most large organizations -- think of what it'd take to get your employer or other behemoth in your life to adopt some obviously beneficial innovation that's not quite in the fairway of its business goals.

And on Skenazy's original post, BlogHer's own Stirrup Queen, Mel, comments so thoughtfully I would totally kiss her on the lips if that wasn't, you know, weird and creepy. Here's an excerpt:

I’m actually quite impressed with the teacher and not so much with the mocking of the situation. There are rules in place in the school, and those rules are dictated by the school and not by the parents (I find some of the rules at schools ridiculous too, but it’s not my place to tell them how to run their organization. I can only vote with my feet and place my children in a different school). This teacher asked the author a question, keeping in mind the limitations placed by her organization. She was doing her job and being responsible and the way we can have free-range kids is if there are adults around doing their jobs to create environments that allow kids to be free to be kids.

Between these two comments, I realized why I was so annoyed with the tarring and feathering of the teacher/school involved in this story. On the one hand, I agree completely -- it's ridiculous. First of all, the way you do one-way viewing is to just not use a camera in the classroom; so the question was kind of naive, in the technical sense. Second, it does seem absurd, at first blush, that this would be a concern.

On the other hand, sometimes schools have silly rules, and sometimes they're because the schools really don't get something or really need to join us in this century, but in my experience it's even more likely that they take the path of least offense-ability because we parents -- let's face it -- can be huge pains in the rear. The school has to consider any liability they may incur and the likelihood of parental complaint before they do anything.

Is having a guest speaking in the room any different than having him visit via Skype? No. And yes. And the same parents who would be happy with a visiting author may raise holy hell if they find out their children were broadcast via video without their consent. Should the school have prepared better for this scenario, perhaps sending home notices and/or permission slips, so that it would be a moot point? Possibly. Heck, I'll even go so far as to say probably. But is the poster-case for overprotecting our children and the damage it may wreak...?

I don't think so. Puzzling, yes. Annoying, sure. Kind of stupid? Even that. But worth all the torches? Schools have had bureaucracy a lot longer than we've been trying to protect our kids from the big bad world, methinks.

At Technology Liberation Front, Adam Thierer says:

It’s really quite sad when you think about what kids are missing because of this “worst case scenario” mentality. In this particular case, these kids missed out on the opportunity to potentially hear from an innovative author of popular kids’ puzzle books (Eric Berlin, author of The Puzzling World of Winston Breen.) That’s troubling enough. But just think what other interesting people or topics these and other kids may never get to experience because of this mentality.

Maybe I'm missing something, but did Berlin end up not speaking to the class over this...? I don't recall reading that anywhere.

Bookninja says of the story:

This was explained as a requirement of privacy regulations around photographing the kids. I suppose they were worried he’d record it and sell it to a pr0n site that specializes in attentive kids. Sick, man. Sick. (P.S. Big fan of the Free-Range Kids movement.)

Again, I think it's a leap to say "they were worried he'd record it and sell it to a pr0n site." As a mother to kids in public schools, I've seen the letter of the law trip up the spirit more than once. It's aggravating, but it happens. And I doubt anyone was running around crying about the sky falling or children being sold into slavery via Skype, but rather that we're looking at a blanket policy about children being videotaped that may have tripped up an otherwise excellent idea.

It's a story worth discussing. It's about new technology, and privacy concerns, and public schools, and parenting, and maybe even about paranoia, a little. But I don't think it's a prime example of what's wrong with the world or the way we parent our children. Not by a long shot.

Note, too, that if you go looking for folks commenting on this story... you'll find male bloggers. Not female ones. Why is that? Perhaps moms, as a general rule, are more accustomed to school rules and weirdnesses and know that they can often be gotten around without all this yelling and screaming...?

Is Skenazy overreacting? Am I underreacting?

BlogHer Contributing Editor Mir has been known to send her kids down to the pond with a casual, "Try not to fall in." She also blogs about issues parental and otherwise at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, and about the joys of mindful retail therapy at Want Not.


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