Sunday, January 18, 2009

Guidance not protection

I was thinking about sex, predation and harsh winters the other night. Bear with me.

I live in rural Vermont in the USA, where winter temperatures range from +30 to -15 F (-1 to -26 C). Like many homes in Vermont our is heated by a wood fire. A wood stove is the central focus of our living room.

The extreme cold temperatures of the out of doors and the extreme hot temperatures of the exposed wood stoves indoors would seem to present real dangers to young children in Vermont. And though both have the potential to kill, less than 1 death per year of a child can be blamed on burns or exposure. Even the few incidences of frost bitten or burnt fingers in children is more likely to occur among visiting relatives than native Vermonters. From infancy Vermont children are taught to dress for the cold and to steer clear of the hot stove. They go outside and they play in the living room without injury because adults guide them

What does this have to do with sex and predation? Internet sex and predation are seen as significant dangers to children. The US federal government has created the child's Internet protection act. State and local police forces employ undercover cops to act as young children to snag predators. And schools are mandated to filter the Internet so that children are not exposed to obscene words, images, and websites like YouTube. We are trying to keep children away from something that is as ubiquitous as weather.

Protection is unrealistic and is no replacement for the wisdom of guided experience. As educators we have an obligation to provide children with opportunities to play near the wood stove. We need to have students stumble onto the inevitable naughty page, or talk with a stranger on line. It is only then that we can demonstrate the choices a child has and the benefits of each option. A parent's attempt at explaining the intense heat of a fire cannot replace the experience of being allowed to stand uncomfortably (but safely) close to the intensifying heat. Talking on-line with unknown "experts" and "students" provides a real opportunity to discuss the knowledge we have about others online, not to create fear of the unknown - to give students the skills (like layers of insulating clothing) to make good decisions.

We cannot always be with a child to protect her from weather, fire, images or Internet interactions. So we need to take advantage of the time we are with her to give her guided experience that leads to the wisdom to keep herself safe.

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