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Friday, March 16, 2012

The internet is bigger than your backyard

A kind and genuine colleague of mine had a terribly upsetting experience the other day. Some cowardly troublemaker accused him- anonymously, via the internet- of being a pervert, presumably because he had the hide to be a man working in early childhood.

Now, this post isn't about the pros and cons of men working in EC. (My view, for anyone who's interested, is that our children would benefit greatly from seeing more committed men in nurturing EC roles, and anyone who makes a knee-jerk judgment based on an EC worker's gender needs a cold shower and a quick soapy mouthwash.) No, this post is about what happened next, and how we are insulated from seeing the diversity of the real world by our little cyberspace cocoon.

So, what did happen next?

Needless to say, our online EC community was horrified by the slur on our friend's character, and started brainstorming solutions to rid our colleague of this nasty little troll. And a few well-meaning people, righteously enraged on his behalf, suggested he should call the police.

At this point I raised my hand to say "Whoa, horsie"- even though I was also infuriated by the treatment of my friend. And even though I knew that the people who suggested it really, really wanted to help and meant well.

But people, the internet is bigger than your backyard. We have to be really careful about giving advice, making suggestions, making judgment calls when we're in that ethereal, disembodied space. The internet is not real life. The internet might contain parts of your own real life. But please, remember that your real life is not everybody's real life.

In real life, we have a locality, a demographic, a context. In real life, we have to do what works for us, where we are. And we have to at least consider that what works wonderfully well for us may be disastrous in another context.

And so, knowing my friend's locality and context, when people from across the waters cried 'police!' I cried 'enough'. Calling the police and expecting justice because you've been called a libellous name may be feasible in some people's own backyards, but in many other places in the real world, the word 'pedophile' will cause an official reaction of 'guilty till proven innocent'.

Where there's smoke there's fire, etc, etc.

It's absolute rubbish- of course it is. But in my friend's context, the absolute last thing I'd do to make the sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach go away would be to call the cops.

That makes me sound like a terrible cynic, right? No, I'm just a realist. A realist who doesn't want her friend to feel any more abused than he already does. So let's not get carried away and delude ourselves that underpaid, overworked police who are completely overwhelmed with calls about domestic violence, drug infringements, murders, child abductions and other major crimes are going to hear anything other than the buzzword 'pedophile' when somebody gets abused on the internet. Pedophile + computer = seize and investigate the hard drive. THAT is the equation I fear we would provoke.

The police don't share our context of knowing this man is good and genuine. They're not here in our cosy little cyberspace world with us. Their reality is one of suspicion and extreme stress, which can lead to badly judged short-cuts.

And that got me thinking about how easy it is for us to sit here pontificating, suggesting, advising into the ether, without sparing a thought for context. It's so easy to write blog posts and comments with our blinkers on, seeing only the lane directly ahead of us and forgetting that other people's lanes look very different. Heaven knows I've done it myself.

I think of the recent spate of controversies about using food in EC activities. What a lot of tension that provoked, as people divided along party lines to argue their case. Sensory play versus the ethics of waste- was there ever going to be a winner?

Finally someone (who'd obviously taken a deep breath and looked around her before piping up) invoked context, and the whole thing settled down. You have to do what works for you, where you are.

If the children in your centre aren't getting enough to eat at home, if food is at a premium in the country from which the majority of your parent body migrated, then making pasta necklaces and spaghetti rainbows is likely to be viewed as insensitive and wasteful. As an EC professional, or as one of those parents, you're going to be upset by the flurry of food-related activities that are unleashed as other bloggers catch onto the coat-tails of one successful post.

But for others, especially those who've researched toddler learning styles, sensory play makes the world go round and is an important part of the developmental learning program. For example, children who've spent most of their early childhood in care might well have missed out on the sensory input of playing with their food, and EC workers need to fill that gap. If you're one of those who really is 'in loco parentis' every day, you'll defend food play to the hilt.

And never the twain shall meet.

It doesn't really matter what the topic is. We all know that vaccination, breastfeeding, circumcision and co-sleeping, for example, will cause people to queue up in two neat lines to put in their passionate two cents' worth; even less inflammatory topics like helicopter parenting versus risky play can start the odd conflagration. On both sides, there will always be people coming from a place of hurtful experience. Context rules.

It comes down to taking off the blinkers and looking around before putting our fingers to the keyboard. It's so easy to sound like an expert on the internet. But nothing we say or suggest is a perfect panacea, and if we don't acknowledge that, we may end up stirring up a perfect storm.


  1. Very sensible post. On point! Often when I hit these topics on blogs, I try to think from the other perspective - and think about what common ground we may have. Usually we (me and the "wrong" person) have the same goal in mind - welfare and development of the child. When I look at it from that perspective, I can at least see the other viewpoint - even if I still prefer my own opinion. And I can respond with balance, sensitivity, and respect. Or I can choose not to respond and know that both of us are on a journey to help kids learn. Thanks for a great post, Annie!

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Scott. It's all about respect, really- and that means thinking about other people's contexts.


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