Big Brother Barbie

Mattel has introduced a new Barbie called “Hello Barbie.” Implanted with voice recognition software and a microphone, Hello Barbie records children’s voices, sends them over the web to a server where they are reviewed and analyzed, and then uses that information to develop a response.  Eventually Hello Barbie is supposed to learn and remember names and chat away with kids.  The new doll is designed to get Barbie, which has been declining in popularity with digitally obsessed kids, back into the game.

Privacy advocates aren’t impressed. They call the new doll Eavesdropping Barbie and Creepy Barbie, and question why any parent would want their child’s conversations recorded and sent to a faraway server to be analyzed.  You could imagine how such recordings could be misused if they were intercepted, or the server was hacked, and they ended up in the hands of kidnappers or child molesters.  Privacy advocates also wonder if the doll’s chatter could be used to encourage kids to ask for other Mattel toys.  Mattel, for its part, says it is committed to safety and security.

I wouldn’t want to bring any device into my home that would intentionally record and analyze my children’s conversations — but I also think we have forgotten just how much information our existing electronic devices already collect and analyze information about us.  Our cellphones have apps that track our location and tell us about the nearest restaurants. Our home computers collect cookies that remember the websites we’ve visited and the searches we’ve done and then direct pop-up ads for products to our screens based on that information.  Our cars have satellite radios and GPS systems that follow our daily journeys.  Our home cable and wireless systems are tied into networks that are transparent to call center employees thousands of miles away.  A good rule of thumb is that any “smart” device — whether a phone, or a dishwasher, or a refrigerator, or a car — is collecting and recording information and sending it somewhere, where it probably is maintained on a computer server and being used or sold.

Hello Barbie?  It’s more like Hello Big Brother.  And Big Brother is already here.

Should We Show The Door To Common Core?

These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration.  One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards.  In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core.  This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.

The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states.  Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them.  Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.

Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s.  At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.

With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process.  I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school.  Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core.  One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems.  When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said:  “Mom, we don’t do it that way!”  The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change.  NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.

I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond.  Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy.  Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it?  Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?

In Favor Of School Lunch Choice

First Lady Michelle Obama has long campaigned against childhood obesity.  One of her targets has been the food served as public schools.  Earlier this week she argued that students should not be permitted to pick what they eat at school because they will inevitably make bad, unhealthy choices.  Instead, adults should control the menus to ensure that meals involving vegetables, fruits, and whole grains are served.

I think the First Lady has good intentions, and I think her real target is parents, who obviously should be focused on decision-making that affects the health of their children.  Still, I groan whenever I hear someone involved with government saying that personal choice should be eliminated, and a federally mandated menu determined by purported experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture substituted instead.  Our government now tries to do so much — and yet does so little of it well.  Can’t something like school lunches be left to the decisions of parents and kids, without officious federal busybodies with taxpayer-funded jobs butting in to tell us what to do?

I’m not suggesting that kindergartners or first graders should be deciding what to eat, but at some point we need to allow kids, and parents, make choices.  Many kids already lead such regimented lives where there is nary a spontaneous moment or free decision.  How are kids supposed to learn how to make good decisions if they never, in fact, make any decisions?  Let them decide what to eat, or let parents pack their lunch — which is what happened when I was a kid.  If they make bad decisions and put on weight, their parents can respond and talk to them — which is what should be happening anyway.

Free To Play

A New Zealand school has come up with a “novel” way to increase student focus, reduce bullying, and decrease vandalism: it has eliminated all of the silly rules and restrictions governing behavior during school recess. Because kids now get to do things like ride scooters and skateboards, they develop a better appreciation of risky behavior, too. And, the school has been able to reduce the number of teachers monitoring the playground and get rid of the dreaded “timeout” area.

This result shouldn’t be surprising — it’s just a return to the way things used to be in every American school. Kids are full of energy and need to burn it off. If they don’t get to do it during recess, they’ll find some other, probably less positive, outlet for release. I’m guessing that the New Zealand school will see other benefits that become apparent over time as well. Because kids can do what they want, they are more likely to be active and therefore less likely to join the ranks of the morbidly obese. Because kids won’t be constrained by adult notions of proper recess behavior, they’ll be more creative and more willing to work with their classmates in coming up with new games and contests to fill their recess time.

When I was young, recess was fun precisely because it was entirely unstructured: you got to do what you wanted, without having to follow dumb rules or sit quietly at a desk. We made up games, hung upside-down from monkey bars, swung on the swings as high as we could and jumped off, and ran around yelling for the sheer fun of it. We survived, and our playground chaos didn’t have any effect on our classroom performance. I wish more American schools would adopt the Kiwi’s “hands-off” approach to recess and let kids be kids.

A Little Judgment, Please

The tale of Hunter Yelton is a small story about a small boy in a small town, but it may just teach us a large and important lesson about modern America.

Hunter is the six-year-old boy in a Colorado school district who had a crush on a girl and kissed her on the hand during class.  Their classmates reported it, and the school district determined that Hunter’s action constituted sexual harassment under the school district’s policy, which defines sexual harassment as any form of unwanted touching.  Hunter was suspended and the charge of sexual harassment went on his school record.

The word got out, and the reaction was swift and overwhelming.  People were outraged that a six-year-old boy could be accused of sexual harassment for a peck on the hand, and Hunter’s story became news throughout the country.  Now the school district has dropped the sexual harassment charge and has classified his behavior as “misconduct,” and Hunter is back in school.  He says he’ll try to be good.

The large lesson to be learned from this small incident is that judgment is needed — by the school district, by parents, and by the media.  The school district has a policy that defines sexual harassment so broadly that a six-year-old’s kiss on the hand apparently falls into the same category as a high school senior’s pawing of a freshman classmate.  Obviously, they aren’t the same thing, and school districts shouldn’t treat them as the same thing.  “Zero tolerance” policies can be a problem when they don’t permit teachers and principals to exercise judgment and distinguish between Hunter’s kiss of the hand and conduct that is much more serious and needs to be dealt with much more severely.

At the same time, a knee-jerk depiction of this incident as another ridiculous example of Big Brother run amok isn’t quite right, either.  The mother of the girl whose hand Hunter kissed has now been heard from, and she says that Hunter has tried to kiss the girl repeatedly without permission, and she has tried to teach her daughter how to respond when that happens.  She appreciates the school district acting to protect her daughter — and wouldn’t you feel the same way if it was your little girl?

The upshot of this story is that school districts should have rational policies that recognize distinctions in behavior, but also that discipline and order in the classroom is important.  When I was in grade school, pestering behavior would be treated by the wrongdoer standing in the corner and, if the misconduct didn’t stop, a trip to the principal’s office, a call to the parents of the misbehaving child, and a stern talk about proper conduct.  It seemed to work just fine back then.  Why shouldn’t it work now?

The Eyes Have It

During your childhood, did your parents ever say:  “Look at me when I’m talking to you”?  According to a recent study, that approach is not helpful if you are trying to persuade an unwilling listener, because people who are forced to make eye contact against their wishes become stubborn and harder to convince.

IMG_1618Of course, your parents didn’t want you to look at them to increase the persuasiveness of their argument.  When the “look at me when I’m talking to you” line was used, persuasion wasn’t the goal.  Instead, the context involved a different power equation.  Your parents were getting information from you, and then they were laying down the law.  They wanted you to look at them to be sure you were paying attention and to see whether you were telling the truth.  If you were squirmy and shifty-eyed, they knew you were lying like a rug.

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and it’s the truth.  How many of us have sat in a meeting, exchanging quick glances and raised eyebrows with other attendees that spoke volumes about the inadvertent humor in the droning presentation?  How many of us have withered under a father’s angry glare — Dad had a special look that was both cold and capable of melting diamonds, for example — or shriveled inside when a mother’s downcast eyes confirmed her terrible disappointment in your thoughtless actions?  Whether it’s lying, or love, or lewd thoughts, boredom, or bitterness, or bewilderment, the eyes tell the tale.

I can’t imagine ever telling anyone, outside of the parent-child relationship, to look at me when I’m talking; it’s too much of an overt power play to ever use in talks between two adults.  But I do try to keep and maintain eye contact, whether I’m speaking to one person or to a full room.  How else am I supposed to know when their eyes glaze over?

A Bit Closer To Home

The geographic orbit of the Webner clan will tighten come January.

Richard told us yesterday that he will be working next semester at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  The University of Missouri apparently requires students getting their Master’s degree in journalism to have a professional internship in the last semester of their second year, and Richard will be fulfilling that requirement at a fine newspaper in the Steel City.  Russell, meanwhile, moved into his new lodgings in the Detroit area yesterday.  He’ll be starting work toward his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art on Monday.

So, after years of Richard hundreds of miles to the west and Russell hundreds of miles to the east — each honoring the unwritten but apparently ironclad “no parents within 8 hours driving time” buffer zone — our family circle will shrink spatially.  With Richard and Russell each in a neighboring state, we’re looking forward to seeing them more often, and the fact that they will be located in interesting places we haven’t had a chance to explore yet makes the prospect all the more enticing.

The world is a big place, and New Albany, Ohio is just one tiny spot on the globe.  As parents, we want our children to dream big dreams and then try to make those dreams a reality.  That means having the independence and self-assurance to go out on their own and move far away if necessary as they pursue their passions and interests and work to build careers and lives that make them happy.

We understand this, intellectually — but our hearts tug in the opposite direction.  It will be wonderful to have the boys a bit closer to home for a few months.

School Starts Too Early

Yesterday — August 19 — as I began my drive to work, I was surprised to see the neighborhood kids gathered at the school bus stop.  Unbeknownst to me, it was the first day of school.

It’s jarring to see school start in the middle of August.  It’s not the way it was when I was a kid, when school always started the Tuesday after Labor Day and ended right around Memorial Day.  That calendar left June, July, and August as idyllic, undisturbed summer months, when kids could play from dawn to dusk without worrying about homework or tests.

Why has the school calendar expanded to eat into the summer months?  At New Albany Plain Local Schools, our local system, the calendar is dotted with random days off — for Staff Inservice Days (in September and February), Central Day (in October), Potential Waiver Days (in October and January), Conference Makeup Day (in November), and a No School Day (in April).  Throw in a two-week Christmas break, a one-week spring break, and holidays like Labor Day, President’s Day, Dr. Martin Luther King Day, and Thanksgiving, and you’ve got the modern school calendar.

Why all the days off during the school year?  My guess is that it is a combination of teacher, administrator, and school board interests in building in breaks and allowing people to get away.  Some of the days are strategically positioned to create three, four, and even five-day weekends.

That might be great for teachers and parents — but what about kids?  We fret about overweight kids spending too much time sitting on their butts, watching TV or playing video games, rather than engaging in unstructured, creative play.  Summer is the best time for the latter, but the modern school calendar cuts two weeks out of that prime period.  When is a kid more likely to get some healthy outdoor exercise — in August, or during an “Inservice Day” on a wet and cold Friday in February?  And don’t even think about what it does to kids to send them to sit in classrooms during the broiling dog days of August.

Our schools should focus more on what is best for kids.  I think that means cutting out the random off days, compressing the school calendar, and letting August be the magical, outdoor summer month it is meant to be.

What Are We Doing To Our Kids?

It’s tough to be a kid these days.  At least, that’s what constant studies tell us.

The latest study concludes that young children watch too much television.  That’s nothing new — people have been worrying about the impact of the “boob tube” and parents using TV as an electronic babysitter since I was a kid back in the ’60s — but the cumulative weight of the studies is hard to contest.  The most recent study, of children in Quebec, showed that children who watch too much TV when they are very young have impaired math and verbal skills.  If they don’t go outside and play with other kids, they don’t develop their motor and social capabilities and, as a result, are more susceptible to bullying.

There are other problems with kids who never leave the house for unsupervised play because of parental fears of kidnappers, rapists, child molesters, drug pushers, and other perceived dangers.  Kids who stay inside don’t run around, ride their bikes, and get the exercise that other kids get.  Indoors, they are in close proximity to refrigerators and cupboards full of sugary, starchy, fattening foods that make a considerable portion of them morbidly obese and prone to juvenile diabetes.  They spend hours in air-conditioned surroundings and develop asthma.

When they are watching the TV or playing their video games, they don’t need to use any creativity or personal self-direction.  And often their only outside play is under the careful supervision of adults in structured settings where the rules are established and kids don’t get to make up games, revel in the freedom of an unplanned summer’s day, or engage in the silliness that is part of the fun of being a child.  And often, if a kid shows any signs of rambunctiousness, he gets carted off to the doctor for a diagnosis of ADHD and a brain-numbing dose of some drug that is supposed to make him more docile and controllable.

It’s scary being a parent, with all of the stories of predators lurking and dangers for children seemingly around every corner.  Sometimes it seems that the best course is just to keep your kids inside, where you know they are safe.  But when we do so, we aren’t doing them any favors.

Patent Leather On The Fencepost

IMG_4232On our walk this morning, Kasey and I saw a pair of young girl’s dress shoes on the fence running around the Yantis Loop.  They’ve been there for a few days now and were dappled with dew in the early morning air.

It reminded me of my sister Margaret, who was a free spirit and independent thinker as a youth.  Removing her shoes to gambol in the grass is exactly the kind of thing she would do — and so was forgetting that she had done so as she enjoyed her frolic.  And when she came home, barefoot and beaming, my mother would say:  “Young lady, where are your shoes?”

To the young girl (or Mom) looking for a small pair of black patent leather shoes in New Albany:  They’re on the fence line directly across from the entrance to number 6 North.

The Fertility Factor

On Friday former Florida governor Jeb Bush — who apparently is entertaining notions of a run for the White House — gave an interesting speech on immigration in which “fertility” came into play

Bush is a proponent of immigration reform who believes that immigration is good for the United States.  (Of course, it’s hard to argue with that proposition, in view of the fact that the vast majority of Americans trace their family trees to hardy, self-sacrificing, risk-taking immigrants.)  In making the economic case for reform, Bush noted that immigrants start more businesses, have more intact families, and are more “fertile” — leading to a younger population.

Odd to hear politicians talking about “fertility,” isn’t it?  It’s a subject that makes people uncomfortable.  Those of us who lived through the “population bomb” era remember the dire predictions of mass starvation, food riots, and other threats from overpopulation, so how can having large families suddenly be a good thing again?  There are socioeconomic and religious and other factors at play as well.  Unmarried teenagers are fertile, but we aren’t encouraging them to have babies to help the country grow.  “Native-born” Americans, to use Bush’s phrase, are fertile, too — in the sense that they are physically capable of having children — but many of them have taken steps to control that fertility in order to end up with manageable families they can provide for.  Those families think they are being responsible.  Is Bush suggesting, instead, that they are being selfish and unpatriotic?

The mathematics of population growth, maintenance, and decline are indisputable.  Around the developed world, there are countries that are shrinking, with birthrates that are too low to fully replace those who die.  The demographic reality has a devastating political impact, because without young people to pay for the generous retirement and health care and housing programs for the aged, the social welfare model becomes unsupportable.  That’s why many countries with low birth rates are taking steps to encourage young couples to have larger families.  Have more children, so they can grow up, get jobs, pay taxes, and help those long-lived seniors enjoy their comfortable retirements!

Perhaps America will join the list of countries that provide economic incentives for larger families — or perhaps we’ll achieve that result through policies that welcome more of those “fertile” immigrants.  Either way, look for “fertility” to be an increasing topic of national conversation in the years to come. 

On Mother’s Day, A Father’s Thoughts

Happy Mother’s Day to all of the mothers out there, and to all of the lucky children and spouses who owe so much to the wonderful mothers in their families.

00019749-1I’ve been privileged to be the son of one great mother and the husband of another.  Although great mothers may differ in many respects, I suspect that they all share one crucial quality:  they have opened their hearts to their children, totally and unequivocally, so that their children’s welfare always is their paramount consideration.  Even when they are overwhelmed, or sick, or experiencing their own personal challenges, they are worried that their daughters and sons aren’t eating well, or are working too hard, or aren’t as happy with their lives as they possibly could be.  They are willing to do just about anything to help their children achieve optimal bliss because nothing is more important to them.  They say they don’t want us to worry about them, and they almost always truly mean it because they don’t want to add one scintilla to our everyday burdens.

We’ve all heard stories of mothers who, in moments of extraordinary strain and stress, have done extraordinary things like lifting too-heavy objects off children pinned beneath.  I’m not surprised by those stories.  There is something awesomely powerful about the mother-child bond and the love that bubbles forever in a mother’s heart.  If you are the object of that love, it is an amazing and humbling thing.

Looking Older

Russell will be coming home for a few days later this week.  It will be good to see him — and to subject him to the initial parental once-over.

IMG_3183If you’re a parent, you know what I mean.  When your children leave home and you see them only once in a while, you can’t help but give their familiar faces some careful scrutiny the next time you see them.  The passage of time always brings a fresh perspective.  Usually my reaction is:  they look and act so much older, like the adults they have become.  The chubby cheeks and white-blond hair of childhood are long gone, replaced by the visage of a mature, functioning twenty-something who is in control of his life.

With this visit, though, I suddenly realize that the tables may be turning.  When I was a twenty-something living in D.C. and came home for a visit, I remember looking at my parents and thinking that they were the ones who were looking older — a bit grayer, a bit more lined, a bit more stooped, and a bit more deliberate in their actions with an occasional wince as they rose from the kitchen table after dinner.  When Richard and Russell come home for their occasional visits these days, will they now be checking us out and seeing those telltale signs of age?

I’m going to have to pay more attention when I look in the mirror this morning as I get ready for work.

When One Of The Boys Comes Home For A Visit

Tomorrow night Russell comes home for a class reunion and a few days at home.  The sense of excitement and anticipation at the Webner household is palpable.

It’s the same whether it’s Richard or Russell who is arriving for a visit.  And if it’s both, it’s like Christmas.  (Of course, it usually is Christmas, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Their favorite foods are culled from a mother’s loving memory, purchased at the neighborhood grocery store, and made available for ready consumption.  (Hey, does Russell really still like Fruit Roll-Ups?)  Their rooms are carefully cleaned, sheets are freshly laundered, and beds are made with a precision that would make a drill sergeant smile.  Ample supplies of beer and snacks are laid in for the duration.  And, typically, a few new decorative touches get added to the household mix.

Phone calls and text messages are nice ways to keep in touch, and an occasional, surreptitious look at a Facebook page might provide some useful information about how things are going, but nothing satisfies that parental itch like an in-person visit.  How else are you supposed to really know whether your child seems to be eating enough and looks healthy and happy with his life?  Even if your kids aren’t big soul-confiding talkers — and boys tend not to be — you can still glean so much from random quiet moments, a dinner at the kitchen table, and a few smiling, sidelong glances at the strapping young men who used to be the tow-headed little boys fooling around on the front step.

Twinkie Converts

When you feel that you have made a significant difference in a person’s life, it’s a wonderful day.  Tonight, I’ve got that happy feeling.

A few days ago, I was talking to a colleague who was describing the school lunches she packed for her young children.  When I innocently asked how often they got a Twinkie — a staple of my school lunches — my friend was aghast.  Of course not!  I was astonished by that response, and chided her for depriving her kids of the quintessentially American childhood joy of golden sponge cake and creamy filling, dipped in milk.  I also mentioned my views to some others, and one day this week I found two Twinkies in their original packaging on my desk.  Rather than snarfing them down myself, I donated them to my colleague and told her, in no uncertain terms, that I expected her to let her kids at least have a taste.

When I arrived for work this morning, she somewhat abashedly delivered this note to me.  It reads:  Dear Mr. Wedner, We would like more twinkies we love them.  Love Bryn [and] Coen.  As further evidence that the kids actually got to try the Twinkies, the blue paper on which the note appears is marked with some small fingerprint-sized remnants of the Twinkies’ yummy goodness.

Welcome to Twinkie World, Bryn and Coen!  You really made my day!