Last Friday my kindergartener came home with a flyer from the librarian, announcing that Monday would be the kickoff day of their Internet Safety Unit, and all children were asked to wear red to mark the occasion. On Monday I dutifully laid out a T-shirt with red on it (alas, our clothes selection is not so vast as allow me to instantly pull out a red shirt – luckily what was clean happened to have a smidge of red) and sent him on his way. That afternoon he excitedly got off the bus and told me all about the “bad guys” on the computer, like Meet Me Mack, who might ask him to meet him somewhere, Potty Mouth Pete, who might use bad words or show him scary or uncomfortable things, or Tell Me Tommy, who might ask personal questions about him or his family. If he saw any of these “bad guys” on the computer, he was supposed to turn off the computer and tell an adult immediately. He showed me a bright red flyer that outlined all of this, with his scrawled name at the bottom, pledging to follow these guidelines. My first thought was, if I ever caught my son on the computer without permission and unsupervised, he would be in so much trouble. My second thought was, they’re teaching this in kindergarten? Really? He can’t even read yet (although I’m well aware that some kindergarteners can). My third thought was, well, I guess we’ve come to the point where we teach about virtual stranger danger before real stranger danger (which comes in January). Is it really more likely for five-year-olds to encounter a dangerous person through the computer instead of face-to-face?

The next night, at Back to School night, I saw that they have computers in their classroom – although I don’t yet know how they’ll be using them. Again, I thought, really? In kindergarten? Do they have computer literacy SOLs for five-year-olds now? It started me thinking about how we really don’t view computers as a tool at all anymore – they encompass their own world and their own culture, to which we must get accustomed. Get kids using computers early, so they can intuitively understand them better. The assumption is that even little kids may be wandering around in this virtual world unsupervised, so we’d better teach them how to wander safely. But do we really want them to intuitively meld to computers? What does that really prepare them for? What does that help them do? What are computers really for, anyway – are they a means to an end, or a new world and culture to master and live in as fully as possible? This feels far more like cultural training than teaching them to use a tool.

And maybe it is most akin to learning a second language – the earlier the better, and in addition to learning the words and syntax, you do need to learn the cultural assumptions and boundaries and customs as well, if you ever want to to communicate effectively. But we all need a native tongue, a home where we’re rooted. Does such early computer literacy uproot our kids from the real? Are we erasing capacities in them to enjoy and value the physical when we teach them “virtual” too early? Will their native tongue no longer be a physical one?

I don’t know the risk involved, honestly. I wanted to put my kids in public school because I wanted them to have the capacity to know and love the world and the people in it – but yet be rooted enough in their own identity to resist what they knew was not true and not real. But at age five, my son isn’t rooted enough yet. And this issue of early computer literacy is so far from black and white – it just couldn’t get more gray. I just have this sneaking suspicion that it may be nudging our kids further down the slippery slope of technopoly – where the Internet has become a world with its own set of values, its own language, and its own customs, instead of a tool created and controlled by humans to communicate and exchange information more quickly and vividly. In the latter, we master the Internet and use it when appropriate – and DON’T use it when it’s not needed. In the former, the Internet masters us – we must learn as early and quickly as possible how to adjust to its rules and demands and values. Have the public schools already crossed that line that says more and more dependence on virtual communication is inevitable, so we’d better start teaching kids early so their synapses can meld with the computer’s? All the more efficient! Or are they still hovering at that line, like some of us are, trying with all of our might to pinpoint the exact point where we cross over from master to servant? And if given the choice, would they still choose to be master? Would we?

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