I Received This Email from My Son’s Principal

24 Jan 2015

Parenting in the digital age requires navigating educational opportunities for our students in ways that are far different from a generation ago. At Getting Smart, we are constantly exploring how innovations in learning impact parents and their students. That’s why we were so excited to find this story.

We’re sharing this blog that first appeared on medium.com by Jason Stirman as part of our recently launched Smart Parents, a blog series and culminating book project. Sponsored by Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Smart Parents will act as a resource for parents creating, choosing and advocating for powerful, student-centered learning experiences with their children. This project is by parents, for parents and will be a resource for navigating education in the midst of technological change.

We would love to have your voice in the Smart Parents conversations. To contribute a blog, ask a question, or for more information, email Bonnie Lathram with the subject “Smart Parents.” For more information about the project see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning.



By: Jason Stirman


We all know that our world is now engulfed in technology. It can be a great tool but can also be problematic when not used properly. Instagram has become the favorite of many intermediate school students. The #1 item in the “Terms of Use” for Instagram clearly states that you must be 13 years old to use the service. There are very good reasons for this. Most importantly is that it is illegal for the service to collect information from anyone under 13 years old and the site does collect information from any account that is created. If they discover that someone is under 13, they will verify the age of the person who created the account and then delete it if they are under the age of 13. If your child has an Instagram account and has agreed to the terms and conditions of the service, we urge you to rethink that decision. Our children grow up so fast. Let them stay young as long as we can.

Unfortunately, inappropriate use has impacted our students socially because they often don’t have the maturity to disregard hurtful comments. Please help us ensure that our children are not involved in social media at the intermediate level. They will have plenty of time to face those issues. Fifth and sixth graders shouldn’t have more to worry about than necessary.

Our school counselors, [redacted], can help you and your child if you need guidance.

Thank you.

Look, I get it, she’s just trying to help by emailing all 2,000+ parents, but she’s not. Let me break it down.

Terms of use

She’s right, according to Instagram’s Terms of Use, you must be at least 13 years old to use the service. If Instagram allowed children (12 or under) to use their service, they would be subject to COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which is both very complicated and very risky. It’s much easier for Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook, or (insert popular online service here) to simply state that users must be 13 or older (18 for some services like YouTube) in their terms of service.

Side note—COPPA is a great example of outdated legislation. It defines “website or online service” as…

  1. a home page of a website;
  2. a pen pal service;
  3. an electronic mail service;
  4. a message board; or
  5. a chat room.

Instagram doesn’t fit any of those descriptions, but this is another post for another time. The thing that bothered me most about starting this email with a mention of Instagram’s terms of service was that it was a straw man argument, a distraction from the real point she’s trying to make, which comes next…

Let kids be kids

She immediately goes on to say, “Our children grow up so fast. Let them stay young as long as we can.” Kids staying young sounds endearing, but it simplifies a complicated set of issues for parents.

As a parent, it is my job to provide a safe environment for my children to grow up in. They will grow up regardless, but I can help define the pace of their emotional maturation by providing boundaries that allow for safe exploration into the coming world of being a teenager, and next, being an adult.

Letting my kids stay young as long as they can is not a parenting goal of mine.

In fact, taken at face value, I’m confident this parenting strategy would do more harm than good. It is a goal of mine to foster a child-like perspective which produces imaginative play and a sociable personality, both of which allow my kids to be kids and provide a good foundation for being a successful, functioning adult.

The rate at which children mature physically, mentally, and emotionally, is highly individualized. Some kids just grow up faster than others. If the email I received signifies that this school has a goal of keeping kids young for as long as possible, I’m not sure that the school and I are on the same page.

Instagram isn’t forcing my son to grow up faster. In fact, it’s helping him maintain an open mind and a playful imagination. It’s also providing me a window in to his world, which I love. I’m his biggest fan.

Hurtful comments

The email subsequently explains that children “…often don’t have the maturity to disregard hurtful comments.

I’m 37 years old, and I’m not sure that I have the maturity to disregard hurtful comments!

Hurtful comments are, unfortunately, a part of life. They start on the playground in elementary school and, from my experience thus far, continue into the professional workplace. Social media exacerbates this problem by making it really easy to send a hurtful comment from the comfort of your own computer or phone. It’s one thing to say something hurtful to someone’s face. It’s much easier to type it in the comment field on an Instagram photo.

So yes, social media can expose kids (and adults) to more hurtful comments, but in today’s age, removing the possibility of getting a hurtful comment via social media is the equivalent of having your kid sit out of recess because they might also receive hurtful comments on the monkey bars. I don’t want my kids to miss recess. I want them to play, have fun, and learn how to deal with hurtful comments in a healthy way. Expecting anyone to simply disregard hurtful comments is not realistic, regardless of age.

The email goes on to say, “They will have plenty of time to face those issues.”

Spoiler alert

cadence-orgThey are already facing those issues at school. The earlier they can start learning to deal with adversity, the better. At somepoint, online or off, children will be made fun of, put down, and bullied. It will definitely happen well before they are 13 years old. If I work really hard to isolate my children from the possibility of hurtful comments before they are 13, all I’m really doing is delaying, and handicapping, their ability to deal with the hurt.

The email ends with, “Our school counselors, [redacted], can help you and your child if you need guidance.” Finally, something the principal and I agree on!

As I mentioned at the outset of this response, I realize she is trying to be helpful. It’s not my intention to berate her for trying to help, but I’m frustrated by the stance the school is taking here and how it is being communicated.

To be clear, my wife and I will decide when to expose our kids to various forms of social media. The school can, and should, enforce policies that restrict their students from engaging in distracting activities, such as Instagram, on their campus. If the school said the kids couldn’t bring phones to school, I would fully support it.

I’ve always believed that criticism isn’t valid unless you present a different idea that you believe is better. To stay true to that belief, here’s the email I think she should have sent:


It has been called to our attention that many of our students are using Instagram, a popular photo-sharing app. We understand that keeping up with the technology your children use can be daunting, so here are a few ideas to help out.

  1. Talk to your children about the apps they use and why. Ask to see them, let your children teach you, and try to see the world through their eyes and their apps.
  2. Consider if and where your children might have unsupervised access to online services and ensure that you are comfortable with those situations.
  3. Talk to our counselors about any concerns you might have. We are here to help!

Thank you!


Jason Stirman “builds things” at Medium. Follow Jason on Twitter with @stirman



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