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‘Should I Tell the Teacher That Boys Are Googling ‘Boobs’ in Class?’

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Illustration: Emma Erickson

Dear Emily,

I need your help! I’m lucky to have the kind of kid who debriefs me daily on the goings on of his fourth grade class. I know who is experimenting with recently learned bad words and who likes who and which friends got in a fight at recess. I normally think my job in these situations is just to keep him talking and usually everything I hear is pretty harmless. But the other day he told me about a few boys in his class who are essentially searching for porn on the school laptops. (Googling “boobs,” for instance.) I feel torn on whether to tell the teacher. On the one hand, I’d be breaking his trust — I’m positive he wouldn’t want me to say anything — on the other, I’m furious the school is giving them such free access to the internet. And I think they should be alerted to what these kids are up to. What should I do?

— “Boobs” alert

Dear “Boobs” Alert,

My younger son, who’s almost 6, keeps a diary that has a lock and key, and every night after he goes to sleep, I look at it, think about unlocking it and reading it, then forcibly restrain myself. I know myself, and I know that if I did it once, I would never be able to stop. I do know, from reading a page he once showed me of his own free will, that he wishes that this one fifth-grade girl who always dotes on him at the playground would come to our house and live with us and also that he’s scared of going to the chain day care where he and his brother get sent on days off from school. This is all insanely tantalizing, like a trailer for a scintillating movie that I’m dying to see. And yet I don’t unlock the diary. Even though he’d never find out, I’m determined not to violate his trust. He’s made it clear that the diary is private, so his little 5-year-old secrets will remain between him and that purple notebook with a heart-shaped lock.

The stakes are much higher in your situation, but as you can see, I’m a person who puts a lot of stock in the idea that our kids deserve to be able to trust us when it comes to their privacy. Your kid told you about the boys in his class who are searching for pr0n on school laptops with the implicit understanding that the conversation was just between the two of you, so you need to weigh your options carefully. I do think a valid option in this situation is to do … nothing. Maybe some other parent will catch wind of what’s going on and do your snitching for you — what a relief that would be! There’s also the possibility that, even given all the info, the school won’t be able to do much in the way of cybersecurity anyway. Though they surely aren’t knowingly allowing fourth-graders to roam the wilds of the internet completely unhindered, there may be some reason why they’re keeping their settings unrestrictive enough that googling boobs can yield fruit; it may be that some sites they need to access for actual educational reasons wouldn’t make it past a stronger firewall. This is all just to say you could feel okay about potentially sitting on your hands here.

Another option besides telling the school might be making sure other parents of kids in your son’s class know what’s going on with their kids or just in general. I canvassed my fellow parents to see if anyone had encountered a similar situation in which they needed to make a call between keeping a concern their kid had shared private or snitching on other kids’ bad behavior. One mom friend told me about a time when her fifth-grade daughter had, unbeknownst to her, taken a big chunk of piggy-bank savings and bought some collectible dolls from a “business” some school friends had started, reselling what were probably unwanted or superfluous gifts they’d received. My friend’s daughter had way overpaid for the dolls — we’re talking over a hundred bucks — and my mom friend was upset not only at how her kid had gone behind her back to make the purchase but also how she’d potentially been bilked by her supposed friends, who probably knew the dolls weren’t worth that much. She could have gone to the school to make sure the “business” was forced to close up shop, but instead she called the mom she felt closest to among the little profiteers’ parents and made sure her message got through. Her daughter returned the dolls and got the money back, dreaded school for a few days, and then it all blew over. Her speech to her kid, in case it’s helpful, was along the lines of “I know you don’t want to be blamed or seem like a tattletale, and I know you want to keep the dolls. You can blame me for this if anyone has an issue. You’re too young to be spending that sum of money without our permission, and I’m taking over now.”

If you end up feeling strongly that you must take your concerns to your kid’s teacher, have an honest conversation with him first about what you plan to do and why you feel you need to do it. “I know you told me this in confidence, and I understand if it upsets you that I feel like I can’t keep this a secret. But I’m worried about the kids in your class, and it’s my responsibility as a parent to let your teacher know what’s going on. How do you feel about this?” And then take whatever comes your way with equanimity as best you know how. It’s better to face the fallout head-on than to wait for him to find out after the fact, or from a third party, that you’re the one who ratted out his curious classmates.

No matter which of these options you take, chances are that your dishy, trusting kid will stay that way for another few years, especially because you haven’t given him a reason to mistrust you. Preserving an open channel of communication is easier said than done, and we owe it to our kids to do whatever we can to keep things real and honest with them in the hopes that they’ll do the same for us.

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Emily Gould , 2024-05-15 14:00:41

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