Big Brother Is Watching–Let’s Close the Door

The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio has installed tracking chips in student IDs. Ostensibly, the chips are in place so school officials can improve attendance statistics (to help with funding issues) and increase safety. But, school officials, tell us, the system doesn’t track students outside school. Sure. And social security numbers will never be used for national identification purposes.

The chips are in the news this week because a student has refused to participate in the program because, her “father has compared the chip to the biblical Book of Revelation’s “mark of the beast” and said wearing it is tantamount to submitting to idolatry.” Yeah. Okay. The ACLU has jumped into the fray, arguing the chips are a clear violation of any number of civil rights (privacy, search and seizure, human decency). Can I just guess the lawyer for the ACLU shook her head when the father spoke publicly. Of all the reasons to oppose the chips, I’m guessing the mark of the beast is the least defensible.

And there are great reasons for us to oppose these chips. What’s most disappointing about the program is how few parents are willing to oppose the program. Our zeal for safety has blinded us to the dehumanizing nature of constant supervision and has allowed too many parents to abdicate responsibility for teaching their children how to work and live independently.

We should first note that these chips aren’t new. A 2003 position paper on the use of RFID technology opposed the use of these chips for a variety of reasons. As you can imagine, the violation of speech and association take precedence.

But we can’t ignore the way in which constant tracking conditions children to passivity. Tracking at a young age conditions them to accept surveillance and this is a clear long range abdication of civil liberties. More important, though, is the mindset we begin to create among children as the train for the real world.

When my children were in elementary school, I would tell them “Keep your pants up and your lips to yourself.” (This, by the way, strikes me as pretty solid advice at any age. Ask General Petraeus.) These days, with both boys in high school, I remind them to “Be smart, or, at least, don’t be a dummy.” Such vague advice might seem less than ideal, but my job as a parent isn’t to stand ever vigilant against the big, bad world. My job as a parent is to teach my kids how to make good decisions, or, at the least, to avoid letting the undeveloped frontal lobe (and fully developed lower lobe–if you get my meaning) put them in a jackpot. When they make mistakes, my job is to lay out the consequences not save them from them.

While my job is to teach them to make good choices, my job is to also let them fail. I have a human right to be an idiot. We have to extend that right to our children if we want them to grow up to be true citizens of the world. Certainly, we can limit the opportunities they might have and we can help them avoid situations that truly put them in danger, but we have to stop our American obsession with providing this bubble of safety around our kids. If we keep them from hitting the ground when they fall, they might never realize the ground is down there.

This isn’t necessarily a complaint about over-protecting children. Certainly, when we wrap our kids in helmets, elbow pads, and knee pads and when we organize their days for them around camps, play dates, and social groups, we are doing our best to keep them alive and safe. But, we are also not teaching them how to take care of themselves. When we begin tracking them all day long, whether via a chip in their id card or the GPS in their phone, we are only protecting them in the short term. We are allowing them to develop a dependency that will inhibit their willingness to take chances and explore. We take their need to evaluate and synthesis situations and control the environment, robbing them of the critical thinking necessary to live a full life.

We also stop them from taking charge of their own lives. When my children have issues at school, they are the first responders. If they have a question about the grade, that’s their job. We talk about how to approach the teacher, we talk about how to make the case, and we even talk about whether my kid has a valid complaint. But, at the end of the day, we talk about who is ultimately responsible.

And they learn to take responsibility and to value independence. Simply put, tracking chips are a dangerous tool. They might ensure we know where our children are, but they might also ensure our children never have to grow up. When we develop a nation of teenagers who know someone is always watching, they either work harder to be sneaky or they become the passive recipients of our protection.

I don’t know where my kids are right now. And I’m glad.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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