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Streaming Kids



As a maternity ward nurse at St. Francis Medical Center, Deborah Tipold harbors a deep affinity for children, lots of children. She wanted a whole heap of her own — about 10, in fact — but stopped short after her second was born eight years ago.

So when she and her husband recently decided to start their own business, a day-care center made sense. As a nurse accustomed to constantly supervising — with all the monitors and frequent check-ins that newborns require — a day care that offers streaming video and Webcams made even more sense.

"It represented what me and my husband are about on a personal level," says Tipold, 37, who plans to open the area's first Webcam-outfitted Kids 'R' Kids franchise near Brandermill in the fall. "Honesty, integrity, safety and security. The cameras create a very open environment. There's nothing to hide."

In the age of 24-hour cable news filled with an endless barrage of baby-sitting mishaps and nanny nightmares, the Webcam day care is taking off. The Webcam company that provides video-streaming service to Kids 'R' Kids — and private grade schools across the country — has seen its business grow dramatically over the last five years, says general manager John Lewison, as parents seek the security of the cameras.

But some psychologists and academics caution that the need — and growing market — for things such as child-video surveillance may be a precursor to future social problems. From the Webcam day cares — the Kids 'R' Kids chain has grown to 152 nationwide — to "helicopter parents" virtually hovering over grown children on college campuses, experts say years of constant supervision isn't just unhealthy for parents, but it can leave children without necessary social skills when they leave the nest.

"Children in early childhood classrooms have been observed for years with visitors and one-way mirrors, so that's not a new phenomenon," says Antoinette Rogers, who chairs the elementary education department at Virginia Union University. "But the fact that you have cameras in the room has just taken concerned parenthood to the next level. At what point do you draw the line and just go back to kids being kids?"

Catherine Bagwell, associate professor of psychology at the University of Richmond, concurs.

"I hear a lot about [helicopter parents] and we talk about it at that end of the spectrum, but it's starting to creep into discussion of early childhood," Bagwell says. "Parents need to be present and supportive but also encourage them to develop social skills on their own without constantly swooping in and fixing and directing."

Kim Strother, owner of a Kids 'R' Kids franchise in Charlotte, N.C., extols the virtues of streaming day care. The security cams, she says, benefit both the parent and the center's employees. Once, a parent called in frantic because it looked to her as if the teacher had left the room. But the video footage proved the teacher was there.

"Then we always have those funny stories where the mom calls and wants us to pick up the baby and have them wave in front of camera two," Strother says, adding it's particularly reassuring to parents who need to work.

Tipold says in addition to the cameras, she plans to install phone lines into each classroom and would "highly encourage" parents to call in if they wanted.

Arnold Stolberg, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, says he's skeptical.

"Why do they need the cameras? Because [the parents] can't trust the staff or they can't separate from the child?" he asks.

It opens the door to a larger issue of allowing children to independently develop social skills such as managing conflict and problem solving, says Bill Bosher, a public policy professor at VCU and former state superintendent of public instruction.

"While the safety issue is compelling, the helicopter phenomenon … can lead to young people being vicarious experiences for parents," Bosher says. "Young people, then, with each and every thing they potentially do, carry their parents on their shoulders."

Bosher, though, sees some value in the day-care Webcams. "It's another step in an evolution of safety and parental engagement and the delivery of instruction using technology," he says. "I would probably like to see it in action, but it's a fascinating concept."

The practice may sound like the natural evolution of the YouTube universe, but it actually goes back much further, says Kids 'R' Kids founder Pat Vinson. He started his first day care, Kiddy City, with his mother out of their home near Atlanta as a way to pay the bills after his father passed away. The business grew until he started building freestanding centers in the early 1980s.

Around the same time, the sensational story of alleged sex abuse at the McMartin preschool in Southern California rocked the news and set off a string of similar preschool molestation stories that recurred throughout the decade.

In 1983, children and parents accused three teachers at the family-run McMartin Preschool of abusing the kids. The kids' stories often involved satanic rituals and passageways that allegedly ran under the school, but were never found. The teachers served jail time during the trial, but were eventually acquitted.

At the time, though, Vinson figured he needed to reassure parents.

"We took a chain saw and cut big picture windows through the building," he says. The windows grew in later buildings and now it's standard for window walls to run all the way through, as they will at Tipold's day care.

In 1985, he put a closed-circuit surveillance system in all the centers. Then in 1997, he started installing the Webcams in classrooms. Parents can log in with passwords, but may view only the classroom their child is in. If parents think the surveillance is creepy, Vinson hasn't heard about it. Instead, he says, he gets thank you letters from parents in Iraq who are able to keep tabs on the kids from overseas.

"It's kind of like the casinos in Vegas where they count the money. It keeps everybody honest," he says.

Rachel Keen, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, says she can see potentially troubling scenarios in which a child has a meltdown and the whole neighborhood can watch, but ultimately doubts parents would even watch all that often.

"I could see why they would," she says. "Let's say maybe your child was a little sniffly in the morning. How are they doing? Are they listlessly crouched in a corner?" She argues that parents who use day care and preschool in the first place drop their kids off so they can get to work where they'll be too busy to constantly check in.

Indeed, Strother of the Cary, N.C., day care reported on a recent weekday that while eight of the eight families with children in the infant room had logged on to the Web site, parents of only three of the 25 in the pre-K room were logged on.

Tipold says the parents to whom she's spoken love the idea of being able to stay in closer contact with their kids while they're at work, and she can understand. The plans for her building include a second floor with a private room so that her sons, Austin, 14, and Hunter, 8, can have a space of their own to spend what she anticipates will be long hours at the center. The kids' room will be right off of her office, whose front-facing glass wall will overlook the downstairs lobby. S

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