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School Facebook Groups for Parents Are Literal Hellscapes — When They Aren’t Helpful

Nov 19, 2019

Last week, my eight-year-old told me it would cost him one dollar to wear his hat to school on Fridays.

Of course, this happened on our way out the door with a crystal lattice of frost glittering portentously on the cold paving stones beyond the stoop.

Yes, this was a Friday morning. Yes, we were running a little late. My first thought was that this hat tax thing could get expensive fast — he has a favourite toque, worn all-times/all-seasons. That and, well, the winter. 

Next, I asked: “Wait… Who, exactly, is charging you a dollar to wear your own hat on Fridays?”

When I miss some memo about happenings at school, I can simply type in a question and some parent, more on the ball than I am, can answer.

He explained that the hat tax was a school-wide thing, not a private enterprise, and my other two kids backed him up. But it still sounded suspicious to me.

This is why I love the discussion group that our parent council has set up on a certain social media platform. When I miss some memo about happenings at school, I can simply type in a question and some parent, more on the ball than I am, can answer. The hat tax, for example, is a fundraiser for the United Way and is only enforced within the classroom. Voila! Piece of mind.

The trouble is, when those same helpful discussion groups go south. And in my experience, it’s usually a pretty hard south.

When Groups Get Off Topic

Most parents will have their own horror story of a discussion group turned hellscape.

Mine started when one parent asked why there were pylons in the school yard.

“My son told me that it was because rocks were coming over the wall,” she wrote. Another parent quickly confirmed that rocks were flying but that no one got hurt. Someone else quipped that pylons seemed a poor response. I was angry that the school hadn’t told me, and several agreed. Then one parent confirmed that their kid was among a handful who actually had been hit with construction debris. This was like a match to gasoline. Comments quickly reached 133.

The condominium construction site next door was already deeply unpopular with parents, as it had just annexed a huge swath of the school yard as a “safety buffer” for the start of a two-year period. The fact that rocks were now sailing over that “safety buffer” and hitting children was infuriating. 

I urged parents to contact the Ministry of Labour (who launched an investigation). Another parent looped in our city councillor. One parent even called the police.


Check out this mom's take on misinformation for parents on Facebook: If You Want Misinformation, Keep Asking Facebook Moms These Questions 


The facts were that a small amount of gravel had come over the fence but no kids had been injured. But by this time, the facts hardly mattered. Parents were angry, some very angry. The miscommunication was classic. The school failed to predict how parents would react to further restrictions on the play yard and to explain why it was happening. Meanwhile, the echo chamber of the parent-only discussion forum didn’t give the school the feedback they needed to correct this. Parents were desperate for an explanation and the school principal was barely aware of it.

It seems laughable, in hindsight, yet just writing about it brings back the raw anxiety and anger I felt at the time. And all of that could have been avoided with a direct conversation. School groups for parents are truly a hellscape… except when they aren’t. 

I'm not saying don't post. Post away, parents. But if you don't have all the facts and you could get them from actually having an offline conversation (or sending an email, or hopping on the phone or doing any due diligence), you should probably do that. At least then, if you're jumping into a thread, you won't be adding to the anger and frenzy — you'll just be reporting the facts. 

And isn't that what we're all looking for? 

Article Author Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas

Read more from Rob here.

Rob Thomas is a writer, editor and a work-at-home dad. Brood, a book of poems inspired by his experiences of fatherhood, was launched at the Ottawa International Writers Festival in 2014. His journalism has appeared in places such as Ottawa Magazine, the United Church Observer, Canadian Running and on CBC radio and television. He is also a founding member of an Ottawa social club for dads called The Ugly Mothers.

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