Kids and the Dark Side of the Force

By Bob Bruninga, WB4APR
115 Old Farm Ct
Glen Burnie, MD 21060-425

Now that my kids are showing an interest in ham radio and have joined our local Amateur Radio kids club, I have some new perspectives on our avocation. I remember how my first CW QSOs as a Novice were devoid or real human contact. I was "talking" to my key and "listening" to the beeps. I was lucky to comprehend half of what the other guy was sending. Once I got his QSL address, TNX, QSL, BCNU or 73 was usually my response.

But my realization today is that probably no matter what he sent, he could not intimidate, belittle or offend me. The difficulty of the medium (from a new CW operator's point of view) acted as a kind of psychological insulator to help overcome apprehension and shyness. We were both having fun just struggling with Morse. If I screwed up, the other Novice probably missed it anyway. I never knew if the other guy was man or woman, kid or adult, or even if he or she spoke fluent English. There was a friendly sense of community among the beginners.

On the other hand, stick a voice rig and microphone in front of any kid and he or she usually freezes. Why? The insulating veil has been stripped away, exposing every vulnerability and inadequacy in plain English for the world to hear. There is no community of equals. The kids know perfectly well who and what is on the other end of the circuit -- a bunch of intimidating grownups.

Our own local 2-meter FM commuter net includes some of the most friendly and welcoming folks you'll find anywhere. Even so, it is still populated by adults and can seem intimidating to kids.

For example, recently I was reprimanded on the air for using my 3-letter suffix to join the morning roundtable since it was not my complete call sign. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, this topic is a hot potato in some amateur circles (DX operations in particular). In the pregnant pause that followed, my kids wanted to know, "...what was up with that? Daddy, were you doing something wrong?" There was a definite chill in the air!

A few days later the subject of kids and Amateur Radio came up on the net. One ham lamented that his daughter had gone from Novice to Amateur Extra in 6 months, yet within the first week of being on the air she was subjected to a hostile rant from some old barnacle. She hasn't touched the radio since. Another parent said the same thing had happened to his child. After months of preparation and support, the newly minted amateur took to the airwaves and immediately ran into a bitter Old Timer who launched into a tirade about how kids didn't have to learn the code like he did and, as a result, did not deserve to be hams. Strike two. Another licensed amateur never heard on the air again.

And just months ago, as three of us dads were carrying our kids to school during the commuters net, we tried a few times to hand the mikes to our children in the hope of getting them to talk to each other. It worked! We were excited. After doing this for a few mornings, we thought we were on to something. The other adults in the net were more than happy to give up a minute or so to let them say "Hi" or "Bye." Inevitably, a curmudgeon appeared on the repeater and declared that kids should not be using radios until they got their licenses. The curmudgeon went on to quote rules and procedures, but by then the children were no longer listening. They retreated into their backseats and haven't shown much of an interest in our 2-meter commuter nets since. Strike three for us.

In general, hams are a great bunch of folks. The mean-spirited minds among us are but a tiny minority. Despite this fact, when the Darth Vaders appear out of the woodwork to intimidate children, they do far more damage than their small numbers would suggest.

One thing I have learned is that it is probably not a good idea to encourage my kids to get on the voice bands. There is just too much potential for insult, insinuation and bigoted behavior. For some voice experience, I'm probably going to put my son and some of his neighborhood friends on CB or FRS with just enough antenna to hear each other so they can talk about kid stuff and not be attacked. With years of gentle nurturing of my children's Amateur Radio interests, the investment is just too high and the risk too great to expose them to the "full body language" of voice at their young age.

The point is that new, young amateurs need a "place" of their own, separate from the adult world. It is a place where they can feel comfortable communicating with others, a place with that "insulating" character I enjoyed with CW as a Novice. One solution we came up with was a kid's net on Thursday evenings. Encouraging CW operation may be part of the answer. On the other hand, I'm willing to bet that digital modes such as PSK31 have the best potential. Imagine local PSK31 roundtables on 80 meters, for example. Internet savvy kids would recognize them right away as wireless "chat rooms."

To ensure the future of Amateur Radio, we need to encourage those who will eventually replace us. As part of that process, it is crucial that we shelter them from exposure to the "dark side of the force."

Reprinted with permission from May 2001 QST; copyright ARRL

--return to OARS main page