Conferences and Kids

pieterhpieterh wrote on 24 Aug 2016 19:39


I've taken my daughter, now 13, to FOSDEM in Brussels every year that I had slots there. She isn't a geek, yet enjoys the crowds and the freebies. When I could, I also took my kids to other events, where I was speaking. In this post I'd like to capture my feelings about why children should be part of conferences, and what conferences can do to make this easier.

First off, the "why?" Traditional conferences (in all domains, not just software) are boring, ritualized events where the participants compete to see who can send the most people to sleep at once. The real event starts later, over alcohol. It is a strictly adult affair, and what happens at the conf stays at the conf.

Now our business is a little different. It is far more participative. Despite our history of finicky magic technologies that seem to attract mainly male brains, we strive for diversity, openness, broad tolerance. Most of what we learn and teach comes through informal channels. Finished is formal education, elitism, and formal credentials. We are smashing the barriers of distance, wealth, background, gender, and age.

What this boils down to is that we're building a culture, and one that is growing and stretching across generations. It's a work in progress, far from finished, yet the way is clear and I think, unstoppable. And as an adult engaged in that culture, it's become clear to me that I'm obligated to expose my children to it, from the youngest possible age, in the best possible conditions.

Which is where conferences come into play. These are the social events of our open source world. It was accidental that I started bringing my kids to these events. In 2014 I gave a keynote at EuroPython in Berlin. I was then, and until a few months ago when I got sick, their main caregiver. I'd arranged someone to look after them that weekend, they canceled.

So we all got in the car, and drove to Berlin. It's a nice drive and we like the road trips. It was beautiful weather in Berlin and we walked around, then had pizza near the main railway station. At the event, my kids — the only ones there — mozied around the place, enjoying the snacks and pestering the Google stand for Lego Androids and other puzzles.

At the time they were four, seven, and eleven. They didn't attend any talks and would have understood nothing anyhow. Yet they didn't get bored, or annoying. I kept one eye on them while talking to random people, and it was cool.

Which brings me to my second point: conferences don't need to do very much to accommodate even quite young children. Snack bars, stands to get things to play with, spaces to explore, and security at the entrances. Perhaps my kids are especially well-behaved, yet I don't think that's true. It's rather that most people at any age will tend to behave among strangers, when they have space to explore and chill in.

Perhaps the best weekend conference we had, the four of us, was at DomCode 2015, in Utrecht, where again I gave a keynote. Two things stood out. The organizers knew we were coming as a family, so put us up in an utterly wonderful apartment beside a canal, near the venue.

Secondly, there were games to play, and I mean 8-bit consoles and cartridges. What a fantastic way to teach the ages of technology. "This is how things used to be before," I told them, as they puzzled over the ancient mechanics of swapping game cartridges.

Still, at DomCode we were again the only family. At FOSDEM we've started to see other children with their parents, yet it is exceedingly rare.

So I'm going to give some advice to conference organizers on how to attract more families, and make their experience a positive one. Personally, I'd start small scale, and focus on speakers. Attendees are usually paying per seat, and will I guess not often want their kids there.

  • Babies present a special case. It may be hard to provide care for children under three or four. And I suspect parents of such young children will often be loath to leave them for longer periods. I personally would not want to take my children to an event where I was also working, if I could not leave them to wander freely.
  • Thus, I'd assume a minimum age of say four. Children who are already in preschool have learned to play together and usually, the more kids in a group, the more they conform. This is especially true when there are children of varying ages in a single group.
  • Since it's easy to know in advance how many children are coming, the organizers can provide some animation. That means a kids club, or something like that, covering at least part of the day, with activities. It takes no special equipment, and should be an easy item to cover with sponsorship.
  • If an organizer is covering travel and accommodation, clearly speakers who bring children will have an impact. I'd draw the line at paying for family's travel. Some organizers have offered this to me, yet it seems excessive. Yet for accommodation, a larger space with an extra bed or two isn't a luxury.
  • As speaker, I'd ask this to conference organizers when it makes sense. "I'm driving anyhow, can I bring my kids along?" Ask the question and you're already changing things.
  • As organizer, I'd make the offer to speakers explicit: "Children are welcome. Let us know and we'll try to work something out."
  • As organizer, I'd ask parents to be sure their children are going to be comfortable with crowds of strangers. At the end of the day, it's the parent's responsibility and if a child causes problems, the adult needs to take them away.

There is arguably some risk. Perhaps I've been negligent taking my kids to events, yet it has never even come close to disturbing the peace, let alone any kind of disaster. What I've seen instead is a kind of joy from participants that there are young people interested and present, and reciprocal joy from the kids at being little VIPs in an adult world.

As with any experiment, I'd encourage gradual learning, trial and error. There are already events that are wholly family oriented, like CCC Camp. Yet almost all events are still closed to children. It should be a simple, cheap, and safe move to start to open the doors more widely.

Begin with speakers, and if that works, expand to participants. Focus especially on free conferences where there is no per-seat cost. Embrace the slight chaos that crowds of children can bring, with clubs and activities. Aim the menu a little more broadly. Cut back on the evenings of drinking. Encourage sponsors to provide stickers and giveaways that appeal to children of all ages, not just the older ones.

And above all, share your experiences so that others can learn from them.


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