This year, we experimented with giving the beets a bit more breathing room. It worked out real good.
I bet I get more questions pertaining to kids and screens than anything else. It’s amazing what a stranglehold these devices have over children, probably because it’s amazing what stranglehold they have over parents. By-the-by, I’m clearly no exception, because as I’ve pointed out a time or two before, it’s not like I’m scratching these words on the fire-lit walls of my cave with a sharpened brontosaurus bone. On the other hand, relative to the screen-immersed extremes of contemporary American culture, we’re just a bit off the back. We don’t have a TV, although we do have a cell phone, one of those el cheapo prepaid jobs. Every time I need it (maybe once per month), I spend a frenzied 30 minutes or so trying to find the damn thing and then another dozen or so minutes trying to figure out how to retrieve the number, which is hidden deep in the bowels of its click-through menus. So. Computer. Cell phone. Not exactly luddites now, are we?
At the risk of upsetting some readers, I’m going to say what I really think: The immersion into modern digital technology is messing up our children. It’s messing up us. This does not mean there are not good things that come of these technologies; it only means that the damage wrought by these technologies outweighs their benefits. By how much? Hell, I don’t know, but I suspect by a whole awful lot. At least by a hanging half of milk-fed pork. Probably more.
I think things took a dramatic turn for the worse with the introduction of smartphones and tablets, because the introduction of such devices marked a turning point between the need to consciously choose to interact with these technologies and constant, almost ubiquitous presence of them. In many ways, they have become our culture’s default engagement point with the world around us. In our house, we make it as difficult as realistically possible to use the family computer: It’s stuck in the far corner of our living room, it’s generally powered down, and it always has a cloth draped over it, kind of like a diaper. There’s not even a chair next to it, so if you want to use the computer, you have to schlep a chair from the kitchen, remove the cloth, and wait for the damn thing to power up, at which point the brontosaurus bone/cave wall approach starts looking pretty good. Or hell, with all that trouble, why not just read a book or play guitar? Or, I don’t know, talk?
I don’t really know what to say to folks whose kids are already good and hooked on video games and smartphones. As I’ve mentioned before, we just didn’t go that route, in part because we are not of the ilk that deems these technologies essentially benign or even beneficial. You want to know what I really think? Ok, so that’s a rhetorical question, ’cause I’m going to tell you no matter what: I think these things are bad fucking news. I think they erode resourcefulness and discernment. I think they have become a delivery mechanism for the idea that our lives are incomplete, which is a very profitable idea. I think the over saturated experience they offer dulls the senses. I think if my kids were hooked on ’em, I’d do something really drastic, like put them all through a wood chipper or take the chainsaw to ’em. I think whatever short term ramifications I had to deal with on the back end of these actions would be preferable to the long term ramifications of allowing their continued use. I realize that’s easy for me to say, not having to deal with either. But still.
Sometimes people ask specifically what we’ve done to avoid the creep of these technologies and devices in our lives (again, being clear that we haven’t avoided it entirely). I’ve already mentioned one of those things – arranging our technology in a such a fashion that our use of it simply cannot be unconscious. This means no mobile devices beyond our barely-used cell phone. You want your kids to spend less time looking at screens? Then you better spend less time looking at screens. Ain’t no way ’round it. This is the hard truth that many parents seem unwilling to acknowledge, probably because they’re just as addicted as their kids.
At my reading last weekend, someone made a really salient point, which, in approximate summation, is this: Every minute we’re with our kids, we’re teaching them. We tend to think of teaching as proactive, as being about books and papers and talking. And sometimes, it is. But the truth is that often it is not, and I’m beginning to think that perhaps the most important things we teach our kids are done in silence.