Leaving The Old Country

snowSometimes, while looking at my growing children and observing how they interact with the huge but astonishingly accessible world around them, I cannot help but superimpose the images of my own childhood over theirs.  In doing so, I am all too often struck and troubled by how different those images are.  I am certain that every generation of parents in the history of parenting have felt the very same pangs while watching their children grow.  I understand this.  But when considering the advances in technology alone over the past 10-15 years, I have a feeling that there is a much larger discrepancy between my and my kids childhood experiences than there was between my and my fathers.

20 years ago, while I was in undergraduate college (the most formative years of my life), the internet was just an infant; a slow-loading, dialup research tool that was relegated to the university computer labs.  Now, the internet, and the countless services it feeds to is at the very heart of most households in the western world.  And, even stranger, it is also at the heart of most of our social interactions.  Unlike their digital immigrant parents who had to learn to navigate through and adapt to this new digital landscape and culture, the children of this day and age are born with this technology in hand … they are digital natives.   Like true immigrant families who give birth to children who grow up in a culture wildly different from that of their parents, we have to watch as our children become something we never expected, while hoping that we can somehow convince them that there is worth and value in the language and cultures of the “old country.”

Around our house, we have been very careful to regulate our children’s consumption of the constant flow of digital media that is available to us on a daily basis.  We do not subscribe to cable television of any kind, and we do not have a TV that is even hooked up to local channels.  We use Netflix and its streaming service exclusively, and our children are allowed a maximum of one and a half our of parent approved “screen time” (Netflix, Wii games, computer time all counts as screen time) per day, and never in the mornings or before bedtime.  Our 7-year-old must “earn” his screen time through a responsibility chart: if he choses to not complete his household responsibilities on a certain day, he gets no screen time the following day.  We have done our best to eliminate commercials and televised marketing completely in our home.  And yet, the influence lingers.

I am the parent of at least one highly imaginative child, and despite carefully screening and limiting the kind of digital media that my 7-year-old has consumed over the course of his lifetime, the influence of that media–even in small controlled doses– seems to have taken his imagination hostage.  As a casual gamer myself, I have taken great pains to carefully introduce him to imaginative and age appropriate video games that he can enjoy in moderation, and he does so.  But every time he sits down at home to draw or paint, and every time he brings a piece of art home from school, it contains a thousand variations of images that did not originate from his own creative mind.  Instead, I am repeatedly confronted by Mario, Kirby, Steve and the silly monsters from Minecraft in a million different positions and scenarios.  This is a cause of some concern.  I worry that his own fertile imagination is not entirely his own any more.  I have spent the past 5 years reading to this child, sometimes for over an hour almost every single night.  We have read The Hobbit, The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe, the first two Harry Potter books, Charlotte’s Web, My Father’s Dragon, Over Sea Under Stone, Stuart Little, Alice in Wonderland … the list goes on.  In addition, he is a gifted reader and will often stay up reading on his own well after we finish reading together.  The books that we read together and the ones he reads on his own are highly charged works of compelling literary imagination.  And yet, they don’t hold a candle to Mario or Minecraft.  What else can I do?

Last week, we had the first true snowstorm of the season.  My son loves the snow and we haven’t had much of an opportunity to play in it this year, so on the day the eight inches of snow descended on our village, I bundled up the 3-year-old and prepared to take us all on a snowy adventure walk in the woods.  We met my son at his school, with his snow pants and snow gear in tow and as the snow buried the village in a thick blanket of deep Narnian snow, I announced our delightful and unexpected after-school detour into the snowy wilds of Thatcher Woods.

My son’s bright eyes went inward, and he hesitated.

Yay.” he said not-quite-convincingly.  “What time is it?” he asked.

Three o’clock,” I answered.

What if we don’t get home before 5?” he wondered.  5 pm is homework time.   “Then I won’t get any Wii time.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing for a moment.  He had earned his Wii time on his responsibility chart, it was true.  Still… I looked at his concerned eyes.  I wondered where his love of snow and wild adventure went.  I honestly thought that the arrival of the snow in such a dramatic way and the opportunity to spend some wild time traipsing about the woods in the wintry magic would make him buzz with joy.  A year ago, it would have.  Now he just looked worried .

There will time for Wii on another day, “ I said, trying my best (and largely failing) to hide my disappointment in the power of his one-track mind.  Eventually, his eyes brightened and he warmed to the idea, and tried his best to keep up with his little sister’s wild-eyed enthusiasm for the adventure.

fortWe arrived at the riverside trail of Thatcher Woods, the silent snow falling thick as cotton among the dense copse of wintered trees.   The snow was the stuff of Robert Frost and C.S. Lewis and the nearby sounds of the suburban town were silenced by its arrival.  We made our way along the path made pathless by the accumulating snow, and we stumbled across an entire woodland city of snow-covered huts thatched together by sticks and bark.  Most likely engineered by Boy Scouts or other adventurers during the warmer months, these huts resembled abandoned wood-elf fortresses in the snow and we climbed around inside of these marvelous constructions trying to determine which of them housed the Elven King.  My daughter would have stayed there forever, and at one time, my son would have too.  But as we sat in the larger hut, the one we determined was the throne room of the departed or invisible elven king, he started to ask about the time.  We attempted to continue on the path for a while, but the boy was back to worrying about the clock again, and the enthusiasm turned to complaining.  The magic quickly faded from the impromptu adventure, and we eventually headed back to the car and to the technological habits of our home.   The remaining 20 minutes of Wii time that my son used to play a game he’d played a thousand-and-one times before raised his spirits in a way that a snowy walk in the woods with his father and his imagination did not.  I fully admit to an almost total feeling of loss and disappointment.  This is a milestone that I could not celebrate.

I know that this is a familiar story.  I know that so many of today’s parents struggle to retain some kind of influence over the industry-generated enthusiasms and value systems that are developing inside our young digital natives.  This is complicated by the fact that the digital immigrant parents are often held as hostage to these devices as the children are.  As a stay-at-home Dad and a blogger and a freelance theatre professional, I realize that the very computer I am typing this post on is literally, the center of everything I do — recipes, news, social interactions, games, work– it all stems from this very powerful, very stimulating machine.  Surely my children notice this.  My iPhone is my secondary hub which literally goes everywhere I go and has far too much information on it that I need to access far too many times a day.  So many of us feel the pressure from work to be online and available at all times.  It is no wonder our children are so fascinated by these things.  They are fascinated because, no matter how tethered we feel to them, we seem to be fascinated by them.  We give them too damned much of our attention.

The sad failure of the snowy walk in the woods and the accumulating pile of homemade video-game-art has made me want to chuck my devices out the window.  But I can’t.  I know this.  I need them.  This new world requires them.  And I enjoy them.  But I am a 40-year-old digital immigrant who had an imaginative childhood with free time spent largely self-directed or outdoors.  But my children … no matter how much I regulate and limit my children’s exposure to them, these machines and the panoply of amusements and interactions they provide are shaping my children’s imaginations in ways that parenting can no longer compete with.

As a digital immigrant family, mine will continue to regulate and limit, to counteract toxic messages that are transmitted through this new industry dominated culture, to expose our children to works of art and literature, to  stress the value of nature and human interaction within it, to have screen-free days that focus on board games, music and family meals.  As digital immigrants, my wife and I will continue to learn these new languages while striving to stress the value in the old ones.  We will use our devices and turn them off whenever we possibly can.  And in the meantime, like so many parents of so many generations, we will worry about our children and cherish the temporary influence we have over them.  For, as the late Neil Postman says, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

What will you do?