When my son was only two, my husband told our friends that his first child was a genius.
Okay. Maybe he didn’t say those words exactly, but he did like to inform anyone who would listen that his two-year-old son knew the whole alphabet (upper and lower case), could tell you all the letter sounds, and could count and recognize numerals as well.
During these cringe-worthy revelations, the realist that I am, I’d take it upon myself to divulge the rest of the story. Between the obligatory ooooh’s and ahhh’s from the poor recipient of this information, I’d fold my arms and my usually soft-spoken, barely-there voice would speak up with an uncharacteristic sarcasm. “What he’s not telling you,” I’d say, “Is that he knows all of that stuff only because we’re lazy parents who use the iPad as a babysitter.”
Starting from a very young age, Hubby would give Son his phone and let him play with the toddler or baby apps on it. Hubby would then tell his parents and friends (whoever would listen, really) that Son figured out what all the buttons meant and could start and stop the apps and videos all by himself. Hubby saw this as a sign of Son’s genius. I saw it as a sign of our poor parenting.
I don’t really care to write about the argument between whether technology is mostly beneficial or detrimental to our kids. I think it’s clear that it can be both (or either) depending on how it’s used.
That argument doesn’t really matter.
The truth is that I (not just my husband) would give my son an iPad when it was convenient to do so, when I needed him to be occupied for a moment—content and not getting into things.
Daughter was born when Son was one month shy of two years old. Every parent knows how demanding and draining a newborn is. Every parent also knows how much love and attention a two-year-old requires. And those two things are often not so easily put together. Yes, after a while, I learned how to orchestrate synchronized napping and how to make my two-year old feel loved and doted on even while a newborn consumed my energy. But the iPad helped when I was at the end of my rope.
It was a tool. And I used it. At the time I was thinking only about my immediate sanity. Sometimes, it’s okay for parents to do that. As much as I hated to use it, the iPad was a tool in my bag.
I love technology.
I have a blog which gives me an outlet to share my thoughts and some of my writing.
I depend on Skype to make my weekly calls to family.
I use Facebook to easily share pictures with family back in the States and love that I get to watch my high school friends’ children grow up.
I love the educational apps that taught my son his letters and phonics. (Reading Raven is my favorite.)
And even though I say that I felt like it made me a bad parent, I really did love having that extra tool in my bag when I needed to keep him occupied and out of trouble.
I love technology. I do.
But I also hate it.
Several years ago I did a “Facebook detox” and discovered the plethora of positive effects of staying off social media. Since then, I sometimes ignore my Facebook newsfeed for weeks (sorry, Facebook friends), and use it only to post pictures that I think my family might want to see or to use the Messenger as a way to contact people whose email I no longer have.
When I did a Facebook detox the first time, I found I suddenly had time to read books again. Rather than use my time to read posts that were really just poorly researched political rants, I was entertaining myself with well-written novels or non-fiction books in which I learned facts about actual history that gave me a balanced perspective of issues rather than the one-sided, dumbed-down memes, sound bites, and angry rants on Facebook. I was learning. I was using my time better. And without reading all that negativity or those quick-witted insults people so often resort to on Facebook, my mood dramatically improved (go-figure!).
Before our summer break, the TV-watching and iPad-using were getting a little out of hand. Granted, I know that I’m the parent, and it only got that way because I let it, but my family went from having (at least for the most part) an intelligent usage of technology to learn and communicate to having a dependance on technology to entertain and babysit.
I had to do something.
So a couple of weeks before our summer vacation started, I told my children that we were going to have a screen-free summer—no TV or iDevices all summer long. I told them they could have an iPod to play with on the fourteen hour flight back to the United States and they could watch as much TV as they wanted to on the in-flight entertainment system, but that then we were going to put the technology away until we flew back to China.
Initially, I got moans and groans, especially from my son, but everyone in the family ended up loving it.
During the summer, my children re-discovered how to play on their own.
Everyday, they spent all day outside. They got exercise and ran around the yard. By the time we came back to China, they had dark farmer-tan lines around their arms and legs.
In China, my two children fight with each other and get on each other’s nerves. But while in the States, they suddenly and miraculously got along, and their pretend play was incredibly entertaining to watch. My daughter likes to play house. My son likes to play superheroes. So they worked it out by deciding that they could both play what they wanted—My son pretended to be Superman and my daughter became Superman’s wife. They both put on their superhero costumes and ran around the yard with their capes fluttering behind them. And when Superman’s wife had a baby, she flew around the yard with the baby in her arms. (Yes, I know that sounds incredibly sexist, but it’s my children’s doing and not mine.)
And even when it was rainy and there really wasn’t much of anything to do, my children still managed to have fun without complaining—just watching Daddy “fix stuff” in the garage was incredibly fascinating to them.
One of the biggest highlights of my entire summer was when my son was sitting at the kitchen table, entertaining himself with his paint-with-water books while I was cooking, and he randomly announced, “Mommy, I think we should have a TV-free summer next year, too.”
You have no idea how good that felt.
I told him, “Oh, honey, you can have a TV-free year if you want.”
He wasn’t all that enthusiastic about the idea, but I had high hopes for when we got back to China.
Well, we are about three weeks into our return to China and my kids are downstairs watching TV while I take a break and try to write out a quick blog post.
Apparently, it’s much more fun to be technology-free when we are hanging out in redneck country. Upon our return to China, my children apparently forgot how to play on their own. What is it about this place that requires the structure of school and the scheduled swimming lessons and dance classes?
I tell them to go play and the conversation usually goes something like this:
Me: Go play.
Son: We don’t know what to do.
Me: What do you mean? Kids play. You’re a kid. Go play.
Daughter—Very whiny: But we don’t know what to do.
Me: You have a houseful of toys. Go try something. If it’s not fun, then try something else.
At this point a couple different things might happen: Daughter and Son try to play but end up fighting instead. Or Daughter and Son continue to cling and hang on me until Daughter locks her hands around my forearm and tries dangling from it, making me spill the coffee in my hand—or something like that.
Me: Dramatic sigh.
Me—Exasperated, but managing to keep me voice down: You guys are driving me crazy. Go play.
I’ve found that if I don’t give in, they sometimes wander off and rather than fight with each other, they manage to occupy their time in a fun way. Son usually picks up his books and reads. Daughter usually plays with her mini-princess dolls. But since we’ve come back from our visit in the States, they cling and hang on me more, they fight more, complain more, and declare boredom several times a day—things that weren’t really a problem during our visit to the States.
I try my best at this whole parenting thing. I do.
Since we’ve come back, several times I’ve taken them to the playground next to our house, but with the Beijing heat as stifling as it is in August, they’d rather sit next to me in their lawn chairs than climb on the monkey bars, swing on the swings, or go down the slides. The playground becomes a big whine-fest—me sweating in my lawn chair in the shade telling them to go play and them sweating in their own lawn chairs next to me telling me it’s too hot.
Since we’ve been back, I’ve taken them to the pool every day I can (every day that the air quality isn’t too bad). They help me cook. I do science experiments with them from my son’s Science Experiments book. (My son loves doing the experiments in this book.)
I’ve been trying. But, yes, I confess—At the end of my rope, I pulled the old tool out of my hat again. I wanted a break, so I told them to go watch TV for a little while. Our screen-freedom lasted about two weeks here in China before I let them turn the TV back on. Oddly enough, I don’t feel all that guilty about it.
All we can every do as parents is the best we can, right? I guess this is mine. And for now, it’ll have to do.