Parenting as a Gen Xer
We've got one foot in two very different technological worlds.
Allison Slater Tate‘s “Parenting as a Gen Xer” is only tangentially about parenting. It starts off on topic:
On the days that I drive the middle school carpool, I purposely choose a route that takes us past a huge river. Some mornings, the water looks like glass; others, it reflects the moody clouds above with choppy waves – either way, it’s gorgeous. Every time we drive past it, I point it out to my car full of 12-year-olds: “Look at the water today. Isn’t it beautiful?” No one in the car looks up. They are all looking down at their phones, playing games with each other, texting a friend or watching a YouTube video. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I will get a mercy grunt out of one or two of them in reply.
But the second paragraph gets us to the heart of the essay:
It struck me recently, after one of my quiet carpool rides, that my generation of parents – we of the soon-to-be or recently 40 year old Gen X variety, the former latchkey children of the Cold War and an MTV that actually played videos, former Atari-owners who were raised by the the Cosby Show and John Hughes, graduated high school with the kids from 90210, then lumbered through our 20s with Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey and flip phones – is perhaps the last to straddle a life experience both with and without the Internet and all its social media marvels. After all, I didn’t even learn to use e-mail until I was 19 and a sophomore in college in 1993, and only for a slightly cringe-worthy reason: a cute boy at another college asked me to e-mail him.
My generation, it seems, had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.
It’s an interesting, if amusing, observation. I’m sure her parents would have laughed at the idea the she grew up in a “truly low-tech household” in which she had cable television and an Atari.
I’m on the older end of Gen X, so was in graduate school (after a four-year stint in the Army) when I first used email and the Internet. Indeed, I was nearly finished with my doctoral dissertation by the time the World Wide Web and Information Superhighway became a thing. So, I was well into adulthood when I started my adjustment to the connected world that Tate describes.
My mother, a Baby Boomer, gripes regularly that my friends and I “put everything on The Facebook,” and though she and my grandparents both have accounts, they don’t really use them. My parents still receive a paper newspaper, still read books in hardback, and only relatively recently became comfortable with texting. My children show them how to use their iPhones, and I set up their iTunes accounts for them.
On the flip side, the Internet seems intuitive to my children, who can make PowerPoint presentations as good as any professional, use Google when they are stuck on their math homework, and spend as many hours as I will let them watching YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft, an activity I just cannot understand no matter how hard I try.
I am very much standing in the middle between my parents and my children when it comes to technology, one foot dipped in the waters of Instagram and Twitter and the other still stuck in the luddite mud of “In my day, we passed paper notes in class, sent real letters to penpals, and talked to each other’s faces!” When it comes to parenting, I find this middle place extremely uncomfortable, because I know what childhood and adolescence were like before the Internet, and my parenting models all came from that era.
So even though I also understand the powerful draw of the World Wide Web and social media and I participate in it enthusiastically, it scares me when it comes to my children and how it will mold and change their experience from mine. Will my children ever have their own awkward but poignant, John Hughes-worthy moments when teenagers today can have entire relationships over text messages? Would the kids in The Breakfast Club even talk to each other if they found themselves in a Saturday morning detention today, or would they spend all their time on their phones, texting their friends and tweeting about how lame it was and never actually make eye contact with one another? Would anyone today even believe that Seinfeld and friends would spend that much time talking to each other out loud about nothing?
I wrestle with demons far less First World Problematic than that of technology with my children, but I must admit that in its category, technology wins the prize for being the trickiest parenting challenge I have faced, right up there with infant sleep and potty training in terms of the feelings of desperation and hopelessness it can inspire at times.
Again, this is more about the angst of a Gen X’er than about parenting per se. I’m older than Tate and my children are younger than hers but I’ve had similar reactions to the differences technology have made. Unlike Tate, though, I’ve largely just accepted this new reality as, well, reality and don’t much see the point of resistance.
As the girls get a little older, I’ll likely face some of the decisions that Tate is grappling with:
The question of managing screen time and who is on what screen and how to protect those in front of the screens from things they might not un-see or un-hear is a constant, exhausting issue that frankly makes me want to go full-on Amish on all of them and throw every last blinking screen away.
But I try to be reasonable, even though I feel like I am parenting in the dark most of the time. So my husband and I set limits and negotiate them. We allow for Minecraft, because someone somewhere said it might be “good for them,” and we debate how old is old enough to have a smartphone. We make the children sit in public places when they are on devices or laptops, we look over shoulders, we check text message histories and set parental controls. We worry about their cyber footprints. We beg them not to send naked pictures of themselves to anyone, for the love of Mike. And, at the end of the day, we pray to the powers of this ridiculous universe – Zuckerberg? Gates? – that our children won’t stumble too hard or fall too far when they inevitably trip into an Internet pothole. We wonder what a high-tech childhood will mean for our little people: will they know how to go on a first date without checking in on Facebook or posting a picture of their food on Instagram? Will it matter?
In the meantime, I’m inclined to embrace the new technology and its magical ability to enthrall children. Indeed, despite my kids being only 5-1/2 and 3, I’m strongly considering getting them each iPads for Christmas. (As any parent knows, it’s essentially two or none; buying one for the oldest only is a recipe for disappointment and bickering.) Aside from being great game consoles, the ability to stream shows from Netflix and Amazon and such are great joys even for kids too young to text or Facebook.