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Good Is Good: Techno Dad Blues

Friday, April 27, 2012

 

Tom Matlack is the former CFO of the Providence Journal and is the founder of The Good Men Project, a non-profit charitable corporation based in Rhode Island and dedicated to helping organizations that provide educational, social, financial, and legal support to men and boys at risk.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, League of Legends, Skype, iPhones, Android, and Lego Star Wars. Not to mention ubiquitous porn, iChat, and texting.

I’m 47. I like to think I’m tech savvy. I’ve made a career of investing in technology companies. But as a dad, I am not so sure. There has never been as massive a one-generation change in our ability to connect to friends, family, people across the globe, and content of all kinds. And the ramifications as a parent are staggering.

♦◊♦

As a kid I was in the back yard most afternoons. There was a basketball hoop and some bamboo to hide in. We used a magnifying glass to fry ants. I played a lot of imaginary games of football, humming the NFL films music in my head as I scored the winning touchdown, and sometimes held my own Olympics.

My big brother sat in a comfy living room chair reading hour after hour of Arthur C. Clarke science fiction books, sustained only by a large stack of Saltines. I don’t think he or I could ever have imagined that those tales of computers and space travel would come true in our lifetimes.

I remember one year we took a plane to see my grandparents in Washington DC. It was an enormously big deal, as commercial air travel was still a new thing back then.

For college my parents got me an electric typewriter. The phrase “personal computer” didn’t exist yet. My freshman summer I decided that I wanted to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time, so I hitchhiked cross-country with a buddy. I had never been west of Ithaca, New York, except for a brief solo visit to colleges in Ohio and Minnesota.

My first job out of school was as a management consultant in New York City. I was tasked with learning a new software program called Lotus 1-2-3. During my brief tenure we transitioned from using couriers to this amazing new machine called a fax.

♦◊♦

Sometimes I need to ask my seven-year-old for technical assistance. As I write my 16-year-old is on a service trip to the Dominican Republic. My 18-year-old regularly talks to a half-dozen of her friends simultaneously on iChat. I sometimes interrupt her by sticking my face over the lip of her laptop and saying something inane. My daughter is always furious with me but I always get a chuckle from her friends who, I hope, see me as the cool dad who likes to clown around.

Don’t get me wrong I embrace technology, probably too much. I can’t be without my own phone or laptop for more than a few moments without getting the shakes. I love my Apple TV. I’m creeping up on five thousand Facebook friends. I’m writing this on a flight from Boston to Los Angeles while checking my email and Twitter stream, for goodness’ sake.

But as a dad, it scares me. How do I relate to my kids in a world where they often know more than I do about what is going on? How do I guide them when technological change is accelerating well beyond anything I can anticipate? How do I protect them from whatever evil lurks beyond the next firewall?

♦◊♦

I woke up this morning pondering whether there has ever been a quarter century in which inventions have changed the role of fathering as profoundly as in the last 25 years. I think of electricity, the combustion engine, flight, even the industrial revolution. But none comes close, at least by my calculus, to impacting the day-to-day interactions—the very way we relate to one another as human beings—as what I would call the technological revolution that has occurred between my childhood and my kids’.

The greatest risk, it seems to me, is that the more we are connected electronically, the more we find ourselves alone. Chatting online, even with pictures, is not the same as smelling booze on your kid’s breath. It’s not the same as feeling the muscles in your son’s back as you hug him.

I have found myself craving the simplest of fatherly duties. I go to the grocery store to make sure we are stocked with food that my family likes. In my own low-tech guy way I cook dinner quite frequently, often using a grill. I read books, the kind with paper, to my seven-year-old at night. I cuddle with whoever will let me. With my big kids, I go into their rooms and lay down on their bed to see what I can get them to tell me about their day. I talk sports with my son and music with my daughter.

I try to connect with my children in the most tactile way I know how.

♦◊♦

Of course technology is not all bad when it comes to fathering. One of the oldest tricks in the book as a kid is having a party when the parents are out of town. My wife recently found evidence that perhaps such a social gathering had occurred at our home while we were away skiing. I confronted my children and got nowhere.

Then I went snooping around on the web. One of my kids, who shall remain nameless, was smart enough to use a gorgeous and fun photo of a group of friends as his/her homepage on Facebook. In the background I could just make out a chalkboard that hangs over our kitchen table. I didn’t remember those kids being in my kitchen. The date stamp on the photo was the nail in the coffin.

I never even mentioned how I figured it out, just that I had the goods. There is a unique satisfaction in staying one step ahead of your kids.

♦◊♦

One of my greatest frustrations is for all the connectivity that technology provides my kids, they still use it very selectively when it comes to responding to their father’s need for information about where they are and what they are doing. I can text and call all I want and I might get a response every tenth time, when the spirit moves them. Their battery seems to die only when it comes time to receive a basic request for coordinates from good old dad.

My wife passed along the perfect piece of 21st century fathering advice, combining old school with technological innovation: when your kids ignores your text for the eighteenth time, send them a message telling them how great they have been and you have decided to buy them a car as a reward. If you want to lay it on really thick even mention exactly the type of car they would most like to be seen in, a Mini Cooper or VW convertible or whatever is the craze in your town. Cars are still honey to the teenage bees. That much hasn’t changed when it comes to high school kids. It was true in 1950 and it’s still true today.

Within a nanosecond you will doubtless get an excited response.

Wait a beat or two and then fire back.

“Just kidding. Was trying to make sure you are still alive.”

For more of Tom's works, as well as other pieces on related topics, go to The Good Men Project Magazine online, here.


 

 

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