Tom Finneran: At What Age is This Appropriate?
Friday, March 08, 2013
Rather, this column is about kids and electronics—cellphones, iPads, computers, and all related matters. That’s the tough stuff for parents in today’s world. We all know that the technology moves so fast these days that we, the older generation, are always going to be far behind the kids in their comprehension and use of these infernal devices. My operating principle, when either confused or totally ignorant (I suffer very frequent occurrences of each) about the uses of these things is to go directly to the youngest person in the room and ask for help. Try it yourself. The thirty-year-olds are way ahead of the forty-year-olds and the twenty-year-olds are amused by the profound befuddlement of the thirty-year-olds. That leaves people my age in some Smithsonian exhibit of the perpetually ignorant. It also leaves the adolescents and teenagers in charge of the modern world. Gulp!
Social media abounds today and many youngsters have hundreds of Facebook “friends” that they have never even met. Many of those same youngsters cannot even carry on a simple conversation with a peer, let alone an adult. They may be child prodigies on a keyboard and they may have their own language—LOL, OMG, BFF—but social skills, which require real people and real conversations, elude them.
In fact, the next time you’re out at a restaurant or any other public place, take note of the absence of eye contact or even minimal conversation between parents and children of a certain age. The kids are all locked on to their phones, “communicating” with everyone everywhere, but unwilling (perhaps unable?) to chat with Mom and Dad. And Mom and Dad accept this state of affairs as if it is written on a sacred tablet. By the way, is it an immutable law of the modern world that any event taking place somewhere else is always much more important than what is taking place right in front of you? Just watch these kids and you could not reach any other conclusion.
I think that one of the toughest questions for parents is “when” for giving the kids a cellphone of their own. At what age or grade? And how does a parent proscribe and enforce meaningful limits on its use? The common excuse or reason given is for safety reasons, and given the craziness of this world, who can blame a parent for surrendering to anxiety? In my day, admittedly many moons ago, every parent would send his or her child down to the playground for hours at a time without a second thought. And those hours would be spent safely, no matter what the season. Winter brought out skates, sleds, hockey sticks and snowball fights. Warmer winter days would be for basketball. Spring, summer, and fall were simply extensions of winter with different games and equipment—down to the playground, meeting up with your buddies, and playing games until supper time or until the streetlights came on. No need for leagues, schedules, parents as chauffeurs, or any of that stuff. It was a simpler time, with more kids, more play, less structure and less anxiety.
Are there more perverts and misfits today than there were back then? The news on television would certainly lead you to such a conclusion. I’m not so sure, but certainly any missing child today gets coast-to-coast saturation coverage, and such coverage generates extraordinary and understandable fear that there is an epidemic of weird and sick people running around, abducting and abusing children. I guess that it’s natural for parents to err on the side of caution by providing a cellphone to 9- and 10-year-old kids, but I think it’s a mistake to surrender to the rest of today’s deal—hour after hour online, texting with “friends” they’ve never met, tweeting, “Facebooking” (is there such a word?) and other nonsense.
Here’s an assignment to confound your kids: tell them to write a note to an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a godparent, a coach or a teacher, and then have them mail it. Insist that the note have a proper heading—address, date, salutation—and proper postage. Think of the wonderment you’ll create with your kids. They’ll talk forever about the Stone Age behaviors you taught them!
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