Monday, 28 May 2012

Parenting then and now

I set this blog up in direct response to a  newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald - my local paper - and then life got in the way and I never got around to writing that blog post, or any since. However, just recently, there have been a swathe of articles on modern parenting that have caught my attention, so I decided it was time to get on with it, wrestle with the inherent family politics of writing a blog about parenting issues (and the possible fallout), and yet another article this morning surfaced when I read the paper, so here goes. 

This morning's piece, The screens that are stealing childhood, resonated strongly with me for a number of reasons. The writer, Andrew Stevenson, examines the 'connectivity' of our children; the amount of time they spend these days plugged into some kind of device as a matter of course. In my own household, I watch Sixteen crawl out of bed in the mornings to land in front of the TV while he eats breakfast. When he gets dressed for school, the last part of his accessorising is the complex wriggling to feed the earplugs of his iPhone through his clothes from the iPhone in his pocket so he has music while he travels in the car to school, where he will spend much of his day alternating between real-time teaching and computer screens for written work and research. Home again, and the TV goes on as he walks through the door, the laptop is set up on the coffee table for homework in front of the TV. If offered a choice, dinner will be on the couch in front of the TV, and after dinner it's time to get together with friends, on Facebook, while continuing with homework. At all times the iPhone is within reach for the constant texting that punctuates all the other activities. 

And this is totally normal. Not only for him, but for most kids his age, and younger. 

In the article, the author looks at the hours our kids are spending engaging with devices rather than people; in stationary rather than physical pursuits, and opens the discussion for the potential long term effects on the way our kids interact, learn, play and rest. The sheer amount of time that is estimated for kids' use of all this technology is staggering,
Parents used to worry only about TV use. Now school students' screen use may begin at home with TV in the morning, continue with interactive whiteboards, laptops and computers in class, smartphones at lunch and on the bus, and continue at home with TV, computer, phone and tablet. Wayne Warburton, a psychologist at Macquarie University, says US studies show that beyond the school gates, teenagers are using screens or listening to music for more than 7½ hours a day. In Australia it is more than five hours and rising.
Discussions in the media suggest that this has all crept up on us, as parents. That the advances in technology that we have seen as beneficial and helpful have, perhaps, blinded us to the potential hazards in the long term. On breakfast TV just this week, there was a segment on monitoring our kids' use of the Internet and social networking sites; the importance of setting limits as to how much they use them, and how they use them. But then, there is the argument that this is their world, this is their norm, and to deprive them of it robs them of something that is intrinsically theirs. He quotes author Wayne Warbuton, author of Growing up Fast and Furious,
"Parents say to me they would love to put some limits on their kids' media use but that it is so much a part of their identity - playing the same games as their friends, being involved with the same media - that they feel they would be losing friends, losing identity and having problems if they didn't have access,'' he says.
Another part of the discussion looks at attention issues, and this generation has to always have something going on around them. Gemma Ackroyd, principal of a local Sydney primary school says,
''I'm worried about a loss of time spent thinking creatively and thinking imaginatively because all the time there has to be visual stimulus, otherwise [they say] 'I'm bored','' she says.
To put this into context, I am from the first generation that grew up with Sesame Street. I remember - many years later - when my own children were watching it, becoming aware of the studies that were emerging that showed statistics about kids with extremely short attention spans, particularly in learning situations. Details behind the studies included the fact that there were various sample groups, importantly those who had spent every day in front of Sesame Street from early pre-school days. The segments in Sesame Street averaged three minutes - and that was the average time these kids could focus on a concept. 

My mother was the dragon mother before me... Our exposure to television when I was growing up was severely limited, and there are programs today that many of my generation know and love and are reveling in the reappearance of on the many new free to air TV channels that are cropping up that I've never seen. I did much the same thing with my own kids. The TV never went on in the morning on school days - EVER... Saturday morning cartoons, yes, occasionally, if we weren't doing anything else. Sesame Street and Play School after school some days, if we didn't have anything else planned or it was a cold rainy afternoon and I couldn't kick them out into the back yard. Once they reach homework age, it didn't go on at all until homework was finished. My eldest was given a Nintendo when he was nine, totally against my wishes. It lasted six months when, in response to the constant warring over whose turn it was, and tantrums because the 'stupid game' cheated (!), I sent it to their father's house with strict instructions for it to stay there permanently. When their mates came over and it wasn't nice enough to play outside, the board games came out - amazing said mates, many of whom had never played one. That, or the huge Lego collection.

They are 27 and almost 21 now. They both have iPhones; No.1 has Foxtel and loves it; No.2 plays networked computer games and loses himself in virtual worlds, and has an iPad to which he is semi-permanently connected... Notwithstanding the considerable trials and tribulations of their childhoods, they both have good memories of mad Monopoly wars, building cubbies under the kitchen table, family movie nights with cheap junk food that they didn't normally have, getting into the kitchen to bake cookies or scones for an after school snack, and any number of less 'connected' activities. I don't know that this current generation of kids have the wherewithal to entertain themselves if you take their gadgets away, and that bothers me...

At the bottom of it all - when did we, as parents, stop saying 'no' to our children when it comes to them doing things we're not entirely happy about? It's a word I heard a lot when I was growing up. If I trotted out the usual, "but everyone else...", I was told very firmly that, "you're not everyone else...", and there wasn't really much comeback to that! Despite the resolutions  we all make to never say certain things to our kids that we hated hearing from our parents when we were kids, I did use that one. A lot. I copped it from many of my friends, who were much more permissive than me. But I still said 'no'. A lot.

My kids aren't perfect human beings. I was not a perfect mother. There's no such animal. I stuffed up, I made mistakes. But one thing I can say about both my boys is that they are independent, self reliant, and are both out there living useful independent adult lives, and doing it very well... I don't think 'no' damaged them over much.


  1. Hello, my friend. I'm proud to be your first follower, even though I haven't the slightest doubt that you're going to get in a lot of trouble over this, possibly irreversable. There came a point where I stopped fighting this battle, concentrating most of my effort on countering the gang influence. I wasn't completely successful, but both my boys are alive, and neither of them are facing the prospect of dying in prison, which is more than I can say for a lot of their friends.

    I didn't realize that it was all right for me to stop worrying about the computers until later. I question whether screens are really stealing childhood, or enhancing it. Everything is done on screens anymore; childhood evolves with the technology. As a child of the fifties, I played with mechanical toys that used wind-up mechanisms or battery power. The grandparents who raised me used to chase hoops or shoot marbles, if they had time to play at all between milking the cows and working in the coal mines. I watched a lot of cowboys and indians, war movies, and cop shows on that TV that everybody was so sure was going to warp my morals and outlook, but you know, I've never committed a murder, nor even an assault, never robbed a store, never sold a single packet of drugs. All the bleeding heart hanky-wringers assured me that playing video games would destroy my sons' lives, as children are obviously too ignorant to seperate the events of Grand Theft Auto from real life, and would grow up to be killers, rapists, and thieves. Well, one of them founded his own business, and the other is a civilian security specialist for the U.S. Army... and he still plays violent video games. Maybe the ignorance kicks in later?

    Tech evolves, and as tech users, we have to evolve with it. I used to change the channels on that old black-and-white TV by getting up, walking across the room, and turning a knob on the front. Today, our TV doesn't have knobs, and if the grandkids want to watch it, they'd better know how to manipulate a fairly complex remote or two. I had the great good fortune of growing up in the time before the lawyers and politicians decided that childhood was too hazardous to be left in the hands of children. To my mind, it isn't screens that are stealing childhood, it's all the self-important busybodies who feel it is their God-given right to mind everyone else's business for them. Lighten up, people. The children are all right, but may not be for much longer if we don't leave them alone.

    First, understand that I am playing devil's advocate here, offering a disparate view for your consideration. Second, my views are colored by my life in America. My understanding of Australia is that you still have some common sense over there, that is, if you stab yourself in the eye with a screwdriver, you don't then sue the toolmaker on the grounds that his negligence somehow caused it. Over here, we order hot coffee, spill it on ourselves, and sue the restaurant because we got burned. Over here we have fireplace logs made of pressed sawdust. Their sole purpose is for burning in the fireplace, get it? They come with a warning, so help me, that says, "DANGER: MAY CAUSE FIRE." Ya' think? But they know that somebody is going to burn their house down with one of these, and sue them, and their defense will be, "We warned you!" They have no choice.

    Maybe you're right, at that. Maybe it's the screens that cause all the insanity. All I know is that I shared cola from a glass bottle with my friends, rode my bike without a helmet, and went for rides in the backs of pickup trucks, and here I am. Heck, we even played with BB guns, and I don't remember a single eye being put out. My mantra: Let the children play.

    But it seems like the more screens are added to our lives, the crazier the rules get. Yeah, now I think about it, I'm with you. Get rid of all of them!

    1. Hey Jack,

      Welcome to Dragon Mother! I haven't been game so far to share it on Facebook, which is what I do with Books Anonymous...for precisely the reason you stated in your opening paragraph!!

      I just get so riled with so much of what I see around me and in the press these days, and so we'll see where this one goes.

      Gotta say - I did enjoy your comment/post(!), and you cracked me up at the end. I'll have a think and keep going - maybe with more on this topic, or it could be a tangent.

  2. Excellent post! It asks some tough questions and makes some good points. My parents took the same approach you describe from your childhood. My parents set the guidelines - strictly - on things they objected to. It's interesting that none of the four kids ever had drug problems or major issues that are seen frequently now. Hmm - Maybe they had something there? (I hate to admit it ...)

    Looking forward to the next!