Yesterday we put our kids on the bus for the first time this year. I remember what it was like to go back to school. Getting all those supplies together and planning what time to get up so as not to miss the bus. New clothes, new lunchbox, sometimes even new shoes. And a new school year to start fresh and learn. Sure, the summer is over and there will be no more trips to the pool, but now those days are traded for days of interacting with friends, learning new things and all the extra-curricular activities that we can manage.
It’s different for our kids now in so many ways. There are new challenges, new dangers and our children are faced with things at a younger age than we were when it was our time to go back to school. Trying not to sound like a grouchy old man here, but there are a lot of things that seem to be pushing our children to grow up faster and consume more at a younger age. This scares me to a certain extent, but watching how our children handle these as a result of our parenting, and the examples that we set, is really quite wonderful. I just wish sometimes that they didn’t have to.
Let’s start with cell phones. When I was going back to school (showing my age here), the only portable phones we saw were on TV or in movies. There was no such thing as “sexting” (the innappropriate use of texting for sexual or otherwise suggestive purposes). And if we needed to call our friends, we went into the kitchen, dialed them up on the rotary phone, and begged our parents for a cord long enough to reach the couch. There were no private phone calls in my house.
I don’t recall ever feeling like that was not enough. I was allowed to use the phone when I wanted, as long as no one else needed to make a call. I am also old enough to remember “party lines” that we had as a very young boy in rural Iowa, but we’ll save that story for another time.
Now, it seems like every child over the age of 12 has a cell phone. When my daughter has friends over, they will typically spend a large amount of time sitting next to each other and texting other friends. This I find quite humorous. Last summer we had to have a serious talk with our daughter who, in one month, was able to send and receive over 11 thousand texts. No, that is not a typo, 11,000 texts. While I trust her that none of these were innappropriate, I figured it out by the hour, and she had to have received or sent a text every 2 minutes for every waking hour of that month. We are blessed with a daughter that is very honest and trustworthy, and once we discussed this with her she did abide by our rule of no more than 2,000 sent or received per month. I can’t say anything about that number, I tend to hover around 1,000 myself, but mine are usually work related or talking with my wife about something important. (OK, OK, sometimes it is just silliness and professing our love for each other)
My question about whether or not our kids really need cell phones was answered a couple of years ago, when I needed to get in touch with my daughter urgently. I am glad she has the phone. Our kids are busier today than we were, or at least busy in different and more disparate ways. It is a comfort to me to know that she is reachable, just as it is a comfort to my mother for her to know that I am reachable. So, I am glad she has the phone. But there are dangers (yes, I am getting to the point eventually in my Henry David Thoreau fashion).
Then there is Facebook, or any other web site they refer to as “social networking” sites. Our daughter understands why we do not allow her to have a profile on any of these sites. She has seen some of the content on some of them and heard the stories of how the things we post on the internet are never private and never go away. We simply do not feel that this layer of complexity and potential addiction is something that would add value to her life. Her friends all live within 5 miles of our house, most within 1 mile, and there is really nothing to gain by posting her private thoughts and information on the internet. Just pick up the phone in the kitchen and sit on the couch.
OK, so I will get to my point. I could cite other examples of dangers that our kids face and the perils of the youth of today combined with, and sometimes motivated by, the media. But, the real issue here is in two parts:
First: Perceived anonymity. When we, as a society, start to substitute electronic communication for real communication, we tend to say and do things that we would not if that person were right in front of us. And we remove emotion and true connection. The perception that we are somehow disguised, or protected by the fact that they cannot see us is dangerous. Especially for children who are already being motivated by the media and peer pressure to do and say things that they should not, and at a much younger age.
Second: Time. The time spent on keeping Facebook updated, answering friend requests, texting, emailing, chatting and tweeting (I still do not understand what this is), takes away from time that could be spent on quality relationships with family and friends in real situations like, dare I say it, playing outside, or eating dinner together.
When I was in the sixth grade, my friends and I would meet every day (that it was not snowing) on the ball field in the park down the street. That was our time. We played baseball until we heard the familiar sound of our names being screamed from down the street, or sundown, whichever came first. We knew that we would meet there the next day, unless we couldn’t, then it would be the day after. The pleasant simplicity of that is lost on our kids.
So, my advice to other parents is summed up in this list:
1. Put God first. Eat together, pray, tuck them in at night and pray again.
2. Talk to your kids about what they think and who they are every chance you get. Don’t lecture if you can help it, just talk. I wrote a lot here about what it was like for me, but my kids do not comprehend that. It was my time, this is theirs. I am living their time with them, not trying to bring them back to mine.
3. Educate yourself. Know what your kids are doing. Talk to them about life, love, peer pressure and anything that might be a temptation or danger zone for them.
4. Love them. Tell them you love them, but show them too. Appreciate the things that make them unique and celebrate the positive things that they do. Our kids remember when we have championed things that are important to them and are positive, no matter how small. They know we appreciate them and are involved.
When your children trust you, and know that you are sincerely interested in knowing who they are, they will be more apt to share things with you and be honest. Creating that delicate balance between parental authority and comforting counselor is an art that I could spend a lifetime trying to master.
My wife and I are glad the kids are back in school, but the house is very quiet now during the day. It is a reminder to us that one day they will be out on their own, and we can only pray that they will carry our love, and some of what we teach them, forward in their lives. It is in these silent times that I pray to God to thank Him for the opportunity to raise these children. And I know, even with all that I try to do, I will wish I had one more day of their youth when they are adults and on their own. Even when I am watching football in my underwear.