Saying no to your tiny techie

    There will be plenty of time for the world to be mediated, distorted and upended by technology when children grow older.
    Studies show that children need time to sit and stare at the world around them — not just computer screens. (Shutterstock / Champion Studio)
    Studies show that children need time to sit and stare at the world around them — not just computer screens. (Shutterstock / Champion Studio)

    I am old school. I got my first cell phone in 2003 and have not upgraded since. It is a flip phone that makes and receives calls, and sends and accepts text messages. Supposedly it has a camera, but I don’t know how it works.

    When I send a text message it is almost like I am deploying smoke signals — choose the right spot, make the fire, get it smokey, start waving the blanket and making letters. It takes just about that long. Each text message is an artisanal product made with painstaking care. To say “hi,” I tap the four button two times, wait a beat and then tap it three times. So, be patient if you want me to text you.

    Seamus — my very bright and inquisitive one-year-old — is already very curious about my cell phone. Whenever I am holding it, he wants it. If I am on the phone, he tries to pull it out of my hands. He loves opening and closing it and the noises it makes when messages come in. But it is just a simple phone — no games, no stories, no excitement. It is just an object that he likes.

    At the doctor’s office, in line at the post office, in restaurants and on the playground, I see kids not that much older than Seamus using cellphones and hand-held games with a confidence and alacrity that I will never evolve into. I was in a waiting room yesterday and a girl of about four was playing on a small tablet computer. I have never even held a tablet computer in my hands. I don’t even know what games can be played on one of those things.

    Seamus and I took the train from New London to Baltimore earlier this year. It was much more comfortable than the bus, and I packed toys for him and crossword puzzles for me and snacks for both of us. It was a six or seven hour trip. I pulled out the crossword once, while he was asleep and draped across my lap. It was not easy (even though it was only a Wednesday) to work on the puzzle around his little body. The rest of the time I was trying to keep him from catapulting down the aisle, helping him play peekaboo with our neighbors, taking him for walks, chit-chatting with his train full of admirers, reading him the same two books over and over and over again, and trying to get him interested in the post-industrial wastelands outside. But all he wanted to do was lick the window.

    It was not a relaxing trip, but we had a good time. As we were de-training in Baltimore, I noticed a woman with a two- or three-year-old girl in our car. I had not seen or heard her the entire trip. She had big pink headphones on and was glued to a tiny screen. Her mom was glued to her own slightly larger screen. I felt a twinge of envy. With all that quiet and not touching, she totally could have finished the puzzle, I thought. And then I felt a twinge of sadness. They were missing out on each other. But who knows. Maybe they had just finished a long conversation about semiotics in Sesame Street or the mom had succumbed to cotton mouth after reading many chapters of War and Peace aloud to her little sweetheart. I just saw a moment. But it was a moment of total detachment.

    Are there toddler technologies? Yes. In fact, there are tons. I discovered that the $99 nabi JR. tablet is marketed to kids as young as three. It has a 180-degree camera and video recorder. Kids can watch movies, play games, and learn math, reading and whatever else through educational games. Oh, and kids can drop it, smear it with sunflower butter, lick it and it will survive. After reading through the website, I almost felt bad for deprived little Seamus. He should have one. Otherwise the other kids will have an edge on him. I don’t want him to be left behind. I don’t want him to be bored.

    Ah, boredom — the leitmotif of my childhood. No television, no computer and no nabi JR. Just books and people and pads of paper for drawing and writing. My mother’s refrain: “Only boring people get bored.” Her implication: Develop a rich inner life, nurture a vivid imagination, cultivate the gift of conversation and you will never be bored.

    As it turns out, my mom was a genius, and her assertions about our need to occupy ourselves were spot on and supported by the experts, such as Dr. Teresa Bolton — a professor at the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning. She interviewed artists, writers and scientists who all reported that boredom spurred their exploration and creativity. Dr. Bolton concluded “children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

    This made further sense, when I read about a four-year-old in England who went through classic withdrawal after her iPad was taken away. She was using it three or four hours every day. Her parents enrolled her in a digital detox and compulsive behavior therapy, which sounds expensive and stressful. This poor little girl is not alone — half of the parents interviewed for one U.K. survey say they let their babies play with their smartphones or tablets.

    Do I want a tiny techie? Nope. I don’t want to be one either. I like my tactile world of newspapers, snapshots and books. I like the heft and texture of blocks and puzzles and games. I like talking to the people I encounter throughout the day — even the casual, non-verbal interchange of two people passing on the street. I like the feeling of wet grass between my toes and squishy mud on my heels.

    I want all of that for Seamus too. There will be plenty of time for the world to be mediated, distorted and upended by technology when he is older. For now, and for the next few years, we are saying no to all the beeping, whizzing, vibrating, touch-screen gizmos (as does the American Academy of Pediatrics until the age of two). And we are saying yes to imagination, creativity and a bit of old fashioned boredom.

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