This article is excerpted from Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World.
Technology affects people of all ages, simply because it transfers our interest and consideration from human beings to machines. It’s especially damaging for young children, who used to rely on the adults close to them for guidance and example. Even among the poorest families, it’s rare to find a home without a television or computer. There may not be enough food in the cupboards, but television is considered mandatory. Though hardworking parents may point out that they can’t afford a babysitter, and at least their children are home and safe, we need to ask, safe from what? Much of what is being absorbed can poison a child’s spirit.
As parents and caregivers, how can we find creative ways to give children more space and quiet so they can play and learn? In schools, some teachers stand at the classroom door with a bag, confiscating all phones and tablets for the duration of the class so that children can focus. Others send home letters to parents requesting less entertainment time after school hours. They point out that children are more likely to get their homework done and have a good night’s sleep. They explain that the less violence is absorbed, the less fighting, arguing, and bullying happens in school.
I know of others who have negotiated with their school administration to remove technology from the classroom – an uphill battle now that computers have come to be considered indispensable. I think these teachers have a sound argument: since children spend so many hours at home glued to one screen or another, does it benefit their education or physical well-being if the school ensures they do the same during the day? If the result is restlessness, aggressive behavior, and lack of focus, does it advance the school’s goals?
Creative teachers can do a lot with a little. Dana Wiser, a friend of mine, remembers how his daughter’s teacher found a way to give her students white space during the day:
When my daughter Mary was in first grade, she was lucky to have a teacher wise in the ways of both children and nature. She encouraged every child to adopt one of the trees that were grouped around the children’s playground. Mary’s “pet tree” was a sycamore, strong and tall, and of a girth she could hide behind. Each child studied the adopted tree, tracing its leaves and bark pattern. Quiet time spent with their pet trees was extra special, and when something about the school day upset Mary, all she had to do was visit her sycamore, drawing solace from its strength and comfort from its shade. She will love all trees, and especially sycamores, all her life; more than that, something of nature’s healing power lives in her heart as a gift from her pet tree.
Times of quiet and experiences in nature can be healing for troubled children. But, like most remedies, they work better if taken preventatively. We can proactively make changes before things get desperate. Can you do without a television? Thousands of families do, with heartening results. Having grown up without one, I found it easier to leave it out of my own home, sparing our children the advertising that would relentlessly inform them, among other things, of further advanced technology that they “just had to have.”
If several nearby families opt for freedom from screens, it can become a groundswell movement. Children can play together and adults won’t feel as if they’re the only ones out of step with the times.
In my house, as in many, computers are merely tools for adults to do their work; we don’t turn to them for entertainment. My kids only learned typing in middle school, when their term papers were long enough to warrant the effort. Parents can support their children’s research, teaming up for internet searches if they’re required, but also taking library trips together and swapping books. It’s a great chance to point out that on the web, anyone can say anything, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.
World news should be a part of a child’s education, but it does not need to be accompanied by graphic images. It is hard enough for us adults to process the pain and suffering we see in the news each day without becoming jaded or allowing it to harden our hearts. If adults take the time to read up on current events or listen to public radio, we can approach difficult subjects in a way that respects a child’s age and understanding. This can provide an opening for further discussion about world suffering and what can be done to alleviate it.
The catch, of course, is our own time. In our over-scheduled adult lives, we’re not sure we have time to work and play together with our kids, or sit and talk about the news. At school, the ominous curriculum deadlines can prevent teachers from taking their kids out to associate with trees.
But when we think of the alternatives, it is worth making time, and making it now. We only have these few years together. Society may lament an epidemic of lost, cynical teens, incapable of compassion or empathy. But if children’s spirits aren’t guided and protected by those closest to them, what do we expect?
It’s time for us to take a hard look at all the clever devices in our own lives that everyone calls time-savers. When we sit texting on a playground bench while our kids play alone, whose time are we saving? When we send one more email, read one more article, play one more round of a video game while children are in the vicinity, we’re telling them that something else is more important than they are. We can talk about children’s technological addictions all we want, but the problem starts closer to home.
Let’s put our smartphones away and tune in to the living, breathing wonders who are waiting for us to look up and notice them. Let’s shut off the power, take our child by the hand, and show them that the real world is a fascinating place.