Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Have we squelched normal childhood behavior with electronics?

It's the season of Christmas performances for children.  I've been to several for my children, and I have noticed that the young siblings of the performer, who in past years must endure boredom, threats from parents to "Be quiet!" and even brief removal from the performance for a walk around the building. no longer have to endure such atrocities.

They play games on a parent's cell phone the entire time, and no one even realizes they are present. At a recent performance, a small boy curled up against his father and was lost in his car-chase game. He didn't bother anyone.  But what did he miss?


He was about three, and three-year-olds are not known for their ability to sit still.  Before cell phones existed, perhaps mom or dad would have had to take him outside to allow him to run around for a few minutes, and then they'd bring him back in to endure the rest of the performance.  This child didn't whine for a snack, he didn't laugh at his sister, or make faces at her, or try to get her to laugh.  He didn't ask, in the way of many three-year-olds, innumerable questions about the performance.  He didn't play with his toy cars and accidentally send one across the room.  He just sat quietly with the phone and didn't bother anyone.

But he wasn't normal.  In the entirety of human history, parents have had to manage the behavior of three-year-olds, to the amusement and understanding of those past that stage of life, and to the aggravation of those childless folks who think that their as yet unborn child will sit contentedly through every performance and church service.

My youngest child is 5, and during the performance while she  watched her sister, she said she didn't want to sit there and watch (I told her she had to), she said she wanted a snack (which I provided). She played with toys.  She whined.  She smiled at her sister.  Finally she lay across my lap and rested. I expected her, at 5, to be able to remain in the room for 45 minutes without going outside for a walk. She was normal.

When mine were three, I prepared for outings by packing snacks, small toys, crayons, and paper. I expected that at some point we'd have to leave the performance and walk around outside.  If the behavior went from 3-year-old wiggles to defiance, they might have (very rarely) gotten a swat on the behind as a reminder that Mama Is Serious.

While waiting for food at a restaurant with toddlers and preschoolers, my husband and I took them on walks around the restaurant or outside.  Inevitably, someone would find them adorable and would want to talk to them, pleasing both child and all adults.  They were normal.  They were living real life, and they were interacting with others and coping with boredom in the same ways that small children have coped with such things for all of human history.

They have reached school-age with their attention spans intact and with the ability to handle some boredom.  They do not expect entertainment by me: if they whine about being bored at home I helpfully find them a chore.  That quickly teaches them not to ask Mama for help with alleviation of their boredom.

TV and other electronics are a treat, not an expectation, in our house.  They don't happen every day.  People fear that their children will be behind others if they don't start learning how to dress princesses on the iPad when they are two; I assure you that my 8-year-old, who had no computer time until she was of school age, and who still has very limited use, can Google answers to questions (if she can only spell well enough), knows about YouTube, and is learning to type correctly. She learned how to use the computer with startling speed, certainly much faster than I learned.

She was old enough, when we started using the computer, to actually need the information she might find on the computer.  She has also played enough games to be able to understand what her friends are talking about so she "fits in" with others.    She won't be a video game champion, but that is perfectly okay with me.  Friends come to our house to play in the creek, visit the chickens, and play in the playhouse.  When we drove 700 miles in one day, they watched movies on a portable DVD player.  I am not opposed entirely to electronics.

My husband and I have had to listen to whining that could have been easily squelched with electronics.  I have to tell them sometimes to go to their rooms and don't come out unless there is blood, fire, or vomit.  Sometimes I tell them that they are driving me crazy, and I tell them to go outside, and I might even lock the door after it closes. Didn't your mother send you outside?  Mine certainly did.

But that is real life, isn't it?  Children are supposed to let you know they are with you. When  a two-year-old is awake and quiet for more than a few minutes, it should be because they are getting into trouble, not because they are lost in a video game.  Children are a lot of bother.  They need to be shown, when they are small, that they are capable of playing alone instead of being given an electronic device for entertainment.  As they get older they need to develop hobbies.  Children need to learn to fill that ache of boredom, of loneliness, with some activity, either for fun or as work.  

If they do not learn this skill as children, they become adults who play video games all day, or watch TV in every spare minute, or binge eat.  It's easier to watch TV than to read a book.  It's easier to play video games than to take up a new hobby or call a friend or cook a meal or work in the garden or walk around the block.

Throughout the entirety of human history, people have had to overcome boredom without electronics.  Perhaps we should continue to practice this skill and, most importantly, because adults today at least grew up without cell phones and easy access to electronics, teach them to our children.  Children are worth the bother.


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