My Boys: “We’re bored.”
Me: “Good, go deal with it.”
Heard this lately? I have…a lot. My three guys are typical for three, six, and nearly eight. Rough and tumble, curious, easily distracted, and wont to bounce off the furniture. But, press power and the laughter and giggles
and sib-bickering and tears stop. The house falls quiet. Thank God, I think because I can actually hear my own thoughts. The “Power” button changes everything and my three image-bearing hellions morph into laser-focused, butt-still, pacified kids. God knows I need the still. I crave the quiet. On occasion, pressing power to get it is okay. Really, it is. I even join my guys on occasion and zone with them, and then we talk about what we just watched. Those are some of the best conversations. But do you know what? “Tech time” is one of the worst things I can do for them on a regular basis. Notice that I said regular basis. I borrowed the term from my mother, the Great and Powerful Ree. Ree doesn’t do grandma. She does Ree and Ree is worthy of the underline. Ree has gotten to the core of this blog post. Media and tech are different. We consume one through or with the other. But, for the sake of brevity – you do get my point – Tech Time works nicely.
For the record, I am not opposed to TV or video games or media in general. I grew up with the first two in carefully metered doses. Ree knew what she was doing. Carefully metered for a reason. My parents just knew that reading a book was a better use of my time. They didn’t need a PSA or government study to tell them that. I know far more now about how the brain works than my parents did then. The science of neuroplasticity has taught me about how the brain changes. It adapts. It can learn and evolve. But it can also atrophy if not properly cared for and Tech Time is one of the worst offenders. Tech, when used inappropriately or overused in place of human interaction, sabotages the mind, and too much Tech Time comes with a price.
Media has changed a lot. More violence, more language, more mature themes. All. The. Time. Even little girls are sexed-up and our young women are taking it all off. Nothing is sacred anymore. If you just pictured a wrecking ball and Ms. Cyrus swinging across the screen, buck-naked with her tongue hanging out, then you know exactly what I mean.
More, more, and more of everything, literally at the push of a navigational button. Before we got wired, before the smartphone or iPad, before some of us had brick phones, the best-selling book Amusing Ourselves to Death made the case that cheap, on-demand, all-pervasive entertainment was killing us. Our journalism, our education, our on and off time is beholden to electronic media, round-the-watch. And the price is our ability to imagine, to play creatively, and to turn a pile of blocks into a maximum security fortress that G. I. Joe can’t break into, except Joe always finds a way. And you know what, when I shut of the tech my boys do too. Reluctantly, at first. But they manage to stumble and trip into Wonka’s World of Imagination.
This afternoon, I listened to my two oldest gripe about no TV or gaming on Sundays, for thirty minutes. None, at all. It’s one of our rules. We just check out on God’s day. If I don’t teach them to make Sunday a day of rest
– including taking a break from tech – they will never know what it means to unplug. But that’s Sunday. What about the rest of the week?
Rather than let this post devolve into a list of dos and don’ts or a pile of guilt – neither is my intention – here’s a list of suggestions that we’ve found helpful in managing Tech Time in our home:
1. Homework, reading, mealtimes, a goodaudio book, playing outside, and face-to-face communication
come first. Always. Tech Time is a treat, not a staple of our diets.
2. We consumer entertainment with our kids and then talk about it afterward. Turning Tech Time
into teachable moments gives us the chance to instill character and values and discernment into our children. And we stay educated on pop culture too.
3. If the show, toon, app or game mouths off, we shut it off. Clear enough. There are a half million words
in the English language. Colorful metaphors have a place, once in a while...when the boys are older. Like forty. But, for now…and most of the time, regardless of age, there is a more excellent way.
4. Toons or CGIs or human actors need to act in an age-appropriate way or they will not be allowed in our
home. Morals count, even onscreen. We all have a learning curve, even toons. There's grace for that. But if they aren't learning to make good choices then my guys can't learn from them - bye, bye, bye. If their morals don't sync with ours, hasta la vista. Decide what this means for your family and draw the line in the sand. Sponge Bob is outside the circle of trust because the sponge takes off his pants and trounces around in his underwear with his underwater friends. Call me toonaphobic, but little boys (and girls) need to understand that doing likewise is not okay. Ever. Bye, bye, bye Mr. No-pants.
5. When we’re in public, our ears are open, not shrouded with headphones or buds. First, we need to be aware of our surroundings. Cars, crying kids, a cry for help, or the footfalls behind us that shouldn’t be. Situational awareness is critical to our personal safety. We cannot afford to NOT hear what's happening around us. Secondly, zoning out in public is just plain rude. How can we teach our children to be empathetic and attentive and aware of the needs of others if we let them retreat into a hyper-narcissistic world of entertainment-on-demand?
6. It’s better to be bored than entertained. This goes for restaurants and public events too. Whenever I
see a family sitting down to share a meal, without tech, my heart warms. But I’m seeing more and more families in restaurants with their phones out and their eyes glazed over, kids zoning with tech while the parents talk...or don't talk as is often the case. Makes me so sad. Now don’t get me wrong. There are times…and believe me I’ve been there...when I just need some peace and quiet and I will do most anything to buy it. I am not a perfect parent, not by a kilometer. Tech time in a restaurant is fine…as long as it’s not regularly on the menu. Conversation should be the appetizer, not pacifying entertainment. If I let my sons habitually zone with media in restaurants just so I can have peace, I’m teaching them to zone others out too. Maybe even zone out me. To disengage from being human. I’m creating little narcissists. Better to deal with the chaos now instead of emotionally disabled kids later. We will all be the better for it.
This list is by no means exhaustive. it's not perfect either. But it’s a start. I’m a big believer in doing something verses nothing. Even a small measure of intention can pay huge dividends. No one is perfect. No. Not. One. I don’t hold myself to that standard and I’ll never apply it to you. But, I believe we all need to give this matter serious thought, if not for ourselves then for our kids, and for their futures. Think it over. Press power-off a little more. Make one change in the way your family consumes Tech Time and let me know how it goes.
I write military sf and read and watch a lot of the same. Blood, guts, and swearing abound. If you want good reads try John Scalzi and W.E.B. Griffin (pronounced "Web" Griffin), David Weber (the "Great One" in my opinion - this has nothing to do with his stature by the way), and Orson Scott Card. Card's Ender's Game is required reading, at least it should be. Frank Herbert is a must too. Dune made me fall for sf all over again.
Language is a regular trope in military sf. Think Gunny Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Or the DI in Scalzi's Old Man's War. By the way, Scalzi can string colorful metaphors like a poet - I've never laughed or blushed so hard as I did in the first half of OMW.
If I tell you a character "swears like a sailor" I bet you know exactly what I mean. Thank Hollywood and reams of pulp for that. And ex-military like my late grandfather, God rest his soul. Chief Petty Officer Bill Coates was a sinner in his early years, and an unvarnished saint in midlife and retirement after a "come to Jesus meeting." Jesus came in, kicked the hell out of him, and never did leave. But grandpa kept some of his rough edges. I remember sitting with him in his den, and something on the news would spark one of his songs like "No More Navy, Gee Mom I Wanna Go Home" - which was actually pretty tame now that I think about it - and my mother would clear her throat as he reached the salty part in the song. "Ah, mom, come on." Grandpa always did an about-face in front of her, charged head on when it was just the two of us. Those were the days. Sure which he and his songs were still with us too.
As a writer, I'm mindful of characters and caricatures like Gunny Hartman. He's one type of soldier but he isn't every soldier or even every gunny. And I question how realistic his character is. I should state here that I've never served so I have to go on what I read about and hear and see, including my interviews with women and men in uniform. Are there counterparts to the foul-mouthed Gunny Hartmans of the world? You know, the ones who aren't. Foul-mouthed. Really? Well, yeah, I know some, and maybe they are more common than we realize. Maybe more so than a lot of us realize. My parents lived by a retired Marine Corps gunny for years. To paraphrase a conversation they relayed to me, the gunny said he took pleasure, and sometimes displeasure, in dressing down a lot of privates in his career. But he was always mindful about how he did it, and if he had to use a four-letter word to get his point across then he wasn't very good at his job. Really? If he had to swear he wasn't very good at his job? That's interesting...and it contradicts about every stereotype of a gunnery sergeant I can think of, right? Maybe, but maybe not. I know another retired Marine Corps gunny who isn't exactly straight-laced, but his mouth isn't an off-color fusillade either. He doesn't say a lot but what he says is weighty...and people listen...and he has an excellent command of the English language. I know a retired Army "Light" Colonel the size of a tank who is careful with his words and his life. He's an imposing man and only a fool would cross him. But he made a conscious decision years ago to watch his language. There's a retired Navy commander and a retired Air Force "Light" Colonel who made similar decisions during their careers too.
Living in a military town you meet a lot of military guys and gals. I've had the chance to get to know some better than others, and I've learned that some swear and some try not to, others just don't. Period. They will all tell you that stress and swearing tend to go hand-in-hand. Combat stress unleashes the tongue. It's just human nature. Go smash your thumb with a hammer and you'll get a small taste of what I mean. But, day-to-day, a lot of sailors and airmen and soldiers and Marines are as straight-laced as a boot.
Which brings me to my point. Hollywood doesn't always get it right. Authors don't always get it right. "Civvies" like me don't always get it right either. The military isn't a homogenous group of foul-mouthed war-fighters. The truth is a lot of us aren't in the military and don't know someone who is all that well. We are informed by the opinion of others, and those opinions are only types and shadows of a larger truth. Don't get me wrong. I don't doubt there are foul-mouthed sailors and Marines who are foul-mouthed all the time, and gunny's that can drop the f-bomb one hundred ways. And I'm sure their are many shades of grey. Soldiers who swear a bit, some a bit more, and some a lot but never around their mothers. But there's also a cadre of women and men who are as careful with their words as they are with the people under their command. And as a writer I feel a great burden to remember and respect and represent them in my stories too.