LEFT TO THEIR OWN DEVICES:
An Ode to Parents of the Screen-Age
Summer break is officially underway.
And I’m officially ready to strangle my four year old.
I love the kid to death.
I’m just not loving the ketchup he threw in my face. Or the phone he threw in the toilet.
Fatherhood means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To this particular dad, at this particular moment, it means figuring out how to resuscitate an iPhone that spent the morning swimming in kiddy urine.
It’s all fun and games.
Until daddy goes insane.
If you’re currently dialing 1-800-CHILD-SERVICES, consider this my insanity plea.
School’s out for summer…
You know what that means.
It’s simple algebra:
Kids + Home = Panic.
Summer time, and the livin’s easy…
Unless you have children.
And your children have schpilkas.
Sooner or later, things get ugly.
Summer lovin’ morphs into summer shovin’.
Kid #1 and Kid #2 start violently wrestling over the last piece of some snack they never knew existed, until one seized it, and the other waged a holy war for the sole sake of recapturing the spoils.
Kid #3 is repainting the recently repainted walls with neon yellow and lime green nail polish.
Kid #4 is washing my wife’s wigs with expired chocolate milk & Greek yogurt.
Kid #5 doesn’t exist, and given the current state of affairs, probably never will.
The inmates are running the asylum.
In the lexicon of ParentLand, there are bathroom words. There are curse words. And there are forbidden words.
Bathroom words are harmless, but we caution against them, lest they make an unbecoming appearance in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and give the wrong parents the right impression that proper etiquette is a forgotten art in our otherwise classy household. Words like stupid. And cocky. And – my all time favorite – pishy. I’ve always had a thing for pishy. Don’t ask.
Curse words consist of four letters, and we save them for special occasions. Like stubbed-toes, stalker telemarketers, annoying neighbors, and other moments of unbridled fury, when we tell ourselves that the kids don’t hear, or that they don’t understand, or that they wouldn’t understand if it weren’t for those annoying neighbors.
Then, there are the forbidden words
Totally off limits.
Tantamount to heresy.
The forbidden words:
My children shudder before uttering these words. Because when they do, all hell breaks loose.
It’s a child’s way of saying “check mate.”
“You parents failed to prepare some proper structure, now you can prepare to suffer some proper consequences.”
This is every parent’s rock bottom.
We admit defeat.
We are ready to take certain steps.
Here are the inevitable steps we take:
- We admit that we are powerless over our children, that their boredom has become unmanageable.
- We come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore them to sanity.
- We come to call this power “Netflix.”
Left to their own devices, things begin to brighten.
The storm settles.
The clouds part.
Here comes the sun, dadadatta…
In an instant, all is right with the world.
The kids are angels.
The house radiates in stillness.
Our family begins to resemble The Brady Bunch. Snug, serene, and starry-eyed. In reality, we are each numbing our respective minds. But comfortably numb seems a better alternative to uncivil warfare. Numb or dumb, we can – at the very least – nest in peace.
For all I know, my kids could be watching step-by-step tutorials on assembling homemade explosives, generously sponsored by the Islamic Brotherhood (and now that I think about it, decapitated dolls and mutilated stuffed animals are turning up at a disturbing rate around here). But the unpredictable exposure to an eerie underworld of online creepery is a small price to pay for the illusion of tranquility. Anything, and I mean anything, is better than the dreaded “I’m bored.”
If you are a parent in the Screen-Age, you know exactly what I mean.
The German poet, Yvon Goll, describes the weekly dread of Sundays (long before toy store tantrums added insult to injury) as follows:
“At the end of the six holy work days is the unholy Sunday, which one sleeps through out of fear of the great boredom…Sunday, the day of idleness, is nowadays, a day of great punishment…”
If you work on Sunday, we don’t feel sorry for you. We envy you. The agitating restlessness can get so intolerable that we swallow a full month’s supply of Klonopin just to temper the tension.
Is this a novel phenomenon?
Two thousand years ago, sages and philosophers took note of this very dilemma.
“The mind cannot endure the house, the solitude, the walls… from this arises that boredom and self-dissatisfaction, that turmoil of a restless mind… the state of mind of those who loathe their own leisure and complain that they have nothing to do…”
– Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
So, the story is, in fact, a very old one.
Boredom is ancient.
What’s new is not our schpilkas, but our synthetic solutions for silencing these inner sirens.
Netflix & YouTube are wonder drugs.
The hypnotic trance of limitless streaming works wonders for powerless parents, who feel ill equipped to quench the child’s innocent cry for substantial structure.
But the convenience comes at a hefty cost.
“There are just two activities that are significantly correlated with childhood depression and other suicide-related outcomes…1) electronic device use (such as a smartphone, tablet, or computer), and 2) watching TV.”
― Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind
Indeed, research continually demonstrates the detriments of binge-watching, particularly for younger children who are still developing critical social/emotional coping skills. An overindulgence in the endless menu of mindless media is directly contributing to a plethora of psychiatric ailments we see skyrocketing at runaway rates. And the troubling trend is just getting started.
They say it’s the hardest generation to be a parent, but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s the easiest generation to be a non-parent. Distractions on-demand provide a convenient escape route for the young and the restless. But the jury is still out on our nascent experiment. History is an ever evolving testimony to the perilous pitfalls of great intentions gone awry.
For better – or worse – it’s too early to tell.
The truth remains to be seen.
And the truth may hurt.
But it’s a truth I’ll need to swallow.
Even if it means a face drenched in ketchup.
A wig drenched in yogurt.
A wall drenched in nail polish.
And an iPhone drenched in pishy.