Thursday, December 2, 2010

A Whole New Generation

In general, I avoid kid movies. I occasionally stomach them when I can’t avoid it, but for the most part, I find something else to do on movie night. I know, I know, this is the family tradition of the our era – the whole family hunkered down in the dark living room eyes fixed on the latest flick with popcorn in every lap. But kids’ movies get on my nerves. Beyond the obvious plots and dumbing down of the humor, I can only suspend reality so far before I start making snide remarks. So it’s best if I avoid the whole scene.

Last night we had an impromptu family night to re-watch Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was Friday night’s movie. The kids REALLY wanted their father and I to watch it. So we did. The whole thing. I kept waiting for some poignant moment when it would become obvious why they insisted we watch the movie, but mostly I spent the entire time being annoyed with the horrible, self-obsessed, shallow lead character. And apparently there are four more books centered around him. In the end he makes some retribution for his horribleness, but it was too late for me to be impressed.

All morning I’ve been contemplating that movie and why it was that my kids insisted I watch it. Maybe it was to make sure I understood just how awful middle school is and how much pressure they are under. I asked several times if the scene on the TV was representative of the scene at their schools, and they assured me it wasn’t quite that bad. But I do remember how awkward it is to be a middle schooler. I hope my own children will be a little more clued in than I was.

I worry that we are handicapping them by not having cable, satellite, or high-speed internet. We have no hand held games, Wii, or Nintendo. The only screen we have to fight about is the computer screen and there are plenty of battles over that. In fact, the bigger the battles over the screen the less likely I am to tell the kids that just last week they finally ran cable down our street. We’re toying with the idea of high-speed internet, but I’m loathe to poison our happy existence with a high speed invasion. Right now, the lack of screens leads my kids to play elaborate imaginative games, read books, build things with legos and marbles, create artwork, write stories, and spend hours outside.

They aren’t completely ignorant. They’ve played video games at other kids’ houses. We spend time at the library exploring the World Wide Web. And we have a subscription to Netflix for our weekly movie night. The free television that comes over the airwaves to our house enables us to watch football and baseball and Nova. And on Saturday mornings the major networks still show cartoons and ridiculously trendy (and stupid) kid sitcoms.

That’s still much more media exposure than I had as a child. And it makes me wonder what kind of generation we are raising. These kids are addicted to screens. They know how to react to all kinds of elaborate games, but could they create a computer program? I myself, think the computer works by magic – nothing else within my limited brain capacity could explain how it can open eight web pages at once while I am editing my latest post and listening to the new Rosanne Cash CD my step-mother-in-law sent me.

Our children witness endless stories on TV and online, many that push the limits of their emotional maturity, but could they write an original tale? They laugh and gawk at reality TV, but can they tell the difference between “reality” on TV and real life reality? Will they expect this world to be as entertaining or dramatic or exciting as what they experience online and in their living rooms? More to the point, will they be able to cope with disappointment, difficulties, boredom, and hard work?

There is a flipside to all this. Because these kids have been exposed to so much, maybe they will be more understanding of people with differing ethnicities, opinions, or lifestyles. Maybe these kids will believe anything is possible because they see the realm of possibility challenged on a daily basis. Maybe they will believe they can do anything they set their minds to since they’ve seen all manner of humankind accomplish unlikely feats. My younger brother spent all his spare change and every spare moment in the arcades of our youth. He held the high score on hundreds of machines. Guess what he’s doing today? He’s still playing video games – only on the government’s dime. He’s an air force fighter pilot. After years of flying combat missions, he spends his days teaching young pilots in the simulators. He let me try the simulator once, I crashed in minutes. Lacking the hand-eye coordination and quick decision making skills he garnered during all those long afternoons in the arcades, I was hopeless.

It’s impossible to say whether being exposed to too much or very little media will help or hinder our kids. As a parent I know all too well that I can’t predict my kids and the days of controlling their daily activities and decisions (or the illusion of that control) are quickly passing. At this point, our best bet is to support them and love them and continue to expect things from them – things like following the rules, treating others with respect, and taking personal responsibility for their actions. Those are much bigger issues than how much TV they watch.

So as you battle over the screens, remember the battle isn’t about the screen, it’s about the parameters you’ve set as a parent. Don’t make the screen the bad guy (I’m guilty of this!), it’s no more the bad guy than too much candy, not cleaning up after yourself, or not doing your homework. It’s not that they should shut down the screen, it’s that they should do their homework or practice their saxophone or take the dog for a walk or clean up the mess they left in the living room. Focus on the things they should do and let the screen take its place where it should – in their spare time.

Me? I’m still not going to allow open-access to the screens in our house. But that’s the rule and it’s understood. We’re always negotiating the computer time. I’m toying with the idea of letting down some of my restrictions. As long as my kids always understand – the computer games are a privilege, not a right. Privileges can be lost, but rights can’t.

Who knows what kind of generation we are raising? I hope it’s a generation of open-minded, generous, and quick-thinking people who just happen to have great hand-eye coordination.

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