"When I was a kid," oldsters are known to say, “life was so much harder.” I heard this from my dad, who talked about stoking a furnace in the basement of his parents’ railroad flat. I heard it from my mother, who recalls walking long distances to school in the freezing cold. No refrigerators, no TV, no fast food, no cures for polio and no antibiotics.
My generation, the boomers, reminded our kids that we grew up without smartphones and the internet. We needed to go to a library and read actual encyclopedias to research our school reports. We were left to our own devices, which were our brains, our imagination and our willingness to get up off the couch.
But the common wisdom of life being harder in the past is dead wrong. We had fewer conveniences and less information flowing into our lives, but growing up was easier and parenting was certainly much less fraught with peril than it is today.
As a grandparent, I witness the challenges of raising children in our world of excess and increasing incivility. We know the documented risks of too much screen time, too little real family time and the cacophony of distractions and meaningless chatter, all claiming time and attention and focus.
We know the risks, but with two working parents, life is so much easier when they just let the kids play video games and chat with friends and post to Facebook and watch TV. It’s easier — and I might be doing the same thing if I had young kids — but it’s dangerous. The media lifestyle limits our kids’ chances to develop their minds and values and imaginations.
The goal, I think, should be to use the benefits of technology without letting it co-opt our lives.
I recently visited my daughter and son-in-law, who are raising their two children in a small town out West. I believe they’re working very hard to get it right. All moments are teachable moments. They talk about personal responsibility, kindness to others, environmental responsibility and the children’s first and most important job: to learn how to keep themselves healthy and fit by eating good foods and exercising, and doing their best in school.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m the grandma, so I see plenty of ways I might do things differently, but I recognize the effort my grown kids are making to keep their children grounded when there is so much temptation to indulge and dismiss.
A few specifics: The kids are 10 and 8. They make their beds every day, prepare their own breakfast (yes, even cooking), and then clear their plates. They have chores, and are expected to fold laundry and empty the dishwasher and take out the trash before they can claim any screen time.
Before they leave for school or day camp, the children look at individual checklists to be sure they have put hats, sunglasses, books and snacks into their backpacks. If they forget something, they go without it for the day. Lost items are not automatically replaced, which encourages the kids to track their stuff.
They are taught the value of civil discourse (not that they don’t fight like bandits). They don’t expect to have their own phones or computers. They walk to school all winter, except in deep snow. They come home and do homework first before playtime. For fun, the family hikes and bikes and kayaks in the river. They are keenly aware that this proximity to nature is an amazing opportunity that most people don’t have.
I love my grandkids, but they’re no different from any other kids. They need to be taught, every day, over and over again, to be good citizens in the home and outside in the community. How will they turn out? Anybody’s guess. But it increases the odds to have a solid beginning.
It’s an ongoing effort on the part of their parents to push back against media madness. They have an Apple TV, but no conventional TV. And the kids do their job of resisting parental efforts to limit their screen time.
They sit at dinner, with few distractions, and talk to one another about their day. I am struck by how difficult a job it is to accomplish just that: a time apart for family conversation, with no phone calls or text interruptions.
As an observer in this family, I see pretty regular kids with ordinary issues in their lives, and regular parents who are, perhaps, doing some extra work to keep their children on track.
I do think it has become a hostile world for kids. They’re bombarded with messages and distractions that undermine bedrock values of self-reliance and healthy living. So it’s up to parents to fight the good fight, and it’s challenging to stay on message, every day, from breakfast to dinner to bedtime.
Parenting was easier in our day. I salute all the moms and dads who work so hard to blaze a safe and healthy trail for their children.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.