Amy Suardi wrote earlier this month on her Frugal Mama blog about the viability of keeping small children from technology, and the post inspired a lot of interesting comments. Most supported Amy; one (who appears to be a friend of hers) wrote tongue-in-cheek about this: “As the proud owner of a Wii, I enjoy spending time with my kids using “gasp”, technology to bond and have fun with them. I would never feel that it can replace fresh air and sunshine, but it isn’t the devil, either.”
Now that my children are 11 and 7, I think we're far enough into parenting that I can begin assessing how well I succeeded at meeting the ideals I held early in my parenting days about keeping technology at bay. Overall, I think I'd give myself a B-, and that might be a little bit generous. A C+ might be more honest.
Neither of my children was a TV-watcher early on; at about the age of three we started allowing occasional DVDs. A year or two after that, Tim was introduced (I forget exactly how) to children's video games, and after that he acquired a GameBoy. More recently -- in the past year or two -- he developed an interest in specific TV shows like Survivor and American Idol. My daughter, like most younger siblings, experienced all of these things a bit earlier due to her older brother's influence.
Although I still admire the ideal of keeping kids away from screens altogether -- wrapping network programming, DVDs, video games and computer games into one all-encompassing category -- I have to admit I wasn't altogether successful at it. I did manage to avoid regular TV shows until my kids were in grade school, which was a small accomplishment that carried the added benefit of keeping them away from commercials, but Tim adored video games when he was young, and both now enjoy watching the aforementioned TV shows together.
So maybe I'm just rationalizing my own semi-failures, but all in all, I think their exposure as it developed was reasonable and not particularly harmful to them. While I'm no fan of video games, Tim has always played the sports kind and not the violent kind; and while I could surely live without American Idol, I don't find it particularly offensive. The show also gives my two children an interest in common, which being different genders and four years apart in age they haven't always easily found. And in fact, the very first reality show they followed was a teen version of Survivor called Endurance which airs on the Discovery Kids network. We found out about Endurance when I interviewed one of the cast members for a Boston Globe story, so in a way it carried a favorable connection between my writing career and TV. The fact that they eventually got to meet the subject of my story after watching him on TV for two months was particularly satisfying.
I wasn't happy at all about Tim's GameBoy fixation when he was 6, but unrelated to all the restrictions that I tried to place on his usage of it, in time he lost interest in it himself. The valuable lesson I learned from that was that sometimes with kids, their good judgment ultimately prevails even where your own attempts to mold their thinking fail. In retrospect, it definitely wasn't worth my expending so much energy trying to put restrictions on his GameBoy use when his interest in it burned out so fast.
Last December we bought the kids a Wii setup. As the commenter on Frugal Mama says, it's a cooperative activity they can enjoy together, with cousins or with friends. Like American Idol, it's one of the few interests they have in common. Moreover, they don't overdo it. They play it like a board game, taking it out every few weeks on a lazy weekend. They never try to stay up late playing Wii or get a game started when they should be doing homework.
I think the most important thing I've learned in regard to parenting and kids' technology is that it's not an either/or situation. When Tim was first born and I was full of new-parent ideals, I believed that letting a child watch DVDs or play video games meant he or she would never develop an interest in books; that giving them access to American Idol meant they'd never learn to play an instrument. But I was wrong. My kids do both. On a wide-open Saturday, Tim will play computer games part of the day and read at other times of day. With an extra half-hour in the morning before she has to leave for school, Holly might ask to watch the previous night's episode of Endurance or she might play school with imaginary students. They do technology and they have imagination. Even though she could have asked to watch a DVD, Holly spent hours earlier this fall dictating her first novel to me, a 11,000-word opus more comprehensive than anything I wrote at her age.
I do realize most of this is rationalizing. My teenage nieces are two of the most intelligent, well-rounded and capable girls I have ever known, and their lives were TV-free until they were about 10. It's hard to look at them and not argue that this is the right way to go. On the other hand, I see some parents work too hard to keep their kids away from technology. I think it's Judith Warner in Perfect Madness who writes about parents of young children who end up acting like TV sets themselves in their efforts to entertain their children, with a constant stream of story-telling, hypothetical problem-posing, fantasy, invention and other means toward the end of forcing their children's imaginations to stay active.
From the time Tim was eight months old until he was about two, I used to take him out in the jog stroller, and what was most notable for me about those forays was the silence. Before he was born, I was accustomed to running alone, and once he was old enough for the jog stroller, I was delighted to take him with me but had no desire to turn my time of solitude into a period of one-sided chatter. So he and I would cruise the streets of our neighborhood for 30 minutes or more in companionable silence. He never fussed and I never initiated conversation. He just looked around, absorbing the scenery and absorbing the quiet.
He's still someone who likes quiet. Along with video games, computer games and novels.