KATHY HAMILTON

Unplugging our children

My son and I recently went to spend some time with a friend at her family’s »»

My son and I recently went to spend some time with a friend at her family’s summer house near the Black Sea.

Excited to have the chance to swim and play with friends he has not had much chance to visit with over the summer holiday, my son looked forward to our short vacation. Unfortunately, in his eyes, this was once again proof positive that I am completely out of touch with pre-teen reality.

The night before we left, my son spent the night at another friend’s home and we met up early in the morning to take the bus to the Black Sea. Since he was not home when I packed our small bag the night before we left, I decided to take as few items as possible because we were only staying a night or two. I had work to do while I was away, so I tucked my small netbook into my purse, but decided not to take my son’s much larger laptop due to space and weight constraints. His computer, I later discovered, was considered a vital item that he was very disappointed to find out had been left behind.

I had assumed that since we would be staying in a small housing compound with a pool, playground and areas to skateboard and ride bikes that the children would be eager to get outside, see which of their friends had also come out from the city, and spend all day finding ways to entertain themselves. Sadly, this was not what the kids had in mind. As soon as we arrived, the other two children we were spending our vacation with pulled out their computers and, after discovering there was no wireless Internet access in the house, began playing games they had downloaded previously. My son looked at me accusingly and said: “I told you I needed my computer. What am I supposed to do while we’re here?”

I suggested going for a walk to check out the neighborhood, which was quickly nixed because it was too hot and the hill too steep to easily climb. Sighing, all alternatives I came up with were similarly vetoed. As the three mothers gathered on the patio to enjoy coffee and catch up on news, the children took turns playing games on the computer until I asked who wanted to go swimming. This suggestion finally pulled them away from their computers for a couple of hours.

After swimming and dinner, which they helped prepare, it was back to the computers for them, along with a couple of the neighbors’ children. I suggested they play one of the card games that were sitting on the table in the living room, but that idea was cast aside as too boring. The next morning, as soon as the children arose, they were on the computers even before breakfast was ready. My son moped, feeling like the odd one out because he had no electronic gadget to play games on.

After breakfast, the children went swimming again and, after lunch, they once again began to head indoors again to resume playing on the computers. This time, however, the other two mothers and I acted as a group and banned computers for the rest of the afternoon. Complaining loudly, the kids all went out to find something else to do. We heaved a collective sigh on the patio as they began playing in the park, discovering that they could have fun playing together without being hooked up to their computers. As I expected, my son’s attitude lightened as he and his friends ran around in the playground, tried to climb trees and rode bikes.

It was interesting to see how they interacted without computers and games to distract them. While playing the games, they had many spats, arguing about how the others played the games, criticizing their abilities or the speed in which they reacted to game prompts. However, once they were outside without the distractions of their computers, they became a more cohesive group -- encouraging each other and offering helpful suggestions when called for. Gone were the little arguments and criticisms.

When I was younger, we looked forward to summer because it was a time to be outside with our friends, exploring, having adventures, playing with animals and swimming. We did not have the distractions of today’s modern life. With no cell phones, computers, hand-held electronic devices or games hooked up to the television, we learned to create our own fun. Looking back, they do seem to be simpler, less-complicated times. When my parents came home from work, there were no emails beeping for their attention, no phone calls from a boss who expected employees to be available all day, no matter where they were.

Children today grow up surrounded by the latest gadgets and keep up-to-date on the latest technological advances. When I see children hunched over computers instead of interacting with each other, it worries me. I wonder how their interpersonal skills will develop if they spend so many hours online. Friends now communicate via emails and personal messages. My own son is usually limited to one hour a day to be on his computer during the summer. I may be over-protective, but I want him to spend some of his time outdoors, engaged in sports and playing with friends. Fortunately, he is still at an age where he likes to take walks and we seem to communicate better and have more in-depth talks while strolling along together. However, once home, he usually wants just a few more minutes on the computer.

My son has a good point when he tells me I am out of touch with technology. However, I want technology to offer me useful tools that I can use to free up my time, not something that forces me to abandon the outside world in favor of a computer screen. I value human relationships and I hope that I can pass that along to him, but sometimes it seems like an uphill battle.

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2012-09-07

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Columnist:: KATHY HAMILTON