May 19, 2014

What would happen if electronics were forbidden?

Standing Out

Posted on Camp Business May 16, 2014
Article Author: Dr. Chris Thurber

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What would happen if electronics were forbidden?

My 9-year-old son, Sava, took a field trip to the State House in Concord, New Hampshire, with his class on Monday. Like any good parent, I asked him what he learned. “I’m the only kid without a smartphone” was his reply. Interesting civics lesson.

Sava went on to describe the one-hour bus ride from Exeter to the state capital. “Everyone pulled out their smartphones and started playing games. All I had was the iPod Shuffle that Grandma gave me.” (What a deprived existence he leads, right? Just a lowly music player. I should have given him my old Sony Walkman and a few sweet mix tapes from high school.)

“Wow,” I replied jokingly, “You’re a complete dork. A total loser.” Sava smiled and then furrowed his brow. “You don’t get it, dad. It’s not about being cool. It’s about being included.” Then it was my turn to furrow my brow.

I know I make capricious decisions as a parent but I had believed my resistance to purchasing a smartphone for my 9-year-old (a smartphone for my 9-year-old!) was thoughtful. If you don’t believe that 9-year-olds are better off without smartphones, I can’t convince you in a brief essay. But I will concede that the social consequences of standing out can be emotionally challenging for children of any age. Maybe I hadn’t completely thought through my choice.

On second thought, maybe I’d rather have my child stand out for the right reasons. Like any parent, I’m happy to see him finish strongly in an athletic event, perform skillfully in a musical performance or simply behave kindly when we have company. Standing out in one moment can win you idiosyncrasy points with your peers that help you fit in the next moment.

Unwilling to cave and promise a new smartphone, yet vexed by his report, I asked: “What was it like to be the only kid without a smartphone on the bus ride to and from Concord?” “Well,” he said, “I listened to some music on my iPod. Then I watched Benji play a game called Plumber Crack.”

“How does that game work?” I asked, with my trademark squint. Sava went on to describe how this game (available on both iPhone and Android platforms) depicts your choice of a burly male rear end (with the pants pulled down just enough to reveal the proverbial “quarter slot” or top inch or two of the gluteus maximus cleft) or a curvaceous female bum. Players then flick the screen to toss ice cubes into the, um, avitar’s crack. Nice. Kind of like Paper Toss on spring break in Fort Lauderdale. Or something.

I’ll leave a caustic social commentary to game bloggers and customer reviews. Let me just wax philosophical on some educational questions, from a parent’s viewpoint. Does it make sense that the bookends of a school-sponsored field trip to learn about state history and governance involves unfettered access to video games? Was there a missed opportunity to teach two more hours of history to these fourth-graders?

Forget teaching for a minute. What would have happened if electronics had been forbidden and the kids had been forced to interact with one another? What if Governor Maggie Hassan had asked Benji (not the boy’s real name, of course): How did you spend the bus ride to Concord? Imagine how proud his parents—not to mention the two fourth-grade teachers—would have been to have Benji reply, “I’ve been tossing ice cubes into a woman’s butt crack. But don’t worry, it was just a game.” Classy.

The older I get, the older I sound. And that’s a good thing.

“Sava,” I said, “That game sounds funny but kinda inappropriate.” His retort: “It’s not that inappropriate, Tata. In fact, Benji said his mom won’t let him make the in-app purchase to buy the really skanky clothes for the girl plumber.” Oh. Good. I’m glad she’s only dressed in skin-tight jeans and a halter top in the game’s free version. Just imagine the paid version possibilities. Nothing like paying more to get less. (By the way, the latest version of the game also includes Santa Claus, bending under a Christmas tree, with the invitation “Throw Stuff In His Butt!” It’s hard to imagine a more radical departure from the religious meaning of Christmas. I’m no theologian; just thought I’d put that out there.)

“I think you just made my point for me, buddy. I know it was uncomfortable, but I’m glad you didn’t feel like you belonged on that bus ride. As long as I Mama and I have some say in the matter, you won’t belong to the Plumber Crack crowd.” He rolled his eyes again, but I think he caught my meaning.

No parent can protect his or her child completely from bizarre, sexist or violent media. But every parent is capable of having a series of thoughtful, balanced conversations about media; every parent is capable of influencing their child’s media consumption.

No, I haven’t lost my sense of humor or youthful exuberance, but I figure that if my kid stands out, I want it to be for reasons that make me proud. No one said childhood was easy. Parenting is even tougher.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training.

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