Last Tuesday’s Todd J. Broadman column on children and touch screens set me thinking about my childhood and the childhood of my children. I was 15 before television entered our household. I listened to radio during World War II.
The only TV Jolie and I ever bought was a 6-inch, black-and-white portable so that our 2-year-old could watch that new show, Sesame Street. That 2-year-old is now 56. In the intervening years we inherited two more TVs, which we watched until they died. We didn’t monitor our kids’ viewing habits. Rather, we tried to teach them responsibility for their own choices.
Kids learn early to think for themselves. We didn’t delude ourselves that our children’s TV choices would mirror ours. Instead we gave them decision-making tools in hopes they would choose wisely. In retrospect, with all three past the half-century mark, they did.
As they grew, Jolie decided to transition from full-time Mom to chiropractor. When she finished her pre-med in Colorado, the kids were 12, 14, and 16. We all moved to Tumwater, Wash., to begin Mom’s four-year absence at school in Portland, two hours south.
My work required periodic out-of-town trips. That meant three teenagers home alone for up to 10 days. We had emergency backup, of course, a neighbor with teens of her own. But basically our children had full charge of taking care of their personal and collective responsibilities. Authorities today would probably arrest us for child neglect.
But neglect them we didn’t. From their earliest years, they learned our family had certain rules that applied to all. Those rules began with courtesy and honesty. If Mom or Dad was rude to a kid or to each other, we had to admit it honestly and apologize. And vice versa.
Mostly it worked. Honesty and courtesy were deeply embedded in our household by the time Mom began school. Whenever I was traveling, one parent would phone home each evening. We’d ask how things were going, and we trusted the responses.
Times change. Touchscreens now provide infinitely more than the simple phone call. As with television, children need guidance on how to use smartphones. Depriving them of opportunities to choose deprives them of learning how to choose.
With touchscreens ubiquitous, parents have responsibility to work with kids, provide a value-based framework within which to choose, guide them where possible, take a deep breath, and trust them to choose wisely and safely. Peers exert influences that often override parental influence. Kids should be made aware of that and prepare for it.
When our children began school, we explained, from the perspective of our home life, that they were old enough to understand right from wrong, that they were responsible for their own behavior when we weren’t around. If they misbehaved, they had to accept the consequences of that behavior. In addition, we explained, life isn’t always fair, so they had to learn how to deal wisely with that unfortunate fact.
We chose this path because of a newspaper story about how children from across the nation were migrating to nearby Denver, where street people provided a mecca for runaways — with all that implies for a disjointed society. We realized we couldn’t be too harsh or domineering with our children, but rather we had to make them aware at the earliest possible age of both rights and responsibilities as members of a loving family and an unpredictable society.
Without frightening them, we also emphasized the need for accepting responsibilities early. There was always a possibility, though unlikely, we explained, that they could lose their parents in an accident. At such a point, they would have to make their own decisions without a lot of backup.
Tuesday’s column cites evidence that 44% of high-schoolers “have persistent feelings of hopelessness,” that there is a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. “They hang in there,” Broadman wrote, “late at night, sleep deprived,” addicted to social media. He laments “the collapse of a support structure.”
Children begin choosing early in life, long before school starts. The trick is to guide them as they begin and to nurture them toward choosing wisely and responsibly, then to hope their wisdom grows and thrives throughout their lifetimes and far beyond our own.