I have a mental picture I carry of my four children. It is of a blustery day on a rugged Oregon beach, black rocks jutting out of the water, the sky a washed-out blue overhead. In rolled up jeans and sweatshirts zipped tight against the cold July day they are busy flirting with the crashing waves, dragging driftwood through the sand, and trying to catch small green crabs in the tide pools. Unlike California beaches, this is not a beach for swimming, or even casual sunbathing, but a raw and primal force of nature. You can see it in the harshness of the cliffs bookending either end of the shoreline and feel it in the stiffness of your hair as the wind coats every strand with gritty salt and sand. There are shadows in among the tide pools where you can find hundreds of sea stars—blue, green, pink, and mottled reds anchored to the sides of rocks. These are not pale, sand-colored starfish, but exotic denizens of deep waters and crashing tides. Our boys are in their element, running and screaming with the wild joy of the sea birds overhead. Our younger daughter wades up a tamer tributary of fresh water that joins the sea, spying shells and rocks that catch her interest. And our oldest is already climbing over the rocks, finding the places where the sun is the brightest and the wind is the strongest, turning her face into nature’s path as if she owns it.
I have thought a lot about the moments in my children’s lives that stand out. The memories that we talk about and bond over, the stories that we tell. A common thread between almost all of the parts of our family life that have become touchstones and often-told anecdotes is how present we are, how connected to one another. How much we are “in the moment,” as my teenagers would say. It is the minutes and hours when we are together on vacation or on a road trip or working side by side that we remember and retell. The times that we are living an authentic life, making authentic connections, and communicating in ways that encompass love and play and participation. Almost never do these stories feature screens or technology.
In Michael Chabon’s essay, The Wilderness of Childhood, he mourns the absence of the Great Original Adventure in the lives of today’s children. The independence to wander, to explore, to construct the tale of their own lives free from the interference of outside influences and distractions, liberated from hovering adults equipped at all times with a handy spray bottle of hand sanitizer and wet wipes —as if determined to rid the world of the germs of imaginative play—or interacting with a parent who is not distracted by the insistent pressure of technological interference. These things are largely a thing of the past. He says, “The thing that strikes me now when I think of the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there.”
It is a parent’s absence from their children as well as their presence that can shape the events of their children’s lives. And while judicious absence can allow children the freedom to create and play and produce, the question we have to ask ourselves is, are we abdicating the responsibility of parenting to technological placeholders in favor of spending our own limited time with technological substitutes for true human connection? Are we creating an environment of social alienation where we retreat more and more often to our personal digital devices, anesthetizing ourselves to the input of the world around us? In The Dangers of Distracted Parenting, Erika Christakis talks about the degree to which we have become, as parents, less emotionally attuned to our children—their need for connection and contact. To consider the advantages of having a parent who is not only there, but who is truly present.
As I watch my children I think about the 1,000 miles and 25 years that brought me back to this particular stretch of sand. After years of talking about it, my husband planned this one-day detour in our summer vacation mostly, I think, to see what all the fuss was about—this lonely strip of beach that I remember from my own childhood. And years later it is the same. The landscape has stayed constant in a way that makes me all the more conscious of how I have changed. With very little effort I can allow another image to overtake the first, this one of my twin brother and I running down the sand, our little sister clutching tight to the hand of some adult or other, too young to play along the water’s edge.
The sensory images are the strongest; the taste of the salt on the wind, the sound of the waves crashing into the cliffs, the rough feel of the rocks under my bare feet. The rotting seaweed smell of the starfish my cousin poached permeating our car the entire ride home. It is an almost perfect reproduction of experience except that the roles have been reversed. I am now the mother standing high on the beach as my children explore the marvels of nature. And although my husband and I stand there watching, hand in hand, they do not even glance our way, absorbed in the wonders that surround them, almost as if they are alone in their own worlds. It is this perfect afternoon that I wanted to give to my children. Freedom from schedules and recess monitors and homework and playgrounds that list all the many ways that you are not allowed to do something. A mindless dedication to video games and social media, and technology making its way into every moment of every day. A sense of a world wider than they are used to, just waiting for them to come and explore.
There are some things that can only be found in the quiet of nature and the presence of something greater than ourselves. Truths that we are unable to find in any Google search, Facebook update, or situation comedy. Our children live their lives for the most part inundated by the constant intrusions of media, telling them to be thinner, taller, richer, better dressed, to buy this shirt, and that breakfast cereal. And as their parents we have also succumbed to the insistent siren call of digital devotion. But when we really look at what this misguided dedication has cost us, we might be shocked to find what is missing from our lives. Time spent with technology is, as Christakis says, “time not spent actively exploring the world and relating to other human beings.” It is time spent on cheap diversions; diversions from the source—what we call God or a Higher Power, that substitutes endless sensory stimulation for faith and hope, a pale silver-screen ghost substituting shadows for authentic emotion.
By allowing technology to swallow more and more of our time we become desensitized to the beauties of the world around us, preferring to see them instead through a distancing digital intermediary. And I wonder what we lack, what connections evade us because we have lost the ability to communicate and connect; because language and literacy and true emotional connection is consumed in a stream of data digested in bits and bytes.
We need to ask, consistently and constantly, what we are doing to our communication skills, our ability to listen to the needs and contributions of others, when the hours we have are spent staring at a solitary screen, pinning images of experiences we will never have, or trips we will never take? How are we failing to teach our children the tactics, techniques, and tools they need to interact with the world?
We need to rediscover the ordinary. If we take the time to stop, to connect, and to interact we will begin to see the extraordinary beauty in our everyday moments and we will begin to crave being connected and in touch on a daily basis. We will start to see that every act has the potential to transform the world around us. Spending time with loved ones. Volunteering in the community. A conversation with a good friend. But this re-connection is not something to be done in a moment; a vacation to be taken, a mountain peak to be scaled, a bridge to be crossed that can be checked of a list as something that is ‘done’ or ‘complete.’ It is a commitment to daily presence, to being available, to being open. To becoming a part of a family, a part of a neighborhood, and a part of a community. We cannot stand passive and redundant on the sidelines—we need to be awakened, enlightened, and active participants in our own lives. If we are informed, present, and alert, change will come. This is simple enough. It will open the avenues of communication between ourselves and God, and between ourselves and those who surround us.
We need to examine whether we are using technology, or whether technology is using us. Do the tools the smart phones and smart homes and smart cars and computers and TVs offer us improve our quality of life, or are they seizing the time we would otherwise spend on genuine human needs like connection and caring and love? If we are honest with our answers, I think we will find ourselves putting the phone down more often in an effort to be, finally, present in the lives of our children and neighbors and friends.
We bought kites that day at the beach, something we could not resist even though we knew the wind was too strong to fly them. They would hover briefly, far above the ground, before crashing into the sand in a wild explosion of color and tangling tails. It was exciting in a way, playing with the bright promise of flying high above the Earth, a brilliant bouncing dot in the clear blue sky. Again and again we tried to get them in the air, failing every time. And that was okay. By the end of the afternoon, tired, salty, and windburned, we tied them off and headed back to the car. They sit now in our garage, still neatly packaged into the bags they came in—a reminder of one perfect summer afternoon—just waiting to be taken out on a warm windy day and given life again.
Written by ShelliRae Spotts