The other day I met up with a friend who’s got a 6-month-old baby girl. She couldn’t have been more delicious. She sat on my lap, a little warm angel, grabbing at things and occasionally ramming them into her mouth.
I felt desperately nostalgic.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s no way on this planet that I would go back to those days. I remember the reality, which is pooh – everywhere – and sore boobs and the torture of bone-dredging tiredness. But there was also a simplicity to it, which is that if you’d got to the end of the day and they’d been fed, clothed and had slept at some point, and had a cuddle or two, you’d WON at parenting.
Now – now, parenting is different story.
It’s true that in some ways it’s easier. A few weeks ago, both me and my husband had the flu at the same time, rendering us useless as functioning humans, let alone parents. The kids got their own breakfasts, brought us up a lemon and honey in bed and looked after themselves, by which I mean, literally plugged themselves into their screens.
It’s my son’s 13th birthday coming up (HOW did that happen!?!). From the age of two, we used to buy him Lego, every year. He would follow the instructions just the once, then dismantle it and it would join the massive stash organised into clip-lock boxes, and be made into anything that his imagination allowed. It was a brilliant toy, but then, about a year ago, he gradually stopped playing with it. And now we are finally succumbing and buying him a smartphone for his birthday.
I feel that it’s a terrible thing to give a child. It’s utterly addictive, it’s powerful, and it’s a means of extending his addiction even further. He already slides from the Xbox, to his ipad, to the laptop, to my phone, while I nag him constantly, hiding various screens in soon to be forgotten places, while saying, “This is ridiculous!” But we’ve already held off from getting him one for years. His peers ALL have one, without exception. They keep in touch via whatsapp, and I worry that he’ll miss out on social events by not having one. But he’s already addicted to screens and it’s not going to make things any easier.
My daughter used to be better. She wasn’t interested in any screens apart from the telly, which now seems so harmless and innocuous that it’s practically as wholesome as a picnic. Then along came slime and instagram and although I’d said ‘No’ to an instagram account she opened one anyway and then I felt too weak to tell her to close it down, as she seemed to be having so much fun bonding with all the other slime-obsessed girls in the world.
Now, one half of the utility room is completely given over to slime. She’s brought a tripod and makes movies using my phone, which is almost out of memory, while her brother plays Fortnite wearing headphones.
My husband and I keep reassuring each other by saying, “It’s because it’s the WINTER – yes, it’s all winter’s fault. As soon as the evenings get lighter and warmer, we won’t see them for dust. They’ll be outside building dens and suchlike all spring and summer long.” We kid ourselves. Because of course they won’t. The screens are just as addictive in the summer as they are now, and it’s still a battle to extricate them from the games/stories/chats-that-never-finish then, as it is now.
My own mother fought a losing battle with SCREEN. Because back then, in the mists of time, there was only one – it’s almost impossible to imagine now. She laid down laws: we were only allowed to watch Newsround, Blue Peter and Narnia on a Sunday (literally the highlight of my week). They were hallowed moments. But of course, I was hungry for more. At friend’s houses I would sit and gawp at the TV while my friends went off to play. At home I would sneak into the sitting room, and then sit about three inches from the screen with my finger poised over the on/off button, so that if Mum came in she’d NEVER know I’d been illegally watching TV… I even used to sit staring at the creepy girl with the puppet when the programming for the day had finished.
But I also spent a huge amount of time playing with my brother, making up imaginary games. And I read – a LOT.
What can we do now? The only thing to do is to get them out the house. For now, neither of them have a phone (the brickphone doesn’t count). We take them on walks, mainly. Once they’re actually on the walk, my son runs through the undergrowth, tracking us. My daughter finds tree swings. They run down hills. They find sticks and break them, or kill nettles, or hit trees. Once they’re outside it’s like they’re free.
But I know that screens are not all bad. My son has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Premier League through playing FIFA. He can tell you the name, nationality and stats of literally every single player. Thus he can have an in-depth discussion with nearly every male he meets, which is quite a skill. My daughter could probably pass an A-Level in Slime production, marketing and distribution. She speaks the language of Instagram with ease, and has something in common with nearly every other teenage girl in the country, which isn’t a bad thing for a girl starting secondary school this September.
The way the world works, plays and interacts is changing, in fact, it’s already changed. As the older generation, we’re programmed to fight change, to look back nostalgically at our own childhoods, and criticise the way young adults do things now. It won’t help.
I do think that introducing limits and rules is our job – even if they break them. They need to know that setting limits on their behaviour is the right way to do things, even if it takes them till their twenties to work it out for themselves.
The other thing is that we need to model self-discipline in our own behaviour. Parents (and I include us in this) are just as addicted to screens as our children. We justify our usage because a lot of what we’re doing is mundane – social arrangements, online shopping, work emails and so on. But it’s still staring at a screen at the expense of giving our attention to the REAL LIFE WORLD that is waiting all around us – not to mention our tweenage children.
Who, as hormonal, screen-addicted and grumpy as they might sometimes be, still need our love and undivided attention as much as they did when they were those warm, squishy bundles.