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Monday, November 9, 2015

Electronic Babysitters—Then and Now


I saw on the news and read in the New York Times the shocking news: many kids under the age of 5 are often left to be entertained by a digital device instead of spending quality time on a parent’s or caregiver’s lap.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/02/health/many-children-under-5-are-left-to-their-mobile-devices-survey-finds.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad

Experts said a small, self-reported survey added to evidence that the unsupervised use of mobile screens is deeply woven into childhood experiences by age 4.


Keeping in mind this was a very small study, experts nonetheless say they think this result not only is surprising but probably also representative of the dangers many young children are exposed to today.

The horror.  Not like us lucky children of the golden age of parenting. We, who grew up in the 1950’s with stay-at-home moms and non-stop parental nurturing, were, like the TV families of yore, the last generation raised in idyllic days when all things were better. Or at least we are led to believe.

Return with me for a moment to those thrilling days of yesteryear. My brother and I would creep from our beds in the early morning hours while our exhausted parents slept. You may think we were reading great children’s literature, imagining wonderfully creative inventions. Or building make-believe castles and rocket ships to the moon. Only the last item has some truth. We tried to build our own rocket ships. But they always crashed, sometimes burned, and on occasion, created fire hazards.

And if truth be told, which I intend to do as I lift the covers of those idyllic times, most of the early morning hours were spent in more mundane, passive, and dare I say it—unsupervised electronic diversions.

There was nothing creative or interesting about it. In those early morning hours, before the sun or our parents were up, what we actually were doing was watching the TV while waiting for programming to come on. For those of you born after 1980 I have a big revelation. Unlike today, there wasn’t 24-hour television. So we would watch the Test Pattern. On our black-and-white TV.

If you are too young to know what a Test Pattern is, you can take my word for it—the Pattern had no educational benefit, no socially redeeming value. In fact, one Pattern was a Native American head so it was not even politically correct. But the few TV stations that existed back then ran some type of Pattern before programming began. And they were even more boring if you did not have a color TV.

We would sit, huddled under a blanket, watching that Pattern until some type of program came on. Then we sat as close to the TV as we wanted. Remember our parents were still sleeping. Once a program came on, no matter how moronic--we watched, totally entranced, as we were passively entertained by the then latest technology.

You may say--but, once our parents were awake we had the benefit of “one-on-one” attention from at least one parent. No, not so much. It’s true--while our dad worked at least two jobs to support us, our mom was a stay-at-home parent. Unless dad was laid off one of those jobs. Then mom also had to find a job and dad cooked. Not a particularly good solution on either count. Dad couldn’t cook and mom had few job skills so earned very little.

We lived in the suburbs in those early years. Again that sounds pretty idyllic. But it was miles from libraries, parks, or playgrounds. Also a long distance from places where one might take music or dance lessons, play organized sports or participate in group activities.

Since we had only one car and lived several miles past the bus line we were stuck in our neighborhood unless we walked. Mom shopped by riding the bus, then taking a several-mile hike, all the while carrying groceries with two young kids in tow. Similarly she did the household chores with old-fashioned appliances. An educational project for me was placing clothes’ pins on the side of a bucket while mom washed clothes in an old-fashioned wringer-washing machine and then hung them on a line to dry.

There was very little time for parental attention even if that had been the norm. And direct parental attention was not the norm. Adults in the 1950’s and even into the 1960’s engaged in adult activities.  Children found their own activities. They were supposed to be seen and not heard. So as long as we were relatively quiet we were on our own.

Maybe it was a plus that we had much more freedom than subsequent generations. My brother enjoyed riding his bike within his one-mile boundaries of the neighborhood. I was never adventurous enough to ask what my boundaries were, especially after I badly sprained my ankle while executing a turn on gravel. Instead I spent that summer learning a new mode of transportation--hopping on one foot.

We had the occasional idyllic days constructing forts in the nearby woods. Unfortunately, since we had no readily available transportation, we hadn’t joined any scouting programs where we might have learned to recognize poison plants. Nor had we heard that jingle about “Leaves of three, let them be.” So those adventures were inevitably followed by month-long bouts where my brother and I were covered with poison ivy welts. One particularly bad case resulted in my brother’s eyes swelling shut. All in a typical 1950’s perfect summer.

Because of distance and money issues, going to the doctor’s was rare. An illness had to be life threatening (high fever and / or lots of blood were the criteria) to require medical attention.

While some things for children today may be better than they were in my recollections of growing up in the suburban baby boom era, I do not advocate the latest digital devices to babysit infants and young children. With or without scientific support I believe the attention of parents, grandparents or other committed caregivers is superior in most respects. But I also do not advocate a return to the Donna Reed method of child-rearing.  While we baby boomers were not exposed to digital screen devices, nevertheless, we did the best we could to entrance ourselves with the technology available.

No one knew at that time what the dangers were of allowing unsupervised youngsters to sit glued to a Test Pattern.  Lord knows we probably lost some IQ points. And while we had plenty of freedom to explore the unknown there were substantial dangers associated with our explorations. There probably always will be.



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