Sunday, September 30, 2012

Of The Lost Art of Conversation and Drivers Who Text

A new book called Alone Together, penned by MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, argues that our children have lost the art of conversation, and that mobile devices are largely to blame.

Dr. Turkle surveyed hundreds of people in the course of her research, and her results were disheartening, though hardly difficult to believe. The average young adult fires off and receives 3,200 text messages a month. That adds up to hours spent hunched over small screens, fingers flying over tiny touch pads. Several eighteen-year-olds told Dr. Turkle they'd rather text than talk.

But it's not just the kids. Dr. Turkle's book recounts story after story of families doing "family things" together. Parents and kids are around the dinner table or at the shore, and every individual has mobile device in hand.

She even recounts instances of people observed texting at funerals. I might not have believed this a few years ago. Then I attended a wedding interrupted by the insidious chime of the iPhone's signature ring. The mother of the bride actually checked to see who was calling before silencing the thing.

Do we really need an MIT scientist to tell us this isn't healthy? Let alone rude?

Apparently, we do.

I was surprised to read the welcome letter for the Grape's little soccer team. It's really pre-soccer. They practice but don't play matches until next year. Or maybe even the year after that. Anyway, the coaches specified that the kids (ages 3 to 4) would not be allowed to use cell phones during the forty-five minute sessions. Is this the new normal? Do schools now send out similar communiques about how Junior is expected to refrain from texting during algebra class?

I imagine that children have always learned the fine art of conversation by observation and participation. If kids are checked into a phone or tablet when adults are talking, they're robbed of a valuable opportunity to grow socially.

Conversely, if the kids see the adults slap their phones next to their dinner forks when sitting down to a meal, what are they learning? Maybe I'm in the old-fashioned minority, but I firmly believe it's bad manners to dine with one person while furtively checking for overtures from another.

Similarly, children learn manners and patience by being a little bored once in a while. I cringe whenever I see the car commercial where one kid pities the other because his parents' minivan lacks a video system. Why should every ten minute errand feature entertainment? I think it's good for the little darlings to gaze at the world and contemplate life in short spurts. The Italians call it dolce far niente, literally the sweetness of doing nothing, and it's sorely lacking in modern society.

We're jittery and over stimulated and suffer, as a populace, from countless debilitating sleep disturbances. Could this be due, at least in part, to the fact that we're never, from a very young age, unplugged?

Maybe I'm a hypocrite, since I write a blog and use all manner of social media for social and business purposes. I check my email with my first cup of coffee in hand. But like the binge drinker who really, truly can stop any time, I can unplug. One of the best little perks of traveling overseas is the hiatus from screens and data. I turn off the data when I go on vacation (even the best international data plans are extortion) and I often leave my smart phone locked in the hotel safe for days on end. It feels great to step off the grid in this small way, and I do find myself more engaged in the moment.

And please, while we're on the topic of travel, don't send me hate mail about how your kid's iPad is a godsend on a long flight, because I agree. Certain situations, including and especially long intervals trapped on mass transit, call for extreme measures. If six hours of Dora are needed to get from here to London without sparking mutiny by fellow passengers, I understand and indeed applaud that.

But I think social/leisure time is different. I want my kid to think the guy texting while wading in the surf with his kids is not the greatest model for behavior. When dining, or meeting friends at the park or the beach or wherever, kids need to learn that the meal and company are the entertainment.

I understand dining with preschoolers can be painful. Today we met friends for lunch at a family friendly restaurant and had one of those meals wherein we just got through it. Everyone got fed, no major calamities occurred, but it wasn't really that much fun, because the kids were stir crazy and fidgety after a rainy weekend. They spent much of the meal squirming in the booth. Fortunately, it was a corner booth in the back and they succeeded in annoying no one nearly so much as their own parents.

Someone asked recently, "If it's a nice place, would you make an exception to the no video rule?"

No. Emphatically no, because I would never bring the Grape to a fine dining establishment,  because I think it's terribly inconsiderate of other patrons. People shelling out over thirty dollars an entree are paying for ambiance. Ambiance doesn't include a child riveted to a cartoon at the next table any more than it includes a screaming baby. Similarly, if parents of a tot can afford to eat in such venues, they can also afford a sitter. "But how is he supposed to practice all these social skills?" I've been asked by parents in the give him a video and shut him up camp.

That's easy: in family friendly eateries and in neighborhood bistros, during the blue hair and high chair hours before seven. Places where it's marginally okay to repeat and reinforce lessons such as "We never scream in restaurants."

I know I'm swimming upstream with my no device stance. I imagine the day will come when I'll issue the Grape a phone, as much for my convenience as for his entertainment and communication desires. I'm hopeful, though not convinced, that by then our society's collective love affair with our gadgets will have dialed down a notch.

Many states already ticket texting drivers, which is a good start. Perhaps when and if the hordes of helicopter parents among us start to think of perpetual iGadget usage as a health and safety problem, we'll see people of all ages starting to look up from their screens. If we modern parents are going to make our kids wear helmets on tricycles, it seems to me that we should also demand the teens and adults among us don't text while navigating busy intersections by car. Someone's kid could be in the cross walk. And a trike helmet doesn't do much against a speeding SUV.

I'm not holding my breath.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's Not Always About the Boobs

This week's misdirected firestorm is brought to us by an assistant professor at American University. Assistant Professor Adrienne Pine showed up for the first day of class with her sick infant in tow. During the lecture, she breastfed the child.

The student paper picked up the story and ran with an entirely wrongheaded angle, accusing the professor of "lactivism," i.e. whipping out one's milk swollen breasts in public to make a political statement. I doubt, based on Ms. Pine's own statements that la leche league type activism was the professor's intent. (Note: If you click the link, you have to scroll down past the large and annoying ad to get to Ms. Pine's piece.)

The issue at AU isn't breastfeeding. It doesn't matter if Ms. Pine paused her work to breastfeed, mix a bottle or offer her little darling a swig of her iced coffee.

And while I think some professional decorum is nice in terms of which body parts one exposes on the job, I seriously doubt that any college student of either sex would be scarred by the brief sight of a breast. They've all seen plenty of boobs, I'm sure.

The relevant issues here are professionalism and to a lesser extent, child care.

What Ms. Pine did by bringing her child to work was grossly, unfathomably unprofessional. No professional does her best work while caring for a child. Any new mom knows that even the presence of a sleeping child is a minor distraction, because they can wake at any moment. Small children are unpredictable and have many needs. Their care is a full-time job unto itself; that's why day care providers and nannies have jobs.

Undergraduates at American University pay over $40,000 a year in tuition. They deserve the undivided attention of their teachers during pre-scheduled class times and office hours.

It doesn't matter if AU is, as Ms. Pine asserts, a family friendly employer.

Family friendliness doesn't require an employer to include an employee's family in the workplace. Here's a real world example: One of the teachers at the Grape's preschool had a baby last year. When she returned to work after maternity leave, the very family friendly preschool arranged for the baby to be placed in onsite child care. At no point was the baby in the classroom during the school day and the new mom went to visit only during scheduled breaks in her work day. That kind of family friendliness works for everyone, and does great things for employee morale without short changing the school's clients/students.

Those like Ms. Pine, who grossly abuse hard won privileges, jeopardize the very existence of family friendly policies for future hires. She's like the office worker who shows up in a tube top and gets the summer casual dress code revoked for everybody.

Bringing the baby to class shows a breathtaking lack of professional judgment.

If I were the head of AU's anthropology department, I'd investigate whether Ms. Pine has a habit of being less than fully present during teaching hours, and re-evaluate her future with the university accordingly.

Ms. Pine claims she didn't want to cancel. Here's the thing: if you are a college professor, you know in advance which days and hours you will need to teach. You line up day care, and then, when it's really important, like the first day of school, you line up BACK UP day care in advance, because it's completely foreseeable that infants will catch colds. Indeed small kids are biologically hard wired to fall ill and demand extra attention precisely when their parents have pressing competing demands.

Ms. Pine was by her own admission aware of back up day care options, but at "$70 to $140 a day," dismissed these as too pricey. Here in Boston, those prices are a bargain for last minute coverage, but that's not the point. Affordable child care is hard to come by in this country, and that's a legitimate social issue we as moms should address in a thoughtful, persistent manner.

But the costs associated with raising the professor's kids are not the students' problem. Nor is a professor with cushy hours and a prestigious gig at a desirable urban university the perfect poster child for the universal plights of over-extended, impoverished working moms.

And specific to Ms. Pine: Does she plan to bring the kid into work every time s/he sniffles? If the cafeteria workers and secretaries at AU need to make day care arrangements for their kids, shouldn't the professors (who make more and have more control over scheduling) share the same burden? What about future offspring? Five years down the line, will Ms. Pine bring a whole gaggle of children to class and park them in the back row with snacks and video games?

The students sitting in Ms. Pine's class, buzzing about AU's own Boobgate instead of reading their assignments, are (presuming full time enrollment with the usual five courses per term) paying nearly $4000 to learn the subject matter of their anthropology course from Ms. Pine.

And she took advantage of those paying clients in a way that a reasonable employer should not have to tolerate.

Ms. Pine is smart to try to make this brouhaha all about breast feeding. Doing so tees up a sex discrimination defense in the event AU takes issue with her behavior. Her response to the student paper went on about how breastfeeding is a natural act. So what? So are lots of other things good employees don't do on the job, because of basic professionalism.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Lucky Grape

Sometimes the Grape says adorable things that even I, the most anti-scrapbook, non-crafty, non-gluestick owning mom, must memorialize.

Last night, while contemplating Goodnight Moon, a story he's heard roughly 867,452 times, the Grape looked up, wide-eyed and asked, "How does the moon sleep without a bed and a pillow?"

Cue soft, cooing aw noises from me. The Grape, annoyed at my delay in responding, asked again with more urgency. When I told him the moon doesn't require bedding, he accepted my explanation with a yawn. I was too tired to go into the whole moon-doesn't-really-sleep-because-it's-a-giant-hunk-of-space-rock thing.

I was also way too sleepy to hold forth on the concept that millions of people, let alone moons, have to sleep without beds or pillows. I told myself that the concept of such privation might make the Grape, whose dog snoozes on an orthopedically correct memory foam mattress, too anxious to sleep through the night without bad dreams. (We've been enduring another multi-week bout of nightmares, and the whole family looks bleary eyed as a result. I'm loathe to add the world's problems to his list of worries.)

And maybe I like the idea of prolonging those precious years of innocence.

This morning, the Grape woke up recharged and ready for day two of his school year. On the way through the park, we saw a homeless man rifling through trash, looking for discarded food, having a full on argument with himself about some topic that seemed hazy even to him.

The Grape has seen homeless people many times; we live in the city and homelessness is a fact of life. But when this guy pulled a half eaten slice of pizza from the bin, the Grape turned to me and announced loudly, "Mamma! We don't ever, ever eat out of the trash."

Before I could respond, the homeless man unleashed a torrent of obscenities and wishes for a slow, painful death in our direction. I picked up the pace and explained to the Grape that the man was "very sick and confused," because I lacked the intestinal fortitude to preach to my kid about the horrors of mental illness.

Because that would beg the question, why doesn't he see the doctor? Since that's what Mamma, the Grape, Lila the Dog and even Curious George do when something is amiss. Fielding that question would open the floodgates on an endless list of inequalities in the world. I'm not sure I'm ready to shatter the Grape's blissful childish worldview at the tender age of three.

But if not now, when?

Shouldn't he be starting to grasp that he's lucky? That plenty of kids would kill for the shiny pair of new shoes he rejects because he doesn't want to part with his favorite, blown out sandals - the ones so shabby they make him look like a street urchin from a Dickens story? That when something breaks, or we run out of provisions, we're fortunate that we can pop to the store to procure replacements?

Should I start telling him that other kids are starving in Africa, and indeed right down the road, when he pushes away a balanced meal made with fresh ingredients?  Probably not - he'd just give me the tired kid retort that I can box up his broccoli and send it to the poor Africans if I'm so inclined.

These questions weigh heavier as time marches on, and we need to plan for life beyond preschool. I like the concept of public school. I went to public school. Our town was pretty much lily white, but it was economically diverse. Some of my peers' parents worked in the big factory on the local Navy base; others belonged to the yacht club and spent the summers on their beach blankets. I distinctly remember my schoolyard realization, right after the Christmas break in first grade, that I was luckier than average. As were many of my close friends.

I don't want my child locked away with other kids who all look just like him and who all live very similar, privileged lives, oblivious to their good fortune. Nor do I want him in an underperforming school where the teachers spend more time on discipline that academics.

If I had to whip up a dream school, it would feature rigorous academics, time outside (because it's good for mind and body), and a socio-economically diverse student body. Many private schools offer the first, some the first two, and almost none (on my radar at least), the last. For all their galas (aside: the words preschool and gala should never occur contiguously, in my humble opinion) and auctions, many elite elementary schools fail to deliver much in the way of scholarships to a critical mass of needy kids - kids whose families would regard a top flight education as an awesome privilege, instead of an entitlement.

Boston's public schools vary wildly in resources and quality, and because of a well-intentioned but messy and inconvenient lottery system (designed in the sixties to ensure racial integration), there's no way of knowing whether he'd get a good placement. And then there's this: If the Grape wins the public school lottery and secures a spot in a sought-after kindergarten, is it wrong to send him when we have other options? Aren't we taking the seat away from a kid with no choices? But if I keep him safe in an upscale, private school bubble through the elementary years, what then? Have I made functioning in the real world harder by hiding certain brutal truths?

I know I'm beyond lucky to have such high class problems to ponder. What concerns me most is this: I want to raise a kid who understands that it's alright to have resources, and that it's great to be successful.

But it's not acceptable to forget, ever, ever, how very lucky he is.