ELECTRONIC SURROGATE PARENTS
by chuck fresh
Things change quickly in this fast-paced crazy world. You’ll need to keep up with technological trends to stay relevant, and to fully understand the opportunities and threats that will present themselves to you and your children.
There was a day, and it wasn’t all that long ago, when my children used to play board games with me. My girls would read, draw, play guitar, and enjoy crafts such as painting, sewing, and candle making. I have printed photographs and mini-DVD videotapes to prove it. There were so many smiles and flourishing laughter. We talked. We bonded. We shared life.
Then world changed overnight. Our F.U. time together, whether due to these changes or their growing up or a combination of both, became drastically different. I remember the exact day, too. Christmas morning 2008.
The sun had just peeked over the horizon as our children gathered around our Christmas tree in their new pajamas with warm cups of hot cocoa topped with a ridiculous amount of marshmallows and whipped cream. The boy was the last one down. The kids were filled with anticipation, eagerly waiting to tear into what Santa had left them under the tree. We smiled as we gave the go-ahead nod to our wide-eyed children. Each of them went for the smallest box first, hoping, praying, and anticipating that the number one item on all three of their Christmas lists was in that small package. Unfortunately, it was. The oldest one shrieked as she saw it first.
Looking back, that moment may have been my single biggest parenting mistake ever. I unknowingly engineered the end of our cohesive little family unit. December 26th, 2008 became the first day of the era in which we now refer to as A.A.D., or After Apple Digitali. All days prior to that day are now known as B.C.C. — Before Candy Crush. Steve Jobs, in all his genius, ruined my board game nights.
Sure, there were video game consoles and portable units. But it was a tedious effort to get new games. You had to physically go to a store to purchase or rent one, and the significant financial investment allowed parents to postpone purchases until a birthday or holiday. Plus, the limited content got boring quickly. With today’s handhelds, content is available immediately, and new apps come out daily. Most are free upfront, supported by annoying advertisements, or requiring inexpensive immediately downloadable in-game purchases to move forward, all while attached to Mom’s unlimited credit card. Today, most family’s board games sit in the same spot they’ve been for nearly a decade, probably coated with a thick cover of dust and buried under several pounds of other unused toys and discarded gifts.
Jake and his son used to fish and take bicycle adventures to collect geckos to transplant to his yard to help with pest control. Jake and his son haven’t gone fishing in years. You may find it is very difficult to get anyone to leave the house for a walk, bike ride, or any form of exercise today. Surprisingly, our children became annoyed at the talk of vacation, and especially cruise vacations because there’s no unlimited internet on the seas (there was but we refused to purchase it). Any form of digital disconnection is frowned upon and complained about to the point of being physically painful.
I call this affliction computer cramps.
Fortunately, for my family, it was more of a gradual change than a culture shock. Since I was fortunate enough to know someone in the technology business, we were early adopters to portable technology, so many of our kids’ friends hadn’t yet hopped on the digital bandwagon. Due to limited content and connectivity, our portable devices began as a temporary diversion used on long car rides or to pass time on the toilet. But as the rest of the sheep followed our example, very soon thereafter, the device replaced our family time. No one talked with each other unless prodded. No one took their eyes off their device. It became a social stigma to not have a smartphone, or worse, not have the right smartphone.
I long for the days of B.C.C. More than a decade later, our kids have not aged out of this phase. I remind them we’re still here — while we are still here. I am planning to foster a retro movement – where it’s not cool to have a digital device. We’ll see how that goes. I’m guessing that’ll crash and burn, but it’s worth a shot.
Digital disconnection is not the worst problems today’s parent will face. A much larger and more ominous battle looms on the horizon of every American household.
I was walking through a mall with my family, and noticed a life-sized cutout of Justin Bieber. People were stopping and taking photographs next to the cutout. I did too. Looking into it a little further, I realized exactly what the cutout was advertising – Justin Bieber’s new cologne. Apparently, people can attempt to elevate their social status by lathering up with chemicals derived from the sweat and urine of goats or pigs while pretending to smell like something that was spelled with a J – like JB, Jay Z, J-Lo, and even MJ – that’s Michael Jordan, not Jackson. I’ve always wondered if the Michael Jordan cologne was modeled on his pre- or post-game odor.
The scary thing is a lot of people actually buy this stuff. It was on that day I realized there was a fundamental problem. Conspiracy theorists, although often wacky and unfounded, have stumbled upon some valid concerns. They argue that there are some very wealthy people who want to remain very wealthy, so they're driving American civilization into lazy stupidity.
Television, the pseudo-parent of the busy B.C.C. generation, created a mindless group of followers – children who all feel compelled to watch the same low standard of programming in order to stay relevant with their like-minded peers. I’ve tried yet continually fail to find a manner to objectify or even accurately describe this phenomenon. It’s almost reminiscent of what seems to be mass-hypnosis. Whatever you call it, it is difficult to deny that corporate media behemoths have created an entertainment culture in which individuality is frowned upon, and academic excellence is social suicide. When you immerse yourself into this culture, you too may uncover some fairly sophisticated and powerful psychological methods to repress critical thinking, education, individuality, ambition, cooperation, leadership, respect, and all the other worthwhile qualities that you’d think the model nation of the free world should emphasize.
Here’s the thing. Every generation since the beginning of time has surmised that the next one will fail because their lives are too easy. My parents said the same thing, as did theirs. But, speaking as the old person now, this time, it is different. Our society has systematically engineered an entire generation of lazy and entitled humans by removing the perception of failure and all the teeth of discipline. Today, lax attitudes and influencer-slang English are widely accepted as the norm, and they are enthusiastically defended with not so much more than the overly simple and inexplicably effective media-driven statement that stops critics in their tracks, haters gonna hate.
Think about it. Academics and true heroes are ignored, while engineered pop stars are teen heroes. Grown men who play games with bats, clubs, balls, and nets are some of the wealthiest folks in the world. And what’s most disturbing is that people who have become famous for nothing have become billionaires and industry titans.
Why? Because we were collectively told that’s what we’re supposed to do, and we follow like sheep. It’s pure F.O.M.O. – fear of missing out. Whatever media titans tell us to listen to, we listen to. Whatever celebrities wear, we wear. When the machine determines something is hot, we line up and beg the machine to take our money. I challenge you to find another valid argument why thousands of people will wait in line, sometimes over several nights, to see a movie, watch a pop concert, or camp out to acquire the next portable electronic device that has a picture of a certain fruit on the back of it.
And if you happen to fall behind in this fast-paced silliness, you are guaranteed to be chastised and ridiculed – often to your face – by strangers, your friends, co-workers, peers, and often your own F.U. Don’t you dare carry a Coach purse in a Michael Kors world, or use an Android smartphone in an Apple stronghold, or certain people may refuse to be seen around you. If you can’t afford it, don’t make excuses. Simply get another credit card, because fashion is now super-important. I may have exaggerated a bit, but in some circles, things are truly that ridiculous. This social stigma is not only misguided and disgusting, but it’s downright frightening. You can thank the work of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, for validating this type of sheepish behavior.
For your children to succeed, what you must not do is allow them to become pawns to this marketing and psychological machine. Once they’re brainwashed, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, for you or anyone else to pull them away.
A child’s brain is developing from the moment they are born. Once they’re able to visually focus, a few months into their ride, they begin to absorb stimuli from their environment. Think of the average American household: a large television, constantly showing some kind of fast-paced nonsense that is interrupted by four to six commercials every fifteen to twenty minutes. The stereo in most cars is blasting an assortment of Top-40 songs, some with not kid-friendly messages, with more obnoxious commercials telling you what you need. On the road to school and at any shopping plaza, you’ll find even more advertisements. And everywhere you go, there is a barrage of electronic stimulation disguised as toys or learning aids. It isn’t difficult to ascertain why so many of us are diagnosed as scatterbrained – which has been classified as an official medical affliction and is now known as ADD or ADHD. When you think about it, through a very slow process of evolution, nature has carefully crafted the human mind to live a much simpler hunter-gatherer existence over the past forty-or-so thousand years. Yet, over the tiny window of the past hundred or so years, we’ve simply discarded all of nature’s brilliant evolution and quickly changed the entire paradigm of human civilization. Since technology has rendered civilization more efficient, humans now have more spare time. The twist is you now have much more to time to manage, which requires more thought. The marketers want to do the thinking for you.
This same paradigm has altered the behavior of parents, too. Instead of combined families living in large villages with several generations all lending a hand, as was the norm for thousands of years, we have been convinced the everyone needs to have their own individual dwelling. Obviously, this means there is duplication in furniture, appliances, utilities, borrowing, building, and necessities that led to additional expenses (and corporate profits). Additional expenses require additional income, which means both Mom and Dad have to work, spending more time away from the home, and away from traditional parenting roles. This vacuum is filled with social media, Netflix, and YouTube.
There are exceptions. I met a young man who was a junior in high school, and he asked for my help on a science project. He seemed very humble and well spoken, so I agreed. As we chatted about various things, he mentioned he had never seen many of the popular teen shows that his friends talked about at the magnet high school he attended. I asked if he thought it affected his social life, and he admitted he felt left out sometimes. But he seemed genuinely happy with his situation. He passed his time reading, studying, and working out, and he watched various documentaries and crime shows with his parents. He avoided much of pop culture, opting instead for sci-fi movies and video games. His parents work a lot and are quite well off, so it could have been easy for this young man to fall off track. Today, this young man is a well-adjusted and gainfully employed software engineer who earned a Masters degree on a full scholarship at a very expensive technical university.
Another high school senior needed to do an internship for one of her high school courses. She lived with her father in a very modest home. They couldn’t afford cable TV or high-speed internet. It was a treat for her to use the internet at school or at the office. She too read, worked out, got a job, and studied hard during her teen years. Although this woman had some issues commonly associated with her socioeconomic status, she worked her way through college and is a senior with a promising future as of this writing.
One of the most popular boys at our local high school seemed to have it all. He was tall, good looking, and well-spoken. He always wore the latest styles and blasted the hottest rap songs from his pick-up truck. But this kid was raised on Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. He could name any character or well-known line from any popular sitcom or movie and was familiar with every silly butt-shaking dance featured in rap videos. Unfortunately, his memory wasn’t quite as keen on remembering historical events, literary rules, or mathematic definitions. He graduated with average grades, but that didn’t seem to matter to him. However, when high school ended, so did his apparent stardom. He took some time off, and then eventually got a job at a fast food restaurant. He did attend a few semesters at community college but dropped out. He is still a nice kid, but he has no direction and no goals.
Jake too grew up in front of a television. Dad worked a bunch, and Mom was an uninterested stay at home mother. But that was in the 1970s, in the days of more wholesome entertainment when writers were still persuaded to write scripts with more moral themes. Two of his favorite shows were The Brady Bunch and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, shows that demonstrated that true happiness could be achieved even in adverse situations. The Bradys lived in a pretty sweet split-level suburban pad, and they had a maid. And Eddie was a penthouse dweller, with a Japanese housekeeper. The kids were always supervised by some adult figure, often the hired help. From his earliest years, Jake had aspirations of getting out of the ghetto, because ghettoes are not the norm, according to these shows. Unfortunately, Jake still doesn’t have a maid or a butler.
Is embracing today’s pop culture the dividing line between success and mediocrity? I can’t yet verify that with scientific certainty, and my evidence thus far certainly seems superficial. But the more people I talk to, the more it seems to be lining up that way. You decide.
Personally, I believe there’s a balance between electronic devices and social media, and old-school life and responsibilities. And I’m not gonna lie – it’s hard to find that balance. Every child is different. The best advice I can give you is to make sure your children take care of their real-world responsibilities first. And don’t be afraid to use their electronic devices as collateral. After all, you’re probably paying for them.