Real things

I’ve been reflecting on a conversation I had 15 years ago, with my friend E, when we lived at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Neither of us had partners or children yet, and we shared great conversation and sourdough waffles every Saturday morning.

“What do you want your life to be about?” I asked.

“I think a lot about real things,” she said.

This woman, in her early 20s at the time, earned a perfect score on her SATs and opted to major in home economics. She was a flawless baker, sewer, knitter, teacher, and cafe owner. She once taught me to properly fold a fitted sheet (sorry E; I continue to wad it up into a ball).

For me, blinky-flashy things like phones are the opposite of real. Everything in there is virtual. I held out on getting my first cell phone until a day in 2006 when I needed a payphone, and I couldn’t find one. In 2011 I finally sent a message to all my contacts that said, “I text now.” I pushed the 7 key four times to get the letter T.

Today I have an outdated iPhone that I use (yes, writing on it now), but also sort of resent. I resent the $160 a month we pay for a service I value at half the price. I resent the way music, which used to play continuously, is now interrupted. I resent the way my husband texts while I am speaking to him and calls it “multi-tasking.” We’ve been together ten years and still don’t recognize each other’s hand writing.

Technology, fine. But what of relationships? I prefer that people use their phones in private (gasp!) because a phone used in shared space quickly shifts we energy into me energy. In gaining all of this personal choice, we’ve lost a lot of comradery.

Photo by R. Evanson

In my home, I am the ultimate real thing. My children are forever climbing on, playing with, and eating me. I rarely use a phone in front of my kids because I can’t. It’s impossible. My husband is exempt from all this and I am very, very jealous.

I also save phone use for nap time because Avery models herself after what I do, and not what I tell her to do. I carefully call this thing a phone and our phone instead of my phone, and I let Avery use it whenever she has a reasonable purpose. I hope she won’t decide she needs one anytime soon because I will never hear the end of it. #littlebull #strongwilledchild #taurus

There is nothing wrong with phones as tools. Photograph. Call. Look up. Pay. Deposit. Text. Social. Read. Listen. But be conscious of how you distract yourself from life. On days when I am over it, I sneak one earbud in and use an audiobook to tune out my children while I parent. I will die the day Avery does this to me.

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Little kids love real things. Avery employs what we call the object of the week: Life jacket. Ice pack. A few yards of magenta ribbon. Hand soap. First aid supplies. Two breast milk saver bags. Some long blades of dry rye grass. A broken strand of faux pearls. She plays until the object’s uses are exhausted and then moves on to the next real thing.

She is also fascinated by the blinky flashy.

Well-meaning adults are always trying to connect with Avery through their screens. The first time baby Avery met her grandpa he handed her a phone to chew on. When I objected, he was confused. “Because it’s dirty?” He asked.

Once I had to work on a Saturday and my daughter stayed with dad. When I came home, I found two-year-old Avery plugged in and watching the movie Frozen for the second time that day. I will never forgive him this.

Childhood is short and every minute of screen time makes it shorter. To everyone else: I am with them for 100 waking hours a week. You have them for a minute. Couldn’t you do something else?

Adult priorities are clear: All a child has to do is follow your gaze. Yes, getting things done with kids around is impossible. But whenever you can, engage. Swings. Books. Blocks. Paint. Soccer balls. Monkey bars. Bikes. Dirt. Animals. Plants. Music. Food. Love manifests as time and attention.

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Avery and I have a friend who comes from the last generation of real things. She and her husband have lived in a cabin without running hot water for decades. They turn compost, prepare root vegetables for lunch, ride bicycles as often as they drive cars, and repair their own shoes. This woman reads poems to Avery about kids splashing in creeks and taught her to make little boats out of alder leaves. For all the outside influences my kid is exposed to, she is the one I’m most grateful for.

I want my kids to grow up rooted in real. I sometimes pick up maps, cameras, and novels instead of using a phone for everything just so they learn to use these objects. I want to start buying CDs again so Avery can thumb through them to discover music. I’m sure all of this is mostly futile but maybe not completely.

Childhood is about exploring places and objects, building skills, following curiosity, and discovering the power of creativity. I thought summer vacation would be a time of dandelion crowns, sand castles, and tadpoles. And it is. It is also an endless opportunity for a child to beg for sugar and episodes.

Screen time is a serious crux of parenting. On one hand, a child in front of a screen is doing almost nothing of value. On the other hand, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is never far from my mind.

I aim to keep our family’s screen time just under the brain rot line. I don’t care if my kids are plugged in for 45 minutes at a time if the show won’t inspire nightmares or teach bad language; and as long as kids do something involving brain, muscle, cooperation, or coping skills before and after watching.

I deal with Avery’s constant requests by making screen time predictable and available for a price. She earns daily episodes by napping or playing alone for 30-45 minutes. Between the earning and the episode, I’m able to make dinner.

That’s the theory. But I’m struggling a little this summer with sneaky screen time: We both like it when Avery is plugged in; so I keep finding excuses to allow her more.

Like, she watches something while I do her hair and continues while I put the brothers down for their morning nap. I justify this screen time by requiring it to be in Spanish.

But she actually watches twice each day.

Then there are storm days, which are long; especially when we are up at 5 AM. When a blizzard or torrential rain keeps us inside, and I am tired, the thought please go away and leave me alone so I can do something is very, very loud. So Avery watches a movie while I listen to classical music, drink black tea, and write for an uninterrupted couple of hours the way I did before I had children, and I feel very, very happy.

And screen time happens a third way.

This morning, Avery showed her dad a video game on her little camera. It’s been fun for her to change the screen and hear the bubbly electronic music; but thus far she has not known how to play the game. Within a few clicks of his thumb, however, my husband has her disappearing bricks from a candy-colored wall. And now I shall be in constant conversation with Avery about when she’s allowed to play this game, and for how long, and why she’s not allowed to play it more.

Because I don’t want a fourth reason.

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My friend E and I have each moved a few times since those languid, chatty Saturday mornings. We each married and birthed a couple of kids. Our interactions are usually limited to an exchange of holiday cards but I got in touch while working on this post.

“Remember, the real things?” I ask. “What does that look like for you these days?”

For her, as for me, real things are defined as much by what they are not as by what they are. Her family confines laptops, printers, scanners, speakers, and phones to a technology room (Did I mention she taught technology?). The rest of the home gets to stay real.

She also recognizes the importance of real food. She prioritizes cooking farm-fresh meals and canning salsa with her daughter while the baby sleeps. “My kitchen is a disaster 100% of the time,” she says.

E prepares fresh veggies and homemade pasta, but her daughter’s request for lunch will always be… you guessed it. “I have no idea what the allure is with boxed Mac and cheese,” she says. “There must be a spell on it or something.”

Kids get hijacked into virtual worlds and virtual foods at least as easily as adults are. Certainly we have less control over what content and calories they consume as they grow. But for the millionth time, caring for others is an inroad to caring for ourselves. At least E and her husband are eating homemade pasta. At least her daughter understands this as a possibility.

Buttressing family life with real things feels like a sort of protection from the spell of the blinky flashy guaranteed to show up in our childrens’ lives. “As long as their days are filled with curiosity and adventure,” says E, “I don’t think a few shows will hurt anyone. At least that’s my hope.”

Photo by R. Evanson

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