We saw them everywhere we went in Rome last month—at restaurants, on the bus and metro, in cafes. They looked like tourists, American most likely, youngish, with a toddler in tow. Totally normal. But, we’d notice, in the middle of meals, or squeezed into a crowded, slow mode of public transportation, they’d do the unforgivable. The kid would start to act up, and out would come—wait for it, wait for it—the iPhone. Sometimes the child would play simple games, Tozzle and the like, but often a video would come on, and the child would then sit entranced, immobile, ignoring the plate of specially prepared pasta al pomodoro while her parents would, in turn, ignore the child—and while all the sophisticated Italians in the area tried not to notice the little glass slate’s bleeps and burbles. And we, we resented them all—fatuous digital addicts in the birthplace of Western Civilization. How could they?
They were, of course, us, the Gross Family, simply trying to muddle through a two-week vacation in Italy with the least amount of distress. Our daughter, Sasha, is 3, with all the impulses and uncontrollability that go with that age. For the most part, she’s pretty good, pretty quiet, pretty well-behaved, but at a certain point in every meal or museum trip, she’s run out of steam, and though we’d do everything we could to calm her and engage her in the food or activity, there were limits. And so I’d bring out my iPhone and fire up “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (in Mandarin, for what it’s worth) or Monkey Preschool Lunchbox (keeping the volume way down, for what that’s worth), and then Jean and I would enjoy the rest of whatever in relative peace.
But the guilt! The incredible, unbearable guilt! We’d succumbed to the worst of all temptations, and had proved ourselves to be the lazy, irresponsible, uncreative American parents everyone stereotypically expects us to be. No verbal games for Sasha, no in-depth toddler-level conversations, no new flavors discovered. Instead, pulsing pixels and slackjawed amusement for Sasha, an extra glass of wine for Mommy and Daddy.
Actually, that’s not true at all. Actually, I felt no guilt whatsoever. Sure, I would’ve preferred Sasha to eat all her food or attempt to engage with us, her parents. But just because the iPhone (and its ilk) is the easily ridiculed emblem of our digital age doesn’t mean it’s essentially bad.
The thing is, we love to make fun of our addiction to new technology—almost as much, in fact, as we love to play with new gadgets. But their ease of use and startling breadth of features always somehow provoke a level of guilt. Our parents and grandparents didn’t have these things—they had books and banjos and candlelight and each other, and they did fine. We shouldn’t have to placate our kids with retina displays—we should make do with yesterday’s (or last century’s) tech, right?
It’s a romantic idea, and a stupid one. I mean, I’ve been using computers in a serious way for the last 28 years, and now, what, I should deny my kid the opportunity to get the same experience? There is no fighting the fact that devices like the iPhone, iPad and i-everything-else are going to be a fundamental part of our children’s lives (barring a zombie invasion or SkyNet takeover, of course), and those who would argue that there’s something inherently better about pre-digital entertainment are wasting your time, and their own.
I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t also try to promote things like actual books, wooden toys, or whatever. I’ll certainly squeal out loud with joy (if internally) the first time I see Sasha amuse herself with a tome of quality material at a restaurant meal. That’s what I used to do when bored, and my total immersion in novels does not strike me as all that different from Sasha’s immersion in Pocket God.
So, today I would like to call for a small but subtle change: From now on, let no one express surprise over the facility with which small children manipulate Apple products. From now on, let no one use “iPhone” or “iPad” as snide shorthand to dismiss children and their parents as tone-deaf solipsists or cultural philistines. From now on, let’s accept the place of gadgets in our lives and our children’s lives alongside the books and Matchbox cars and dolls and Legos and all the other crap we amuse ourselves with in order to forget for a too-brief moment the crushing boringness of life and the inevitability of our deaths—and theirs, and their children’s, too.
From now on, let us chill out about technology, and guiltlessly use it whenever the hell we want. And let us not use it, too. These things are all equivalent now.
Let me leave you with one final anecdotal observation on kids and technology. Late last year, as Sasha’s third birthday approached, Jean and I discussed what to get her. She’s always been interested in the photos we take of her with our iPhones, so we thought: How about a kid’s camera? We got her the Fisher-Price Kid-Tough Something-Something, and when she opened it that December morning, Sasha was excited, running around the house and taking as many pictures as possible. Pretty neat.
But after that, she just didn’t use it much. If it happened to be lying around, she might pick it up and fire off a few shots, but it wasn’t the center of her life. And when we went off to Rome, it stayed home.
Which is not to say she didn’t bring a camera. No, she brought one—a tiny plastic toy camera, whose button cycles through images of various wild animals: a lion, an elephant, etc. It fits in her pocket, and it always seems to be nearby, and she’ll bring it up to her eye and squeal, “Say cheese!” as if she’s really taking a picture. She loves it, more than the digital one, I think. And that’s fine. When she’s ready to get serious about digital photography, the Fisher-Price one will still be around, and she can learn on that. Unless, by that time, she’s ready for her own iPhone.