Looking out the kitchen window, I sighted the remnants of summer play—collected shells, sticks, soldiers. All abandoned to the call of dinner, or perhaps a friend. They are frozen, waiting for my 12-year-old to reanimate them with his young mind and limbs. “Time to put these away for winter,” I thought. And then, “No.”
At that exact moment, I realized: This portion of childhood, this time of open-ended, “Go out and play”? It may be behind us by spring. The soldiers and toys part, at least. My little guy is 12, and in middle school. For some of his peers, life has been mostly about screens, texting, and perhaps even dating— for months, or even longer. But I’m an old-school mom. Sure, there’s plenty of screen time, but we’ve also held on to spending time in nature, just playing. Not throwing a ball or anything else that offers structure. The “Boring people are bored” kind of playing. And while I will do my best to continue that aspect of our days, today I recognized that it is fleeting. I could get another year or so. Or there may be only months left.
James is my fourth child, which means that I have a familiarity with change. Parents are acutely aware that change is pretty much all humans do. Every time we “know” our children, they change. This is why your 70-year-old mother says things to you like, “But you love yogurt!” when you haven’t eaten it for years. Some changes we miss. Some we accept. Others we fight. I’m finding myself fighting this one, which surprises me.
Introspective to a fault, I’ve been exploring the why of my reaction. Am I fighting it for myself, or for James? One thing is clear. This new world of ours, in which young people interact primarily through technology, scares me. I am stone-aged. Of course, James is stone-aged too. The needs of our bodies and minds are no different from those of our distant ancestors, and yet we have moved so far away from meeting those needs—even needs as basic as exposure to daylight and moving our bodies. I read about depression and suicide in very young people, and hear other stories firsthand. I want to arm James with every possible tool against them. Ironically, the best tool I can offer him is to limit access to the phone, the laptop, and the iPad— the things that society compels him to crave the most. Meanwhile, communication with his peers, doing homework, and the online games he wants to play all involve technology. They can’t, and don’t, happen while hiking. Or building with rocks and sticks. His primal needs are in direct conflict with the life he’s stepping into.
Yes, that’s it. That’s my fear.
What will it take? What am I willing to change in order to minimize this risk? What is the best path for him?
I’ll begin with leaving the soldiers and sticks out in the yard a little longer.