My son Jack and I spent most of last Sunday in the kitchen together. Although he has a desk upstairs in his bedroom, and I have one in my office, the kitchen is the place in this house where most of the creative work gets done, whether it’s putting together a pot of soup, writing a blog post, reading manuscripts, or composing a college application essay.
Jack sat on the sofa, tackling one short essay after another on the Common App and various college supplements, while I perched at the table, reading on-line submissions for a panel I’m on next week. Between essays, he would chat with me about possible angles he might take, and then he’d go outside to shoot hoops in the driveway for ten minutes and think things through.
Essentially, Jack’s challenge was the same one every other high school senior we know is wrestling with at the moment: How to present himself in words to complete strangers who will then all-too-briefly compare him to thousands of other unique, gifted kids competing for the same spots in next year’s incoming freshman class. Of course, I have no one with whom to compare my son; I’m reading just one college application, not a thousand. And, as his mother, I’m about as far from an objective judge as I could be. But I was struck, nevertheless, by the depth of his thinking and the range of experiences that have contributed to the construction of his eighteen-year-old self.
By late that night, he’d answered one question with a sonnet, written an honest, thoughtful essay about the difficult but valuable lessons he learned from getting suspended from high school, tried to compress two summers of work he’s passionate about into a thousand characters, and described how his environment growing up has influenced the person he is today.
As Jack emailed his work from his computer across the room to mine, and we zapped edited versions back and forth, I couldn’t help but marvel at the ease and efficiency of the process. Thanks to the wonders of the digital age, we could work independently yet side by side in the coziest, most companionable room in the house. At the same time, I found myself thinking of the role that technology has — and has not — played in shaping the multi-faceted picture of my son that emerged from his day of writing and reflection.
The next day, an article in the Boston Globe, titled “Trying to Gauge the Effects of Growing up Digital” caught my eye. “A few clicks, a couple of swipes,” it begins, “and Bridget Colvin’s four- and-a half year old son, August, was tapping away on an iPad smudged with tiny fingerprints.” The author goes on to point out that “there is little doubt we are seeing only the early stages of a hyper-connected world that is changing childhood.” The images brought the point home: toddlers swiping fingers across board books, expecting the characters to come to “life;” parents handing their iPhones to fussy babies to quiet them; one-year-olds adeptly playing “Baby Birds,” a version of “Angry Birds” for the Pre-K set; three-year-olds skillfully surfing for videos on YouTube; a description of Fisher-Price’s hot new toy, the $15 Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case, an “oversize iPhone case that doubles as a baby rattle.” Since the toy was released last month, Amazon has been unable to keep it in stock; the most popular app for the case, “Where’s Puppy’s Nose,” has been downloaded more than 700,000 times.
My son Jack never was never an “easy” child; active, curious, sensitive, bright, he struggled to find his place in a world that often seemed too overwhelming. Learning how to be at ease in this world, physically and emotionally, and how to live in it fully, has always been his greatest challenge. Confronting that challenge through all the years of his childhood and adolescence, he has suffered, matured, and, in the end, blossomed.
I can’t help but wonder what kind of young adult Jack would be today had he been offered an early escape route from his complicated feelings. How would he have developed had he been able to lose himself in an app at age three or four, instead of having to negotiate the complex emotional and tactile stimulation that life continually threw at him? Would he have learned resilience if he’d been able to tune out the intensity of real experience by tuning in to an animated wonderland instead? What would feel important to him now, if he had spent the hours of his early childhood having interactive adventures in front of computer screens, instead of getting into mischief and experiencing the painful consequences? Who would he be, if he hadn’t been a boy who grew up playing in the backyard with his friends, laying on the couch under an afghan sounding out the words to “Frog and Toad,” learning to do math by collecting a hundred acorns during an autumn walk, and then adding and subtracting them into piles?
I got a disturbing glimpse of the answer to some of those questions a couple of years ago, when Jack became so enamored with video games for a while — and then so good at them – that he eschewed the real world of relationships and heartache and expectations, for a virtual one that he could create and control at will. It seemed like a perfect match up – his lightening quick brain and extraordinary hand-eye coordination made him really, really great at video games. But the more hours he put in in front of the screen, progressing through increasingly difficult levels of exceedingly complicated games, the more his ability and willingness to engage in the challenges of the real world atrophied. He lost the concentration necessary to read deeply, lost interest in homework, quit sports, pulled back from school and friends. For the better part of a difficult year, he was physically home but emotionally absent.
For Jack, making the hard choice to endure the emotional ups and downs of reality rather than escape into an alluring alternative universe, has turned out to be a formative, life-altering experience. He had to figure out how to use technology constructively, of course, as a tool with which to work, rather than as a substitute for life. But, just as important, he also had to figure out how to build a sustaining, meaningful friendship with himself — at the very moment of adolescence when we humans are often most desperate to escape from ourselves. And, because we had moved from the suburbs, where he was surrounded by friends and neighbors, to the relative isolation of the country, that friendship with himself has had to sustain him through many long, solitary hours.
“Life in rural New Hampshire was as lonely as I predicted,” Jack wrote in one essay (I quote with his permission). “The driveway was dirt and undribble-able and while the lawn was big enough for a complete baseball diamond, there weren’t any players around. Being alone with my thoughts was uncomfortable; I’d never had to be alone in my life. But in the midst of my sadness, I began to grow up. I became more creative with the ways that I entertained myself. I spent time drawing, reading, inventing card games and playing the guitar, as well as just sitting and thinking.
In my pensive misery as a twelve-year-old it dawned on me that I would never become the self- sufficient, creative person I wanted to be if I couldn’t even enjoy my own company. I would continue to distract myself with all of the problems around me and never face my own. Although I’m a social person by nature and love spending time with good friends, I owe the security I have in myself to learning how to become my own best friend, in the quiet countryside of New Hampshire.”
Jack and I talked about all this as I drove him back to school last week, where he’s taking a demanding senior-year course load and has decided to try out for the varsity basketball team – despite the fact that he’s spent the last two winter seasons playing squash. He’s been playing basketball for hours a day all fall, just for the fun of it. So, he started working out, lifting weights, running, practicing his jump shot, as a challenge to himself; whether or not he actually makes the team is less important to him than the pleasure he’s found in the discipline of trying.
As Jack would be the first to admit, just a couple of years ago, in the midst of his video-game obsession, he wouldn’t have taken on the challenge of making the team, nor would he have risked the disappointment of rejection. Now, having come to understand himself more fully, he’s realized that it’s by actively engaging in the physical world that he connects with his happiest, best self. Fortunately, when he decided he’d had his fill of video games, he had a “self” to return to, a work-in-progress self to be sure, but one that had been shaped by an early childhood without much access to TV or movies or computers.
Having spent his formative years with no choice but to learn to live in his own body and be entertained by his own imagination, he had plenty of “real world” experiences and skills to build on, some familiarity with the pleasure of making things, getting lost in a book, or climbing a mountain. Thinking about this, putting it into words on a form on his computer, he couldn’t help but wonder what life, and adolescence, might be like for a boy of his temperament coming of age in this next generation.
Having watched Jack’s journey these last eighteen years, I wonder, too. If you grow up with a gadget in the palm of your hand, do you ever develop an inner life? If large portions of your first years on earth are spent online, will you ever make contact with that sacred entity within that guides you toward your full potential as a human being? If you’re an expert at surfing the web by age three, will you ever discover the pleasure of crocheting a hat, building a snow fort, or laying on the grass and staring up at the sky? If there is no silence in your mind, no quiet place in your heart, no true solitude in your soul, do you ever hear the voice within?
We don’t have the answers to these questions; they will be revealed by the next generation of children, the ones who are happily tapping away at iPhones in their car seats. But I think it’s interesting that my eighteen-year-old son, who is a self-taught whiz on the computer, is worried about those kids. And I’m glad to hear him say that he’s grateful now for the low-tech early childhood he had – even the loneliness, even the boredom, even the hard parts.
Jack has one more essay to write, and he’s chosen the topic: mastery for the sake of mastery. In it he wants to write about the pleasure he’s found over the years in teaching himself all kinds of random, mostly useless but deeply satisfying skills: how to do the Rubik’s cube, skip stones across a pond, flip an omelet, climb rocks, hit a wicket shot in tennis, recite Hamlet’s soliloquy, juggle five balls at a time, play “Purple Haze” on the guitar.
Like I said, I’m not a very objective judge, but I think he’s ready for college.
Further reading: a related and fascinating article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, about the growth of low-tech Waldorf schools in the high-tech epicenter, Silicon Valley. Also, a recent piece in, of all places, Fast Company, about the disappearance of down-time.