I’m in the car with the kids in the back. We’re riffing on something, cutting each other off as our conversations go, even while I’m telling them that cutting people off — no matter how excited you are about your next thought — is lame. Especially if it’s your dad and he’s as brilliant and insightful and handsome as me.
They stare at me in the rearview. Dead eyes. Whatever.
Somehow our talk turns to me getting a new cell phone. I tell them that my old one is busted, that I need to pick up my new one later at the store. Then we glide into talking about the past. A past they’ll never know. And after a few sentences, I realize I am an antique.
“Listen, you guys. This is the truth,” I say. “When Mom and I were your age, we didn’t have the kind of phones we have now. You couldn’t sit at the table at the Chinese food buffet place and be able to watch Curious George on a tiny phone screen.”
My daughter Violet’s eyebrow twitches a bit, so I can tell I’ve piqued her curiosity. She’s almost 8, the oldest of my crew, and she’s at that inquisitive stage where she’s always wanting to know a little more. So I run with her attention.
“We had one phone in our house when I was growing up,” I continue. “And it was massive and heavy and you could drop it on your foot and break it if you weren’t careful.”
She giggles at this. So does Henry. Charlie doesn’t care. He’s got a Goldfish cracker crumb shellacked to his chin, but he doesn’t even care about that, let alone Dad’s boring tales of growing up in the Dark Ages. Still, two out of three isn’t bad when I’m waxing about the old days.
“Yeah, it’s true. You guys have no idea how good you’ve got it. The phone ringing sounded like a fire alarm going off in our house back then. And we’d all run to answer it from wherever we might be, in the bedroom or down in the basement, just so we could feel the thrill of being the first one to get there.”
“Who was it?,” Henry blurts out. It’s a beautiful question. I smile and laugh.
“Who was it?” I say. “Haha. It was usually my Mom-Mom. Like 40 times a day.”
And it was. Instead of checking cell phones all the time like we do now, I guess my grandmother got hooked on something else. Which was calling our house to see if my mom remembered that ground meat was on sale this week. Or just to hear our voices maybe.
Our talk meanders from there, but we stay on topic. I tell my kids how we had like 9 channels on our TV when I was their age. There was no “On-Demand.” You couldn’t call up a cartoon whenever you wanted to watch it. It wasn’t even a thing we would waste energy dreaming of.
“And you know what?” I ask, checking the rearview for reaction.
Violet and Henry are grinning slyly like I’m kidding them. Which, to be fair, I do a lot.
“If we wanted to watch movies we had to go to the movie theater. They hardly ever showed kid movies on TV.”
It’s at this point that Violet loses it.
“Naaaaaaaahhhhhhhooooooo!” She tries to use her irresistible smile to lure me out of my cave of lies. But I’m not lying. You know it, and I know it. But to our kids, it’s almost beyond comprehension. Just like when we were kids, and some old-timer would talk about growing up with nothing but an outhouse and a bucket of water for a bath.
And in this moment, I realize something: As parents, it’s typical for us to attach a lot of worth and importance to the era in which we came of age. Our days are our days until we overlap into a new generation, and then there’s a sense of proprietorship for our past that we’re proud to manage. At times that can lead us to thinking that we grew up in a better time, too.
But I’m not so sure about that.
My brother and I would have given anything for the magic ability to watch Grape Ape whenever the hell we wanted to on TV. Hell, we would have probably eaten a dozen night crawlers straight out of the dirt pile we used to play in all day if someone promised us it was possible. My mom would have probably jumped at that chance, too.
“Eat those night crawlers! Mommy’s getting a new babysitter and her name is TELEVISION!”
There’s this tendency for every generation to confuse what we didn’t have back then for what no kid really needs today. But it’s pointless. I can’t argue that too many technological advances are actually a good thing for our kids; I’m not fully convinced they are. Yet resistance, at least to a point, is futile.
I can keep them from watching some of the ridiculous thinly-veiled commercials disguised as kid reality shows on YouTube these days, but I can’t also be the dude who constantly switches off Pokémon because I still can’t understand what the hell is happening.
It seems too easy to blame technology for kids going wrong somehow. They don’t listen or they throw a fit or whatever and boom: blame it on their chiseled-down attention spans and their deep fried cyber brains. It’s not the reality of the situation, though. There’s always something more to it than the shows on the the tube or the screens we keep staring at.
Hell, me and you, we grew up before all of this stuff came along. And we’re as guilty as anyone for being sucked into it.
So yeah, the kids will be fine as long as we are, too.
But that one’s still up in the air.More On