Children need to encounter the real world behind the screen.
Cricket songs in full thrum and twinkling hosts of fireflies—that was the world I lived in as a child, until either the mosquitoes or my mother corralled me into the house. Then there would be stories with Dad, during which I would draw horses or a poor replica of the Dawn Treader—or whatever else happened to be the subject of the story. We had a Saturday night show or two that we would watch as a family; there were stints of Captain Kangaroo, Reading Rainbow, or Disney afternoons, and the occasional film. Yet, by and large, my childhood was spent out-of-doors, riding my bike, playing ‘pioneers’ or ‘office’ with my neighbour girls, drawing, or reading.
Screens entered my daily life in high school, when we obtained our first family desktop computer. I started typing out my stories and editing a magazine for some school fellows. When dial-up internet made it to our home, I stayed up until the wee sma’s instant messaging friends or keeping up long e-mail correspondences with comrades scattered across the country.
Some parts of my imagination were laid to rest about the time I began having a screen in front of me often. Playing ‘pioneers’ with the neighbours was abandoned and I sorely neglected my model horses. I began writing stories instead of acting out the plots I had read or thought up with my friends. This may have been a natural shifting point for my imagination, but natural or not, technology facilitated the change. I had taken a step away from tangible reality, putting up a screen between myself and a first-hand experience of life.
I was—and admittedly, still am—drawn to that flickering blue light like a moth to a flame. Yet something in me rebels, too. I have tried, in recent years, to take a child-like step backward. Now I often take the screen from betwixt myself and the colourful, sparkling, real world around me. I have a cell phone—a flip phone—that I turn off when I don’t want to be bothered. I read real books and write letters by hand. My upbringing without much ‘screen-time’ resonates all these years later in what feels life-giving. Though work and leisure often involve some form of glowing technology, when I write by hand or take an evening walk, or when I make dinner or fix my car, I feel more alive.
Screens seem to eat away at imagination and ingenuity. Sometimes it frightens me how prevalent screens are—I can’t hide myself or my yet-to-come children from them. But I have learned that there are ways to encounter the tactile world without the screen-barrier. Though we live in a different age than the technologically limited one in which I was raised, when I have children, I still want them to know the smell of a rose before they see one on a tablet. I want them to learn to roller skate and ride their bikes; to love going to the library for good books to read together; to want to colour or draw rather than watch a cartoon; and to know that if they say “But I’m bored!” they can do chores, not watch television.
This does not mean shunning technology; it has its place as a useful tool. The fact that I can call home whenever I want to without long distance charges is wonderful. My computer aids me in all kinds of endeavours—from looking up recipes and getting driving directions, to listening to music or audio books. Still, I want my children to learn how to use a map before they learn to use MapQuest; how to play music as well as listen to it; how to cook by ‘eyeballing it’, as well as by measuring every last thing; and how to read out loud proficiently, by listening to others and by practising the art themselves. I would like to have a big enough piece of the out-of-doors to let my children run around. A place to try to catch a squirrel through their own inventiveness (as I amusingly watched my neighbour children attempt recently).
You see, my desire is that ages and ages hence, my children will send handwritten thank you notes for gifts, but that they will text to let me know they made it somewhere safely. I want to be part of raising inter-dependent adults—persons who can use common sense in taking care of themselves and their possessions, but who know they are part of the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints. I want them to have ‘old-fashioned’ virtues and to know history as they walk among ‘newfangled’ technology and speak truth into the present.
Jody Byrkett is the editor of the Pray channel. She lives in picturesque Colorado where she enjoys hiking by sunshine or by starlight, foggy mornings and steaming mugs of tea, reading classic literature and theological essays, studying words and their origins, and practising the art of hospitality. (She also has a habit of spelling things ‘Britishly’.)