Kids and Touchscreens

Please excuse me as I unpack a Russian nesting doll of articles I'm just now catching up on.

On Tuesday, Mat Honan published a piece about parents using screens to babysit their children:

“But the ever-present touchscreens make me incredibly uneasy—probably because they make parenting so easy. There is always one at hand to make restaurants and long drives and air travel much more pleasant. The tablet is the new pacifier.

But these screens have a weird dual nature: They make us more connected and more isolated at the same time. When I hand my daughter an iPad with an interactive reading app, she dives in and reads along. But she also goes into a trance. It’s disturbing because, frankly, it reminds me of myself.”

Shawn Blanc had some thoughts on the matter:

“Letting our sons play a learning game on the iPad or watch an episode of The Magic School Bus isn’t wrong in and of itself, and we don’t want them to grow up feeling shame related to the usage of digital devices. But neither are we going to let them zone out for hours watching cartoons on an iPhone so we can live our lives without the “inconvenience” of little boys who constantly want our attention.”

So did Stephen Hackett:

“...the most guilt-inducing part of these articles? The fact that I screw this sort of thing up all the time.”

Boy, do these posts ever speak to me right now. My son Brendon is just over two years old, and has already shown surprising proficiency in navigating gadget interfaces.

He knows the Netflix app well enough that he can quickly find it on anyone's iPad or iPhone—no matter what page or folder it lives in—and scroll down to the kid's section and play one of his favorite shows, like Super Why! (Thankfully there hasn't yet been an issue of him accidentally pulling up Breaking Bad or some horror film.)

He has a "toddler tablet" of his own (given to us as a Christmas present from my brother-in-law) that he plays puzzle games on. He also knows how to turn on our PS3, put in a specific movie, and hit the controller's X button at the menu to play it.

If I'm being honest here, it all freaks me out a little.

Part of me knows he is growing up in a world filled with screens. I'm sure he will wonder how we ever got along without them. In that regard, it seems silly to prevent him from getting used to the technology while he's still an information sponge.

But like his father, he shows an unfortunate tendency to cling to a screen and zone out for extended periods until someone intervenes. The thing that really makes me feel guilty is that sometimes we just let him do it—not because we don't care, but because it buys us some uninterrupted time to focus on our respective projects. I'm not proud of it.

In our defense, we've been trying to get better about this. We've been gently introducing limits on his screen time, such as only letting him watching one or two episodes of something before we take the screen away and encourage him to find another activity. We try to keep our devices hidden from plain sight when possible, since he's prone to picking one up whenever the opportunity presents itself. We put other things in front of him instead, like a coloring book or some building blocks. We've also been spending a lot more time on the floor actively playing with him or reading to him, rather than ignoring him (which has undoubtedly affected the pace at which I publish articles here on the site, for good or for bad).

I don't know that any of this is effective, or even if we're necessarily doing anything right or wrong either way. I can't honestly say that screen time has ever had a negative effect on him—for all I know, I'm just biased because we didn't have tablets and smartphones when I was a kid.

I don't have any concrete answers here. All I can do is try to find the balance between using screens as a convenient/entertaining "pacifier" and using them purely for educational purposes.

If other parents are reading this, I'd love to hear your insight.

(Update: Just as I finished typing up this draft, Shawn Blanc and Stephen Hackett put out an episode of The Weekly Briefly podcast on the subject of kids and touchscreens. They make some great points about boundaries and the fact that all modern parents are having to navigate these murky waters. I recommend giving it a listen.)

Things I've Learned in 2013

Inspired by a post Patrick Rhone did at the end of 2011, and another at the end of 2012, I thought I'd put together a list of things I've learned in 2013. In no particular order...

  • It's almost always better to sleep on an article draft and edit it the next day, rather than publish it immediately.

  • Although it sometimes hurts to cut things from my articles, even my favorite and most "clever" bits, they usually turn out for the better that way. Even if it means starting over from scratch.

  • Time spent on fiddling with my blog's design is better spent on writing.

  • It's best to ignore threads about my work on sites like Hacker News and Reddit. Even a large number of compliments can't stop those few detractors from getting into my head.

  • Don't give much thought to pageviews. A huge surge of traffic to the site can seem absolutely crazy for a few days, but really this sort of attention is fleeting. It's better to have a smaller, truly supportive audience that always has your back, than a large one that will bounce without a second thought.

  • Babies will always, always choose to throw a screaming fit at the most inopportune times. This is a universal constant.

  • Some of the most well-received pieces I've published have been the ones I spent the least amount of time editing or put the least thought into. The internet works in mysterious ways.

  • After I lost my job and we started having to budget ourselves more strictly, my wife and I discovered we can get by on surprisingly little money. Eating at home rather than at restaurants has been the biggest factor for us.

  • I have just about everything I need in life, despite having a lot less income. I have a loving wife, a supportive family, a two-year-old son who makes me laugh, and a roof over my head. Like anyone, there are plenty more things I wish I had (more gadgets, a bigger house, etc), but really my life is quite comfortable at the moment. I consider myself extremely lucky.

  • My wife is even more supportive of my writing endeavors than I previously thought. She's amazing.

  • My parents and other family members don't really have a clue what I do for a living, despite my attempts to explain it.

  • It's often better to try calmly talking my son down from one of his hysterical fits rather than lose my own temper about it.

  • Let kids experiment with their environment a little. It might be annoying when they make messes, or that they want to get a cooking pot out of the cabinet and start hitting it with a spoon, but they're just exploring and learning about the world around them. Don't immediately shut them down all the time or you risk stunting their curiosity and creativity. (Unless they're about to accidentally hurt or kill themselves, obviously.)

  • When interviewing people, it's difficult to find the balance between staying out of the interviewee's way and maintaining a certain flow to the conversation, but so rewarding when that balance is found.

  • I need to journal more often.

  • I need to read more books.

  • Audiobooks are more engaging than I thought they would be. I never really gave them a chance until a roadtrip we took earlier this year, and now I wish I'd done so sooner.

  • Being off the internet for a week wasn't so bad, and I hardly missed anything important. I should do this a few more times a year.

As a writer, my goal is to inspire others to be more creative and do their best work. If my writing has helped or inspired you in any way, please consider supporting this site with a modest donation or by signing up for the $3/month membership subscription.

Today's Meditation on Being a Father

I'll say it right off the bat: being a father can be aggravating at times. My son Brendon, who is nearly 17 months old now and has started walking, has apparently been studying ways to push my buttons and send me from 0 to upset in under 6 seconds.

That mischievous smile he gives me right as he's about to tip my drink over on purpose.

The umpteenth time he tries to climb over the back of the couch and kill himself, giggling as we save him from himself.

His habit of getting into the DVD cabinet and throwing the cases all over the living room, or even opening a case so he can get a disc out and scratch it up.

The way he insists on cramming food into his mouth until he chokes, no matter how many times it's happened before.

Those little tantrums where he just throws the nearest available object in a huff.

The public crying/screaming fits where he is completely inconsolable and causes a scene, probably making people wonder if I'm hurting him or something.

Arggghh!

But sometimes, he'll do something so simple and affectionate that it makes all the frustration worth it. This morning was like that.

My wife was in the shower and Brendon was still asleep, so for a few brief moments, I had a quiet house all to myself. I like to take advantage of these moments to do a little morning meditation and think about the upcoming day.

I was sitting on the living room floor cross-legged, focused on my breathing, when Brendon walked into the room, apparently having just woken up and climbed down from the bed without crying for Mommy or Daddy (which is unusual). He looked me in the eye, turned around, sat down in my lap, and leaned back against me.

He said nothing, made no noises, didn't bring any toys to play with, didn't bug me to give him a drink...he just sat there with me and we enjoyed the quiet together for a minute. Of course, he eventually got restless and shuffled away to go play with something noisy, but I cherished that single minute more deeply than any anger he's ever caused me.

Moments like that are why I became a father.

"Hanging Literally by a Thread"

At the end of an interesting piece about meeting his doppelganger, Eric Puchner sits on his daughter's bed to tell her a bedtime story and finds himself contemplating the ephemerality of life:

"If someone told me I was going to die tomorrow, I thought, I would still want to be sitting right here. Because it was going to happen someday—very soon, in fact, in cosmological time—and it mattered immensely where I was. There was no time not to waste."

Words to remember.

Letting Children Fail

Jessica Lahey, writing for The Atlantic:

"These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won't let their child learn. You see, teachers don't just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

Excellent piece, and I recommend reading the whole thing.

This is something I think about often, because I want to avoid being "that" parent. The one who coddles their children, never allowing them to learn from their mistakes and thus creating a sense of entitlement that will set the child up for inevitable failure in adulthood.

It's an easy pattern to slip into, I know. Even now, I sometimes find myself making excuses for Brendon when he's acting bratty. "Oh he's just a baby, he doesn't understand what he's doing." And maybe that's true to a certain extent, but my role is to be a father, not a buddy.

When I see that he's about to hurt himself in some way, my first instinct is to reach out and prevent that thing from happening, but I have to remind myself that sometimes I need to hold back and let the lesson be taught. (Obviously I still step in if the damage is going to be severe.)

At some point he must learn what is right and wrong, and I'm trying to instill these values in him early on so we can avoid the whole "damage control" thing years from now, when it will be too late to reverse any coddling we've done. Is there a better way? I don't know, there was no manual handed to me when I became a dad.

One thing I do know though: it doesn't feel good to tell him no, but it must be done.

Now, Exhale

Christmas Season 2012 is over. The flurry of family, food, shopping, wrapping paper, and gifts has subsided, leaving behind almost strange feelings of stillness and peace. The supposed end of the world has not come to pass, and life returns to normal.

Today was spent putting our house back in order. Dishes have been washed and put away. Piles of wasteful packaging and other trash have been thrown away. Brendon's new toys have been sorted into two groups: "Keep" and "Donate". Anything worth keeping has been stored in its proper place, while everything else will be taken elsewhere.

The grandparents (meaning, my parents and in-laws) had their fun unloading a mountain of toys on our son, thinking to get their "revenge" on us for having lots of noisemakers when we were children, but what they don't yet know is that we made a certain decision a long time ago: we're going to limit the number of things Brendon owns and get rid of anything unnecessary as he grows up.

Not that we want to be mean about it of course, but in a day where children are constantly bombarded by advertisements and peer pressure, I feel it important to make sure we avoid instilling any sense of entitlement. I see too many kids and teenagers taking to Twitter every year, complaining about not getting the exact gift(s) they wanted. Or even getting the right gift but not the right color (such as a white iPad vs a black one). It's sickening.

For now, we will choose for him which things will be kept or given away, but as he gets older he will be asked to pick out which older toys to donate. These won't be blind donations though. He will be taken to see donation centers and homeless shelters in order to see and understand why it's important to donate to those in need. Even our lower middle class lifestyle is one of comparative opulence.

But I digress.

As 2012 winds to a close, I find myself excitedly thinking ahead to 2013 and what it holds. In years past, I've often done what many others do, making a list of New Year's resolutions and not keeping them, but something about this year feels different (yes, I know people always say that).

While I obviously can't predict the future, I have this oddly optimistic feeling that some sort of positive shift is about to take place in my life. Maybe it means I'll finally be able to write for this site full-time as I've so dearly hoped. Or perhaps some other big opportunity will present itself.

Whatever the outcome, I sense that 2013 is going to be huge for me. Can't wait.

'Two Legacies to Strive For'

Rian van der Merwe has been thinking a lot about family lately:

"But for me it is also a move to a better understanding of what it means to be a family, to be bound together through thick and thin, to care more for these people than I ever thought would be possible. And with that comes the realisation that I don’t want to be that guy. That Dad at the park who’s always on his iPhone. The one who’s never home in time for bath time. So I obsess over these things — it pretty much takes an act of God for me not to be home to give my 3-year old a bath. And when I fail, I fall hard, and sometimes stumble rather slowly back on my feet."

Couldn't agree more. It's the kind of thing I was getting at near the end of my post about hardcore gaming.

Officially Getting Too Old For Hardcore Gaming

I enjoy playing video games. They've been a part of my life since I was a little kid. There's a photo somewhere of me, age 4, sitting there playing Blaster Master on my NES while all my relatives are gathered around my new baby sister, who had just been brought home from the hospital. This picture probably speaks volumes about my life.

I've owned a lot of the big consoles: Atari, NES, Sega Genesis, various Game Boys, PSX, PS2, Wii, Xbox 360, PS3. Of course, I also spent a good amount of time at friends' houses where they owned an SNES, Nintendo64, GameCube, or the original Xbox. In fact, most of my friendships as a kid were based around video games. All we ever did as a group was get together and play Counter-Strike, Halo, GoldenEye, Mario Kart, Street Fighter, or even WCW/NWO Revenge (yes, we watched wrestling and played video games based on it). LAN parties were a big part of my "social" life.

During my teenage years, I could have been considered a "hardcore" gamer. I was subscribed to several different gaming magazines at one point or another, including GameInformer, NintendoPower, GamePro, and the official Playstation magazine. I was the kid who could tell you all about upcoming games before most people knew they were even in development.

I spent an embarrassing amount of time in mall arcades in high school. I was a pretty fucking excellent Dance Dance Revolution player. I knew all the air-juggling combos in the Tekken series. My Honda Civic Type-R in Initial D (which I might still have the card for somewhere) was tough to beat. I could beat Time Crisis without ever having to insert additional tokens.

I went through a phase where I spent countless hours playing Japanese RPGs on the PSX and PS2, like Xenogears, Legend of Legaia, Brave Fencer Musashi, Legend of Dragoon, Lunar: Silver Star Story, Parasite Eve, Star Ocean: The Second Story, and Wild Arms. I had a bit of an obsession with the Final Fantasy series, namely games VII through X. I owned the soundtracks to a lot of these games (I still get a fuzzy nostalgic feeling whenever I hear something from the FFVII soundtrack).

My latest obsession over the last few years has been the Call of Duty series, starting with Modern Warfare 2. Each time a CoD game comes out, I play it so much that I can predict where enemies will be spawning at any given time and my kill/death ratio is consistently in the 2.0-3.0 range. Other players have accused me of cheating (something I've never done), which is like a badge of honor.

[There's a bunch more I could go into, but I think I've made my point.]

Why does any of this matter to you? So that you'll understand the shift I've been experiencing in 2012.

My son is a little over a month a way from his first birthday. In the past year, my wife and I have gone from doing whatever we wanted with our time to spending most of our time caring for this little guy. Making sure he doesn't hurt himself in a thousand different ways (seriously, why is he obsessed with power outlets?) and trying to teach him about his surrounding world at the same time.

Rather than immediately starting up a video game when I get home from work like I used to, we now focus on preparing dinner, cleaning up the house a bit, then sit down together to watch a couple episodes from one of our favorite shows on Netflix or just play on the floor with him. After that, it's time to get him ready for bed: giving him a bath, changing his diaper, maybe reading a story to him, and then my wife nurses him to sleep.

I have sometimes taken advantage of nursing time to play some CoD, but this time has increasingly been spent writing for the blog instead, or reading a book for a while before I go to sleep. This helps me go to bed at a more sane hour, rather than 2:00am on a worknight because I'm wired from playing games.

I find myself caring less and less about anything game-related as time goes on. I let my gamer mag subscriptions end a long time ago, I no longer keep up with development cycles, I don't know what big games are on the horizon, I don't mind not having the highest score, I no longer take pride in completing a game on the hardest difficulty after repeating frustrating missions over and over, and I certainly have no desire to ever buy new titles for $50-a-pop anymore.

What I do care about is being there for my family, spending time with them instead of being absorbed in a game that doesn't matter. I feel bad for the early days of my relationship with my wife (then-girlfriend), when I would spend more time playing games than experiencing life with her. Sometimes I wonder why she ever decided to stick with me.

I just don't feel that gaming has a large place in my life anymore. Do I still enjoy playing from time to time? Of course! I'll probably even play the occasional game with my son when he's a bit older. But I now see it for the addiction that it is and will strive not to let him become as obsessive about it as I have. My parents, despite being great role models in most other aspects, never really set restrictions on my gaming time and I now look back and see that this was an error.

I'm still working on other addictions in my life, which I'll write about soon. For now though, I feel more content with how I spend my time. Rather than racking up meaningless digital points, I'm accumulating better life experiences, and that matters more to me than anything.