parenting


I have always loved stories. In my childhood, they came in the forms of books, ghost stories told late at night during slumber parties and campouts, movies, and TV shows. That felt like a gracious plenty in terms of venues available. The VCR, which appears in my home in the fourth grade, was a revelation – now we could watch our favorite movies over and over again! No longer did we have to wait, hearts longing, for the yearly broadcast of the Wizard of Oz – we could tape it on cable (another new development) and watch it at will. We developed a taste for Bob Hope movies – anything that broadcast on the brand-new Disney channel – and we would bring those movies with us to play over and over again on the portable video player in our family’s conversion van, during our long trips from Texas to Pennsylvania each summer. We loved the multiplicity of stories available through this new, personalized, just-in-time media called cable and the VCR, and my parents didn’t seem too worried about limiting our exposure – the content was child-appropriate, and I’m sure it just seemed like more of a good thing. It certainly kept us quiet during those endless car trips.

That story probably dated me to the year, and I’m too young to wax nostalgic, but remembering my childhood has helped me in parenting – particularly in terms of the power of story and the imagination. Parents who have had their first children in the last decade or so have been bombarded with information that has empowered, yes, but has also overwhelmed those of us who tend to be perfectionists. We wonder how much media is too much: the current wisdom says children should have no more than two hours of screen time each day. Yet I feel pretty powerless to uphold that limit when my bread and butter comes from sitting in front of a computer (or smartphone) at least seven hours each day. Plus, there are so many media developments, and great ideas from smart people, freely broadcast every moment. Although I do wonder how long we can all keep this up without deciding it’s just easier to plug our brains into our machines so we don’t have to take the time to type or even speak our thoughts into the computer…but wait, someone’s already made a lot of money exploring that idea. The power of story…again.

We all know we’re physical beings that live by growing organically – just like the natural world does. So logic says that we need a healthy amount of time connecting to the physical world and physical relationships to live well – I can’t say how much that is. And surely the best stories and thoughts come from human beings who spend real time in the real world, connected to what actually sustains us. But I have to say, remembering the power of story from my our childhood, that I’m not surprised I’m having trouble keeping my sons from actively exploring all the media forms available to them. I’m doing it right alongside them. (With tightly controlled content, of course. I’m still a stickler about that – at work and at home.)

Bottom line: this is an exciting time to be in the media business. I really don’t want to unplug right now – and my kids are the kind of people who would be excited about it too. Screen time is not the only important parental metric, is it? My boys are smart and quick and extremely creative problem solvers (just like your kids probably are) – skills that will serve them well as digital natives. If limiting their screen time means limiting their imagination, I’m just wired to err on the side of growing the imagination. Not because that’s the objective ideal, but because that’s who I am, and I can only change my natural design so much. I have beat myself up plenty because I would rather play a computer game or read a book with my kids than run around outside with them. (That’s what their friends are for, I tell myself. And I was always the kid with my nose in a book, anyway.) I have viewed that aspect of myself as a terrible, fatal flaw in my motherhood. But we parents have the hardest job in world – raising digital natives who still have a body. We can probably stand to cut ourselves some slack while we figure this out. If it’s possible, I’d rather enjoy this exciting flurry of digital creativity instead of feeling guilty about it.

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard a lot about how freelancing is becoming the fastest growing business sector – that as software and business processes are moving to the cloud, so is hiring (see this Christian Science Monitor article qualifying our impressions of freelance growth). 

This got me thinking about the freelance business model in general. Now that the cloud has unhinged us from the office, should free-agent hiring be the new business model? Companies can handpick talent for specific projects, talent collaborates, and then when the project’s done, said talent looks for the next project that makes the most of their particular skills. Surely this is much more efficient – less overhead for the company in paying employee taxes and benefits, and more enjoyment for the worker as he or she handpicks the work?

Being an independent contractor has certainly been a boon for me and my family. But although freelancing definitely has its benefits for certain contexts, I don’t think it’s the new ideal business model across the board. Here’s why:

1. Efficiency. Although freelancing may seem more efficient for the firm and the independent contractor, the independent contractor doesn’t just do project work, as every solopreneur knows. Once you own your business, YOU are the HR department, the marketing department, the accounting department, and the CEO. Some people enjoy this small-scale variety and being in charge of each aspect, and the independence is worth it. But certainly the corporate model, with its economy of scale, gets work done more efficiently in a measurable sense. And worldwide commerce benefits from this efficiency.

2. Many people prefer the camaraderie of a company. As the CSM article pointed out, freelancing has surged recently because more people are out of a job and need to find some way to make ends meet. If those jobs opened up tomorrow, many would likely choose to return.

That said, here’s why freelancing has been the best choice for me:

1. It’s good for our family. We have two sons, ages 5 and 7, whom we want to raise well. And we’re pretty convinced that having plenty of direct parental contact is needed for children to grow up feeling secure, loved, and capable of being independent when the time comes. Working at home allows me to do that. But that said – one parent raising children while the other is absent at work isn’t necessarily the ideal either. Which leads me to #2…

2. It’s a temporary solution to a larger societal problem regarding “work” and gender. If one parent stays at home with the kids and the other works at an office full-time, for example, and the stay-at-home parent is ambitious at all,  this will lead to a lot of resentment, either open or hidden. (Can you tell I’ve been there, done that?) I believe that men and women work best together because they were made to do so – and this isn’t undermined just by the “separate spheres for men and women” ideal of 19th century romanticism (of which remnants still remain in American culture), but also by the separate spheres of work and home. Both professionally and personally, in my experience, men’s gifts are activated best when with other women, and vice versa. Moms parent best when they parent with dads; women work best when they work with men; women lead best when they lead with men – when men and women value each other equally, of course. And vice versa all around. To return to the original point: until society moves more fully away from “work and home as separate spheres,” freelancing provides some creative solutions in the meantime. My husband and I nurture several income-producing streams from home, which allows us to parent together more, work together more, and make a larger contribution to the world alongside others. Frankly, it’s been the only way to invest in all our disparate interests!

Before the Industrial Revolution in the U.S., work and home were joined in one economy in the form of the family homestead. But it was hard work! The Industrial Revolution created a higher standard of living – through the separation of work and home. And at the beginning, a new cultural romantic ideal of women at home and men at work helped everyone accept this split more easily. But it didn’t last long. Certainly when women began joining men in this now-separate sphere of “work,” women finally got back some feelings of empowerment and achievement, but for parents, emptying the home of women AND men hasn’t been the ideal solution either. Child labor laws mean we can’t send the children to work too! Surely a better solution is to integrate work and home more so that those who are parents of young children – a very temporary time – can be home together more often. Otherwise children will always inherently be a burden – their needs will always be competing against the office’s needs. Our identities as parent and careerperson will always be competing, instead of complementary. And in the day-to-day stress, we’ll forget that children, the potential adults in our care, will grow up to become working adults and will shape the future of the world. Companies who strive to create long-term value care about how children are raised – not just in terms of current employee morale, but in terms of their economic future: children are the future work force. How did your childhood and quality of home life impact your adult life? Doing their part in helping their employees raise children well is simply an investment in their long-term assets.

The ability to work remotely through virtual communication can help us reintroduce sustainability into our business models. Successful corporations – usually appearing on “the best places to work” lists – are already finding creative ways to integrate employees’ personal and work lives. But for the rest of us, in the meantime, freelancing provides yet another healthy alternative.

Last Friday my kindergartener came home with a flyer from the librarian, announcing that Monday would be the kickoff day of their Internet Safety Unit, and all children were asked to wear red to mark the occasion. On Monday I dutifully laid out a T-shirt with red on it (alas, our clothes selection is not so vast as allow me to instantly pull out a red shirt – luckily what was clean happened to have a smidge of red) and sent him on his way. That afternoon he excitedly got off the bus and told me all about the “bad guys” on the computer, like Meet Me Mack, who might ask him to meet him somewhere, Potty Mouth Pete, who might use bad words or show him scary or uncomfortable things, or Tell Me Tommy, who might ask personal questions about him or his family. If he saw any of these “bad guys” on the computer, he was supposed to turn off the computer and tell an adult immediately. He showed me a bright red flyer that outlined all of this, with his scrawled name at the bottom, pledging to follow these guidelines. My first thought was, if I ever caught my son on the computer without permission and unsupervised, he would be in so much trouble. My second thought was, they’re teaching this in kindergarten? Really? He can’t even read yet (although I’m well aware that some kindergarteners can). My third thought was, well, I guess we’ve come to the point where we teach about virtual stranger danger before real stranger danger (which comes in January). Is it really more likely for five-year-olds to encounter a dangerous person through the computer instead of face-to-face?

The next night, at Back to School night, I saw that they have computers in their classroom – although I don’t yet know how they’ll be using them. Again, I thought, really? In kindergarten? Do they have computer literacy SOLs for five-year-olds now? It started me thinking about how we really don’t view computers as a tool at all anymore – they encompass their own world and their own culture, to which we must get accustomed. Get kids using computers early, so they can intuitively understand them better. The assumption is that even little kids may be wandering around in this virtual world unsupervised, so we’d better teach them how to wander safely. But do we really want them to intuitively meld to computers? What does that really prepare them for? What does that help them do? What are computers really for, anyway – are they a means to an end, or a new world and culture to master and live in as fully as possible? This feels far more like cultural training than teaching them to use a tool.

And maybe it is most akin to learning a second language – the earlier the better, and in addition to learning the words and syntax, you do need to learn the cultural assumptions and boundaries and customs as well, if you ever want to to communicate effectively. But we all need a native tongue, a home where we’re rooted. Does such early computer literacy uproot our kids from the real? Are we erasing capacities in them to enjoy and value the physical when we teach them “virtual” too early? Will their native tongue no longer be a physical one?

I don’t know the risk involved, honestly. I wanted to put my kids in public school because I wanted them to have the capacity to know and love the world and the people in it – but yet be rooted enough in their own identity to resist what they knew was not true and not real. But at age five, my son isn’t rooted enough yet. And this issue of early computer literacy is so far from black and white – it just couldn’t get more gray. I just have this sneaking suspicion that it may be nudging our kids further down the slippery slope of technopoly – where the Internet has become a world with its own set of values, its own language, and its own customs, instead of a tool created and controlled by humans to communicate and exchange information more quickly and vividly. In the latter, we master the Internet and use it when appropriate – and DON’T use it when it’s not needed. In the former, the Internet masters us – we must learn as early and quickly as possible how to adjust to its rules and demands and values. Have the public schools already crossed that line that says more and more dependence on virtual communication is inevitable, so we’d better start teaching kids early so their synapses can meld with the computer’s? All the more efficient! Or are they still hovering at that line, like some of us are, trying with all of our might to pinpoint the exact point where we cross over from master to servant? And if given the choice, would they still choose to be master? Would we?

On the home front:

I have two preschool-aged sons, and this summer, I have slipped into letting them watch a LOT of TV. For me, a lot means between 2 and 3 hours a day. It’s all qubo or PBS or educational kid videos, but I have always viewed TV as an unquestionable evil. Yesterday, however, much to my surprise, I had some compassionate thoughts about the poor maligned television. Or maybe just some compassionate thoughts about myself as a parent – that my great struggle to limit their TV watching is not purely my personal weakness, and that there are greater powers at work here.

It occurred to me that the nature of work has changed drastically in just one generation. My work, for instance, as an editor and writer (such as it is), has changed drastically in just ten years – whereas I did most of my editing work on hard copies up to, say, five years ago, now I do ALL of it on the computer. I’m sure the shift from hard- to soft-copy has happened in virtually every discipline – what we used to use our hands to do, we now do on the computer. Kids’ play is going to reflect this, too. The reason why it’s so hard for me to do physical things with my kids ALL day is because I have gotten out of the habit of physicality myself. Also, the grownup goal of play now is to sit in front of a computer. The way we entertain ourselves has reflected this, the workplace is reflecting this, and our parenting/home life will reflect this more and more.

And for some reason, realizing this made me relax a little bit. It’s not just me; it’s our whole society moving in this direction. It’s much bigger than my individual will or my individual values. Surely we got here as a society because we uncritically accepted each new form of media as unquestioned progress, and surely the way out is to together begin to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each form of media as a tool and not a god. But day-to-day, we can take the pressure off of ourselves as parents – it’s bigger than just us. Not to be fatalistic, but to shed unhelpful and paralyzing guilt.

And shedding that paralyzing guilt has the direct benefit of releasing energy to think of a small thing I CAN do each day to get closer to my goal of one hour of TV a day. For instance, one thing I know I need to get better at is inviting people over during the day so the full weight of being project manager for my kids doesn’t fall solely on me. I’m the polar opposite of a camp counselor – I’d rather be sitting (i.e. not moving), reading a book or writing, any moment of the day – just like I did almost everyday as a kid. I’ve always had a struggle with being active, with being embodied – I’ve always been just one big brain. That’s my personality and my habit, and my culture certainly reinforces that physically passive tendency. My kids are crazy-active, and love being physical. I’m ready to dump the guilt that I’m rotting their brains, admit that I have a pretty passive idea of fun, and get some help from other parents who are more active than I. I don’t have to be everything to my kids – and then, as I collapse, turn on the TV in despair. Even though I can’t instantly change the screen-dependence of our culture (and I certainly want my kids to be equipped to fully enter into such a culture, if only to effectively change it), I can at least get some help from some friends on a daily or weekly basis. Parenting has become such an isolating activity, but it doesn’t have to be.