Thursday, November 12, 2009

Keeping it "Real" in a High-Tech World....

A recent conversation really has my wheels turning. It was a brief conversation, touching lightly on a few points without getting into a lot of details, but I think the topic is worthy of further consideration. I don't remember exactly how the conversation started, but I had said "I think technology is wrecking families" and my friend replied "But you can't go all Amish, it's important for kids today to be familiar with computors and technology if they're going to keep up." I agree with that point entirely. It is true that in today's world, a working knowledge of computors and technology is important and becomes increasingly important everyday. Even those jobs that are traditionally considered "blue collar" are integrating computor technology; whether it's working on automobiles or Farming. There is no escaping computors in today's technologically-oriented society, unless of course you DO choose to live a more "Amish" lifestyle....which I must admit, doesn't seem like such a bad thing. There's something to be said for simplicity...

What concerns me, is the impact that technology is having on society and most specifically; families. It used to be (not so very long ago), that families worked side-by-side, everyone doing their part to be a contributing member of the family dynamic. The days were long and the work was hard. Everyone did their part and no one lounged around while everyone else worked. Little by little, technology developed that "made life easier": With electricity came mechanized household products such as washers and dryers, furnaces, dishwashers, microwaves, power tools, etc...These "modern conveniences" made it possible for us to spend less time "doing chores" and more time "having fun". And the new technology also created things like TV's, Motion pictures, and other various "toys" to enjoy in the freetime we now had since we no longer had to scrape a living out of the dirt.

But all these things were expensive, which meant finding ways to earn money to pay for them. Eventually, technology advanced to the point that it became a "necessity" for daily life, instead of merely a "convenience". Basic skills began to fall by the wayside, children were taught to use calculators instead of learning to solve math formulas. Instead of learning book-keeping skills, children are taught how to use software programs such as Quicken. With the onset of online and cellphone communication; spelling skills gave way to acronyms and spell-check. Gone are the days of boys learning to fix cars and doing basic household maintenance. Girls no longer know the difference between "T" and "t" in a recipe, because anything you want to eat can be found in a preservative-packed box that says simply "add water"....and that's what their Mother's are feeding them because they don't have time to cook "real" food.  I can't help but wonder, what would happen to our young people if they were suddenly stripped of their technological crutches?

Marketing whizzes hired by manufacturers use every available avenue to convince us that we MUST have the newest gadget "to keep up" and if you can't afford it, no problem! Just buy it on credit and you can make payments on a small interest fee of course. So now you have to work even more to pay for these things that were originally meant to free your time so you could spend more time with family and friends, but now have become things "you can't live without".  Conveniences have become crutches and up-to-date knowledge of technology has become necessary to compete for jobs. Jobs that you need in order to pay for the crutches and for the technology and education to use the technology so you can keep your job. Hmmm, seems like a self-perpetuating circle to me.

Meanwhile, what did we lose?

It's easy to think what we "lost" was hard physical labor doing things like gardening, cooking, sewing, hand-washing clothes, fencing, caring for livestock, churning butter, hunting and fishing for food, planting and harvesting crops, building barns, repairing equipment, etc...But we lost more than that. What we really lost was the family dynamic. That sense of teamwork that promoted a feeling of connection between family members. Too many families today are being torn apart by the endless pursuit of "things" and slavery to the cost of those things. And they don't even realize it.

I remember when my girls were young, I felt really bad that I couldn't afford to buy them the video games and computors that their friends had. There wasn't money for annual trips to summer camp or vacations to exotic locations. I felt like I was a failure as a parent and a bad "provider". But looking back now, I'm glad it was that way for us. Our version of a "vacation" was to drive 30 miles down the road to a State Park for a weekend camping excursion, and believe me, we didn't have a nice camper or even a fancy tent with cozy sleeping bags on cots. We had pup-tents and blankets on the ground. I would take one of the shelves out of the oven to take along as a "grill" that I would prop on cinderblocks over a campfire and that's how I cooked our hotdogs and burgers. But we had fun. We played cards. We explored creeks for frogs and crawdads. We walked in the woods and talked about the wild animals we saw. We picked wildflowers to press between the pages of a book. The whole adventure cost less than a hundred dollars, but the memories are priceless.

I was in the horse business when my children were young and there was a lot of work to be done, and we did it ourselves. My children participated in the horse business: the work AND the fun. They helped clean stalls and paddocks, they stacked haybales for hours, they helped clean up loose twine and rotten hay that accumulated on the ground, they scrubbed and refilled 100 gallon water tanks, amongst many other little "chores" that needed to be done. They learned how to clean and bandage wounds. They learned the value of patience and persistance when working with others: humans and animals. They learned that sometimes it's best to just "get it done" and it's a waste of energy to complain. They witnessed the miracle of birth and learned about the pain of injury, death, and loss. And I worked right alongside them, guiding their actions, teaching them valuable skills, and sharing the journey of growth with them. You know what I remember the most? I remember how much fun we had chatting and joking and laughing. I remember how proud I felt when I would show them how to do something and after a few frustrated attempts, they would "get it". I remember my daughters teaching me the alphabet in sign-language and how to count in Spanish and how hard they giggled when I would goof. I remember challenging eachother to expand our vocabularies by playing "word games" while we worked and I remember helping them practice their "times tables".  I remember how excited Jaci was the day she was finally tall enough to be able to drive the riding lawn-mower. And I remember Ashley being so pleased about being allowed to drive the old Ford truck to move hay that she would actually volunteer for the job just to be able to drive the truck.

Our days were long and the work was strenous and at times just plain nasty. But working together to achieve tasks that we all benefitted from, created a special bond between the three of us. A bond I don't believe we would have if I had been working outside the home to earn money to pay for those expensive vacations and things like computors and video games. The fact that we were working side-by-side so much of the time gave us an opportunity for interaction that I think gets lost when parents are working multiple jobs to pay for all that "stuff".  My workdays were just as long as anyone else's, sometimes longer since my work was right there in my backyard. It was not unusual for me to work from the time I woke up until late into the evening, especially in the summer time. But I was working at home and my children were included in what I was doing and I had the option to take a break from time to time to "play" with them. It wasn't like what I see happening so much today with friends and acquaintances: work-at-home parents who go into their "office" to work; isolated from children who have their noses glued to computors and television screens. Or parents who work outside the home and are so exhausted when they do finally get home that they just want a little peace and quiet.

 "Quality time" is limited to that brief interlude between supper and bedtime, during which alot of needed interaction is crammed into a few rushed moments. Weekends aren't much better because that's when parents try to cram in those household chores that need to be done and can't be done during the work-week. Although this is a prime opportunity to work "side by side" with their children creating a situation where real conversation and interaction could occur...all too often parents just want to "get it done" and it's easier to just do it themselves while the kids continue to stare at some piece of technology. That same piece of technology that the parent has been slaving away to pay for, that same piece of technology that is teaching their child about life. And I think sometimes, parents don't even try to get their kids involved in those household chores because the kids complain so much about the "manual labor" that it just plain isn't enjoyable for anyone. Why are they complaining? Because they're used to sitting at computors and have become physically lazy. And society wonders why childhood obesity is on the rise....

And what IS that computor or video game or TV teaching your child about life anyway? I am appalled when I look around me. On TV I see "Reality Shows" that have nothing to do with Reality. There's a group of people playing headgames and gossiping and backstabbing eachother. Perpetuating the idea that that's OKAY. It is NOT okay. It's a symptom of what is going on in society; the increased emphasis on competition and "success" at any cost, while things like empathy and compassion are seen as a "weakness" that can be played upon and taken advantage of.  Women are shown how to flutter their eyelashes to manipulate men into giving them what they want. Men are shown that wealth and power is the ultimate woman-magnet. There's whole magazines dedicated to telling you what to wear, when to wear it and why, that includes articles bashing the way others are dressed, conveying the message that you had better keep updating your wardrobe or else someone might make fun of you. And of course there's plenty of portrayals of people being made fun of, to make it real for you so you'll want to buy better clothes. We are taught that "looking good" is far more important than actually being good. As long as your presentation is good, it doesn't matter that you filled the box with garbage. The beautiful people can behave as badly as they want because they are beautiful. And oh by the way....just use that credit card we gave you to buy whatever it is you need to LOOK successful, beautiful and worthy....Just don't forget to make that payment every month or we'll take it all away in the most public way imaginable....

Manufacturers spend mass quantities of money to brainwash us into believing we must have this object or that item and that we're falling behind or failing if we don't. Even Saturday morning cartoons have become a part of the big media plan to indoctrinate our children to become slaves to "Big Brother". One in particular always brings a sick feeling to my gut; in it there is a character who is the epitome of selfish self-absorption. He says repeatedly in every episode; "It's all about ME!" Of course, by the end of the episode he is taught a lesson about how it's not all about him, but that's not what is shouted repeatedly throughout the episode. "It's all about ME!" Is the message that is being imprinted on our young children's minds, preparing them for a life of believing they must have, must get, and are entitled to receive, anything they want; setting them up to be good little money-making slaves for the handful of people at the top of the foodchain. When they outgrow cartoons they graduate to the "Reality Shows" that show them how to be selfish and manipulative and to trust no one. Just another step toward that sense of isolation required to keep people separated and struggling....and enslaved.

Now I'm not saying that parents should just quit their jobs so they can stay home and interact with their kids. That's not my point at all. I'm just thinking maybe everyone would benefit from taking a moment to really think about whether or not they really NEED that upgraded computor, that "latest greatest game", that new diningroom furniture, that new wardrobe, that whatever-it-is that you're considering putting on a credit card. Those things that cost so much money that you have to work so much that you become a slave to banks and credit card companies and take away from the real quality time families need. Society has trained us to believe that you're "providing for your family". But what are you REALLY providing and what are you NOT providing? What does your family really NEED?

I think any one of us could look back to our childhood and remember a special adult who had a big influence on us and I'd bet that every one of us would have to admit that the REASON that person impacted us as much as they did was because they spent time with us, talked to us, and taught us things. I was close to my Father as a child because he spent time with me. He let me hang out in his shop with him and taught me how to use power tools, how to work on cars, and how to build and fix things. And the whole time he was showing me these things, we talked. We talked about school and friends and issues I was having with my sisters and the class bully who was troubling me and he shared insights with me that his own Father had shared with him. I still remember very distinctly my Father telling me "if you're willing to learn, you can do anything you want." I have never forgotten that lesson. I even remember the first time he gave me a hammer, a piece of scrapwood and a handful of nails and told me to pound them into the wood. I thought it was great fun and a special "privelege" to use one of his tools. Once I could pound the nails into the wood consistantly, he and I worked together to build my first treehouse. From there I graduated to helping him shingle the barn roof at the ripe old age of 10. And I loved every second of it because I felt like I was really "helping".

My experiences with my Father and then with my own daughters taught me something without my even realizing it. It's not the amount of time you spend with your children or your spouse, it's HOW you spend that time. It was of little significance to me as a child that my parents came to watch my basketball games or listen to me sing in the choir. They were lost in a sea of faces and we weren't interacting with eachother anyway. What I valued was the time in the shop with my Father, learning about tools and talking about life. With my Mother, it was those times she let me help bake cookies or decorate a cake, while telling me stories of the terrible meals she'd made for Dad when they were first married and how she felt it was important for "you girls" to learn to cook. It was the interactive time that made a difference. Those times when they shared stories about who they were and where they came from, and taught me how to do things that had lifelong value: like cooking and auto repair, and talked to me as if I was a real person instead of a prop that must dress right and behave a certain way in order to be acceptable.

So now, I look at my own daughters and reflect on the time we spent sweating in the sun together building fences and stacking hay and I wish I had spent less time feeling bad about not buying them a Gameboy and more time appreciating just how lucky we were to have the kind of camaraderie we had. My girls sang in choir and played in sports and participated in various school activities, but that isn't the memories I treasure the most. What I treasure is going to horseshows as a family and hearing them cheer for me just as loudly as I had cheered for them.  I treasure watching them develope the patience to pick a witches knot out of a horse's hair at a time.....and the look of pride when they finished and discovered the tail could touch the ground. I treasure having their "help" in the kitchen and those times they shared an idea that actually improved one of my recipes.  I treasure the way they now, as adults, have the self-confidence and determination to go after their goals no matter what the obstacles. I am especially proud of the fact that they value a good book, enjoy discussing new ideas and concepts, think for themselves, and have the confidence and ability to take care of themselves: whether it's changing a tire or standing up to a bully.  I am grateful that we lived "hand to mouth" and spent our days experiencing eachother one-on-one instead of me working so much to provide "things" that I missed their childhood and the opportunities to share with them. By being "poor", we were rich.

A few weeks ago I stopped at a convenience store for a bag of ice. While I waited in line a woman and her children walked in front of me, having just rented a stack of video games. It struck me as they filed past that the woman was meticulously dressed, not a hair out of place, make-up perfect, nails manicured...but her eyes were flat and lifeless. Each of her children filed past me, all dressed as carefully as their mother, but with the same emptiness in their eyes, the same blank expression on their faces. There was no interaction between them as they shuffled out the door and climbed into a shiny new car. I felt sad as I watched them drive away, thinking of that familiar adage: "Money can't buy happiness."  It was like watching a family of lonely people drive away together.

So yes, children need to be familiar with the current technology if they're going to compete in today's job market. But let's not forget what's really important, what really matters. As parents we have difficult and challenging jobs. Somehow we must make a living, assure our children survive to adulthood, teach them how to get along in society, and do the best we can to make sure they can compete in a highly competitive world. But let's not forget to teach them the basics; those things they need to know for basic survival for those hard times we hope they'll never experience. Teach them how to use tools, how to do basic maintenance on their vehicle, how to plant and grow a garden, how to cook "from scratch", how to do basic first-aid, how to build and bank a fire, how to construct a simple shelter, how to find food. It may sound silly to you, but you know when they leave home, you can't always be there to save them, and they may find themselves in a difficult survival situation quite by accident and things can get very "real" in a hurry. Wouldn't you feel better knowing you taught them some basic survival skills "just in case"? And in the process of doing so, you can drag them away from those TV's, computors, cellphones, ipods, and video games and spend some REAL quality time with them and help them stay in touch with who and what they are: humans who need human contact and a REAL connection and interaction with others. Empower them to be self-sufficient, thinking individuals instead of drones caught in the wheels of commerce living lives in pursuit of money and "things" that ultimately leave them feeling alone and empty.........and confused and disappointed.