Tidbit # 11-Where are we going?

January 29, 2022

I’ve been turning around a few ideas these past months about college prep, test prep, high school classes, middle school requirements — “necessary” skills and knowledge and the energetic push to guide our children as best we can (while we can) to be successful, happy, productive individuals. Or at least, happy … or at least, successful enough to earn a living, or productive enough to make the world a better place. Or something. Some of us have more specific goals for our children than do others, but ultimately, there is more overlap than not. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that something about the big, bright dreams of yesterday feels misplaced now. I have the gnawing feeling that these dreams need paring down for a future overcrowded with uncertainty and seemingly insurmountable and unavoidable problems that we’re just seeing take festering form. 

Of course, there’s always been uncertainty. Of course, there have always been problems. But the present moment, in reviewing our history, looks and feels different. The more my eyes are opened to the world of our young people — tech, peer communications, online socializing, varieties of pop cultures, commonplace “extracurriculars” like gaming and TikTok-ing — to say nothing of the socio-political, entertainment, and frighteningly violent, anxious climate in which young people are growing up, the more I realize that my vision of what is necessary and relevant may be out-of-date. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. 

We adults are oddly out-of-touch with a childhood reality unlike any in human history for all of its connectivity and tech-mediated realities and internationally public-private spaces. At this point, smartphones seem to have become such a permanent fixture that there are few people (especially those under the age of 50) who recognize them as mere (luxury) tools/toys or a fancy privilege for spoiled kids. Texting with teachers is not uncommon. Group chats are one of the many tech-mediated ways teens socially plan, share joys and grievances, academically collaborate or share notes, share music and fashion styles and so on. This is how friend groups stay together constantly when they cannot be physically together (and how individuals are left out, despite spending nearly every day, all day, physically together in school!). In a way, I can’t wrap my head around it. Why not just call? Why not just be here, now … not with everyone, always? But calls are mostly via FaceTime or some other video-phone app. And when kids hang out together, they include remote friends right then and there, again, by FaceTiming. When kids ‘hang out’ — geographical proximity is not a requirement! — they often game or make TikToks together. In other words, there were more clearly defined spaces—private, familial, social, academic, extracurricular— and there were well-respected temporal boundaries — there was no messaging at 7:30am or 11:30pm; parents didn’t leave multiple messages during school hours, and there were no calls from friends during the school day, and being with friends was not a 24-hour-a-day thing. Those moments were special, contained, reserved, somehow — uninterrupted. Now, time, space, people, and moments bleed one into the next, and very few are special (be we still record them all). And the special moments — because wifi is down or there’s a no-phone-rule — itch, bore. We anxiously await reconnecting with the amorphous continuity that is our always and forever. What then do these kids hold sacred? What, as I wrote in a previous blog, is the point? The veneers peel away; the performativity of rules, conventions and other niceties is ridiculed; the only relevant reality is the everlasting mediated present.

My interest here is not in the many details that have shifted from ‘my day’ to ‘these days’; things change, and nostalgia is not a particularly good guide for educating children for tomorrow. What I’m getting at is the uninterrupted continuity of our spaces, of our many hours of life, which are filled with less ‘living’ and more virtual and remote realities than anything. The spaces in between are filled with much more artificial busyness, and indeed, the adult world isn’t much different! The industry preaches the gospel of digital readiness, greater global connectivity and visibility and relevance and the lingua-franca of emojis, gifs, Snapchats, digital citizenship, and so on. We listen and obey. There are countermovements like forest schools and the updated but still outdated Waldorf and an abundance of Montessori pre- and lower schools, but the industry messaging will not be silenced. And the lovely interpersonal and life skills that were once fundamental to preparing children for the road ahead fade as they leave the little kid bubble, which is less and less “traditional,” and enter the global bubble of techno- postmodernism. How do we prepare our children for a world we cannot yet imagine but are relentlessly and unreflectively creating? 

I feel that my lessons fall on deaf ears. My admonitions are irrelevant. Don’t get on a device during a playdate; play! But somehow, some device always enters the equation. Call your friends on the phone and arrange an in-person meet-up isn’t possible because, without online credentials, no one knows home phone numbers or when to call because one doesn’t simply call someone without first texting to find out when to call, and a call with no video just isn’t a call. Make flashcards out of index cards — Staples, OfficeMax, CVS, Amazon. Why write when you can make a Quizlet and create another computer game out of it? Obviously, the list is endless. Reading for content and context, just letting the words and meaning sit with you seems not to be relevant anymore. Everyone is in too much of a hurry. Historical context is blurred by the notion of multiple truths, alternate realities and alternative facts. Identity politics have subverted any desire or perceived need to understand the other on her terms; personal relevance has supplanted the desire to go beyond what one deems worthwhile. And a quick google search is enough to satisfy passing curiosity and get more than one’s fill of alternatives — so much so, that these searches — digital literacy! — are supported and utilized in school and at work. Libraries are well-equipped with computers that are often the center of after school library programming, far less so than the books. Books. Imagine. Information changes too quickly for books. (But does it, really?) “Search it up” has become part of the lexicon, as have “OMG” — spoken! — and “LOL” in lieu of simply…laughing. 

I’m not prepared for this, and I don’t understand a world in which this is common currency. If Alexa can be company for a lonely kid rather than the characters in a great novel, and meals are boring without a side of big screen, I’m not sure what to teach children who go to the computer before they come to me with questions and trust the computer before they trust themselves. 

Something about all of this chatter about how to get tenure, how to write a resume, how to do an interview, how to build healthy company culture, how to work less, accomplish more misses the real lessons of the day. How do we teach our children to be happy in this unhappy world? How do we teach them to seek out and maintain non-judgemental human connection in a disconnected world? How do we wean them from the immediate gratification of digital everything? How do we help them get to know and love themselves, unmediated by tech? Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but every day, I wonder about this stuff. Every conversation I have with someone under 25 leaves me a little stunned. So, every day I strive to come up with inspired answers that don’t pretend that things will be as they always have been. I think the watershed is just behind us, and I think we all need a bit of hand-holding, perhaps by the very children who understand the current landscape better than do we.

Julianna Tauschinger-Dempsey, Gifted Mother of Three Wildly Gifted Children, Educator @ Scholars Academy for the Gifted & Artistically Elite & Empowerer of Gifted Youth & Their Parents  

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