Monday, May 09, 2016
Lately, I find myself in a rush to get through one day and on to the next like a child anticipating her birthday — anxious to reach the moment of cake and gifts. However, I don’t really have an objective — no major trip planned, no upcoming soccer tournament, no anniversary or special occasion.
Now I just bought one of those fitness trackers. Suddenly I want to get to the end of the day to record if I accomplished enough steps, attained the proper ratio of calories taken in versus calories expended and enjoyed a fully restful sleep. I check several times a day, measuring joy or despair over how many blinking dots flash across my display, and I begin to worry that I’m being unhealthy in my attempt to get healthy. It’s a need to move ever forward, never achieving but always producing. My life becomes cluttered by counting distance traveled and nutrition ingested while neglecting things like checking out the landscape as I hike past or savoring the taste of my meals. Even Ferris Bueller pointed out that “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
The TODAY show had a segment on teens obsessed with social media and how parents should deal with it. They used the example of a young woman who had over 2,000 Instagram followers and needed to regularly manage her account with extensive updates, responding to her followers, and staying abreast of media trends. The experts suggested the same things that have been repeated on a regular basis: Limit media time, enforce device-free zones like the dinner table and expect your child to give you access to their accounts. The problem is that parents are as egregious in their device addiction as their kids. Whenever I go to a restaurant or a movie, I see a majority of heads, both child and adult, bent over their phones with regrettably myself included. I went to a Broadway musical last month and an adult in the seats below me was regularly receiving and sending texts during the performance. Besides taking the user out of the magical theatrical experience, he or she took many of us out of it, as well.
We talk about multi-tasking, as if that means we are doubling or tripling up on our accomplishments, when in reality, we are probably missing out on the beautiful nuances and experiences of those tasks. I grew up in the era of the “Evelyn Woods Speed Reading Method,” which has been declared unviable, diminishing comprehension and even eliminating all together. Amazon just sent me an email touting their new “short versions” of bestsellers — introducing, for example, the 40-page version of “A Girl on the Train,” so we can avoid having to plow through the dense, rich imagery and ideas of the full novel (my words not theirs). They’re Cliff Notes for the new millennium. What will we really do with all that extra time we’re “saving?”
In the 1780s, Nicolas de Chamfort wrote, “Contemplation often makes life miserable. We should act more, think less, and stop watching ourselves live.” How did he anticipate 150 years later our obsession with selfies, food photos, tweets that detail every mundane activity in our lives, and our narcissistic demeanors? We are busy being busy, but we never seem to really do anything. I worry that we parents are perpetuating this reflective existence.
Consider how often we watch our children’s soccer matches through the narrow lens of a camera. Since we can now take countless pictures easily without the need to have film developed, it gave us license to overdo. Instead of the freedom of watching a game unfettered by an SLR camera or smart phone, we clamp that device up to our eye. We don’t snap a picture or two to send to the grandparents; rather we memorialize the entire game because it costs us nothing but our attention, yet it is that very attention that is being compromised in those circumstances. Ironically, we are missing the big picture. We need to ask ourselves who appreciates all those photos. Even if we convince ourselves that we are creating a legacy for our children, the reality is that kids notice if they are receiving our full attention and much prefer that to some artificial reenactment of the day.
Likewise, when we concentrate on wins, we are missing out on the joy of the play. I always marvel at how the youngest soccer players seem to have no stake in the outcome of a match. They love to score and love the celebration a score permits, but at the end of the game they are far more focused on running gleefully to embraces on the sidelines and post-game snacks than on who won. Eventually, they understand the ramifications of competition and buy into the perceived importance of victory. However, kids need to know that they are not valued solely for their success but more significantly for how they pursue their talents. Winning has nothing to do with developing a moral and ethical person. Their character is never measured by conquest but by thoughtful and wise use of skills and considerate behavior while doing so. Abigail Van Buren told her readers that “the best index of a person’s character is (a) how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can’t fight back.” Parents can set the best example by noticing and praising how players exercise both their skills and their principles during a match — making wins a welcomed but unnecessary element in how a match is played. All too often, wins are taken far too seriously. Elbert Hubbard joked at the turn of the 20th century that one shouldn’t take life so seriously because “you will never get out of it alive.” We must take both wins and losses in stride because ultimately they won’t impact how a child grows into an adult.
We can do a great service for our children if we teach them to both enjoy the journey of their lives and to never be afraid to challenge themselves. We shouldn’t focus on wins because we unintentionally instill the fear of losing. This may keep our children from trying something that could make their lives even richer. The old saw reminds us that there is no failure except in no longer trying. Edison said he never failed; he just found 10,000 things that didn’t work. We need to stop trying to find the safest path through life for our children and micro-managing their efforts so they can avoid disappointment and loss. Letting them experience consequences also lets them learn how to overcome hurdles rather than us stepping in to remove the hurdles. How will children develop the courage to take risks if nothing in their life is a risk?
“Courage doesn’t mean you don’t get afraid. Courage means you don’t let fear stop you,” says Bethany Hamilton, who survived the loss of an arm from a shark attack while surfing. She not only continues to surf but to stretch her horizons despite her disability. That’s an important lesson for kids to learn. It allows them to push for more experiences and to accept that there will be roadblocks while they trust that they have the ability to overcome those barriers. Oliver Wendell Holmes made the point very succinctly. He said, “Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.” Kids may be afraid to live their lives to a full potential because they lack the confidence to take risks, and also because they are afraid to disappoint their parents. Kids remember one criticism over a dozen words of praise, so we need to be particularly conscious of how we approach our children’s efforts.
I worry that as we rush about getting to lessons, practices, games and events, we lose sight of the things that truly matter. Are our children happy? Have we noticed the unspectacular but important details? Are we building memories rather than just recording them? Are we giving our kids the tools to solve their own problems and accept risk? As we rush everyone through life, we may be depriving our children of the opportunity to just contemplate their surroundings. We need to distinguish between wasting time and enjoying time. The more we can slow down in order to recharge and reassess, paradoxically the more opportunities we will have to make the most of our time. We want to give kids a broad platform from which to launch their lives, but not a bland platform. We should embrace the beautiful imperfections that make life interesting. The conundrum comes about when we need to balance the opportunity to luxuriate in the simple pleasures of life and the drive to experience as much as we can. Children can best evolve when they have time to just be kids while they slowly integrate the ability to solve their own problems, set their own goals and take appropriate risks to reach their full potential. Our job is to give them the freedom to enjoy life and the room to seize opportunities. We can support without rescuing. We can stop doing things that simply fill time and instead choose a purposeful life that we share with our children and with others.