Monday, September 2, 2013

The Middle Years

            She has an eight-period schedule in her backpack, a cell phone in her pocket, and braces in her mouth. Yes, it is time – my oldest daughter is about to start middle school.
            For years, I’ve been telling her she needs to stop growing, and stay young so that her parents don’t feel so old. Unfortunately, she didn’t listen. So on we go, into this new and somewhat terrifying phase of life. The challenges lie just ahead, from hormones to homework. My wife and I have tried to prepare for these changes through the conversations we have with Katie, the rules we set for her, and the behavior we model. Most of all, we just encourage her to focus on her studies.
            And that’s where it got a bit tricky this summer. Katie is 11 years old, and she enjoys reading. But there’s no book as interesting to her as a YouTube video. There’s no poem as delightful as a video blog. There’s no short story as engaging as a music video. Throughout these past two months, Katie has logged a lot more summer hours on the devices than with the books.
            I point to this as a sign of the tech-addicted, 21st-century child. I fear for the future success of my sixth-grader. I set limits, pull the plug, pull at my hair. Here it comes, I say. She’s doomed.
            But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I remember. Summer of ’82. I’m heading into sixth grade. I glance at a couple of books my mom gave me. But more than anything else, my goal in that summer is to tally 500,000 points on Atari’s “Asteroids” game. I vividly recall the moment, one late-August night, when I achieve my goal. No one is there to congratulate me. My wrist aches from repetitive joystick motions. But I am happy nonetheless.
            During that sixth-grade year, I can also remember the joys our family’s brand-new VCR brought me. I can remember trying to watch a movie on videocassette every day of the year, from Airplane II to Star Trek II. On top of that, I can remember saving up for as many cassette albums as possible, be they Foreigner or Rick Springfield.
When I try to remember what I learned in sixth grade, things get a little fuzzier. I know I did fine, and I know I did all my homework. But it’s also clear that the technology and entertainment areas of my life were at least as important as the academics.
Now before we get to the obvious moral of this story, let’s clarify a few real differences between 1982 and 2013. When I was playing a game on Atari or watching a movie, my parents knew exactly what I was doing. When Katie’s in her bedroom watching YouTube, there’s a lot more mystery involved. And when I was Katie’s age, there was no such thing as social media. New generations bring new challenges – that much is certain. But my memories remind me that the instincts and interests of an 11-year-old do more or less stay the same.
Katie will do her homework and study hard; she loves to learn, and she loves a sparkling report card. But as she heads into the awkward and eye-opening stage known as middle school, she’s also going to need some time in front of the screen instead of the books. Whether I admit it or not, it’s a part of the child’s education. I’m living proof of that.