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Sarah Ruden

An Immodest Proposal

On children and technology.

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By experience, I don't know anything about raising children, but I have a skill I can't resist showing off. Changes in technology have come so fast that, at only forty-eight, I speak near-fluent Geezer.

When I was growing up on rural Ohio, we had so few gadgets to entertain us that—you're expecting me to say we made our own ingenious toys from old tomato cans. Actually, no. We ran off to the woods to commit felonies, scaled rickety, vermin-ridden haylofts, and used half-trained, evil-tempered equines as gymnastic vaults. Yes, imagination and resourcefulness are wonderful things in children: when the falling rose petals of July and a stash of old formal dresses inspired my sister Gretchen and me to welcome the return of conquering warriors (in the form of cars) through the city gates (the highway), we stood right at the white line with our baskets, because if you didn't toss the petals directly in the cars' paths, the whole performance was stupid and fake. In short, we manifested the depraved human condition at full blast, like the group of frontier children reported to have been swinging on hanged men's corpses as soon as the adults' backs were turned.

Our parents discouraged a full-scale reenactment of the Thirty Years' War by not standing in the way of natural consequences. When I was four, I fell from a tree (which I was permitted to climb) and shattered my left elbow. I am lucky to have any use of that arm, let alone to have no lasting damage but two large scars from the surgeries—near an even larger scar, from a fight (a draw, as it turned out) with my brother Theo. But I kept on, without interference, climbing trees until my mid-twenties, just more carefully.

No adults shielded us from rational opprobrium. In fact, it was often a well-earned pile-on, as when our parents and aunt and uncle came back from an outing to find my grandmother on the front porch, hosing down my stripped cousins and siblings and me after a pony-manure fight that had gone several rounds. Financial and legal consequences were ours to the fullest extent possible. We had to turn our saved allowances over in person to the neighboring farmer, a number of whose cornstalks we had destroyed while running amok in the field. When the 16-year-old Theo had downed eight beers and totaled my mother's Gremlin, and the family lawyer said it would be easy to get the case tossed because Theo had not been read his rights during his arrest (he was lying half-conscious and gashed by windshield glass in the roadside snow), my father said, "Let them throw the book at him. We can't afford for him to keep doing this."

It was in finance that cause and effect was most explicit. There was no music or video we could swipe, and in those days TV wasn't worth watching. No fun was on offer from the commercial world that didn't cost something up front. But lacking the humble, reasonable advice of ads, we didn't want candy, toys, or fluorescent cereal. No, the realm of acquisition is where our imaginations were busiest. A pony of my own was the starting point of my material desires; Theo's and Gretchen's were equally exuberant.

It was merely sane to invite us to earn the money. I filled out my first W-2 at the age of thirteen, for corn detassling, and at fifteen I went to work at the Korner Kitchen, washing dishes and managing the steam table and the salad bar. Soon Gretchen joined me. Later, all three of us worked for a realtor who rented to students in a nearby university town. Theo and I once trundled a fridge packed with rotten food and maggots down a ramp into a back yard and gouged and hosed it clean—and we got a $20 bonus each! Come to think of it, I can't remember my parents ever telling me to study or rewarding good grades. I didn't even need my father to murmur, as he once did, "Imagine having a job like this one for the rest of your life …."

No too surprisingly, we all three became pretty focused. I watch my niece and nephew (no TV in the house; single, communal computer in the living room; strictly social video and music) stockpile water balloons in preparation for a humiliating rout of their thoroughly wired second cousins, and I believe that there's hope even for me, if only because my upbringing made me so hard-nosed.

I have generally not seen this quality in the wired generations, even in the Ivy League. For my most recent students, memorizing verb paradigms is just one choice, among a near infinity at hand, for the use of time and attention. And electronics are designed to be nearly effortless for users, which hardly contributes to value judgments about their use. Stick with a pre-exam review session, or answer your phone to help a friend track an opponent in a paintball tournament? Well, it's possible to talk instantly to the friend who's a mile away, and the cheap monthly plan covers this conversation, so probably the teacher's going to understand what a good deal a time-out is. If she yells at you, you can quickly find hundreds of supporters for your opinion that she's crazy.

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