Settling into the back row for our third musical concert in as many days, my little daughter, bathed and dressed in pajamas, whined, “I’m bored.” Without hesitation, I handed her my iPhone and she happily sliced through bananas and oranges in a game of Fruit Ninja.
A few seats down the row, a man read the New York Times on his phone, while just in front of us a toddler finger painted on an iPad. Sighting my son’s conductor approaching us, I smiled and waved hello, but she didn’t have a smile for us.
“I hope you’re enjoying your devices,” she said, sweeping her arm in a circle including the back three rows, “because I’m going to make you turn them off in just a minute. There is no hope, no hope for the future if we can’t teach our children to listen. Orchestras will die, live theater will perish and intellectual thought will disappear if we spend our lives in front of these screens. And frankly, you parents are setting a terrible example.”
Like a choir boy caught swearing in front of a priest, I wanted to defend myself, “I’m a conscientious parent. My kids study and practice. We scarcely even watch TV.” Instead, I simply palmed my phone from my daughter and pressed the off button.
I watched as the conductor canvassed the room, delivering a similar message to like offenders. Minutes later she stood in front of the hall, “Welcome to our Winter Concert. Turn off your iPad, your smartphone, your games; no more texting, no more Facebook, no more Words with Friends. Every parent here has invested a small fortune in your child’s musical education, and every teenager in my orchestra has worked incredibly hard on the music we will be playing tonight. Your teenagers deserve your full attention, and your younger children need your good example. Listen. Just listen.”
As the music swelled, I felt a rush of shame. The orchestra was incredible, each student playing with the enthusiasm and passion fostered by an excellent conductor. Perhaps I would have turned off my phone without her rebuke, but I also might have borrowed it from my daughter to check my email or Instagram.
What have I become? What have we all become?
When my older boys began violin lessons, I took copious notes and supervised practicing. But with my 10-year-old son? Hmm, I’m usually immersed in Google Reader.
How many times have I neglected a child’s question or missed my daughter’s new gymnastic feat while checking my email?
And while Facebook provides a useful service for connecting with old friends or arranging gatherings, I think there’s good reason high school reunions only take place every five to 10 years. We don’t need to connect daily with distant acquaintances, especially at the expense of our most important relationships.
In lines, at restaurants, at stoplights, we see everyone checking their phone. No longer do we allow ourselves to be bored. But it is in these empty spaces that our minds can sort and process and remember.
Article after article bemoans Internet use and cellphone addiction in young kids, but the blame is often misplaced on children. Parents buy the devices, pay service fees, provide new games and either enforce or ignore reasonable limits.
My college-age son observes that while many freshmen are excited about meeting new people, a surprising number are uncomfortable with "real life" social events and retreat to Facebook or online gaming groups in the safety of their dorm rooms.
Don’t misunderstand me. My darling iPhone guides me with GPS, answers my questions with Google Search and entertains me with audiobooks. My computer houses my music library, my writing and photography, but they are simply useful tools, not the substance of life. Checking my email 50 times a day is a bit like watching the washing machine spin.
A generation from now, I wonder, will we look back at this decade and laugh, “Remember when we were all obsessed with devices?” Or will we scarcely look up, completely absorbed by virtual lives?
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I’m determined to do better. My phone can stay in my purse and my laptop can remain closed more often. I don’t want my children to remember me with my head hunched over a screen; I want them to remember my eyes looking into theirs, laughing out loud, answering questions and listening with my whole heart.
Writer, photographer Michelle Lehnardt is raising five future fathers and one little mother. She writes at scenesfromthewild.blogspot.com on building chicken coops, hosting tea parties and missing her missionary son in Italy.