Here is what I saw when I walked into Youngest’s room today. He was sitting in front of his computer, casually tipped back in his chair, while simultaneously a) video chatting with a girl AND b) talking on his cell phone to someone else AND c) communicating via iChat with four other friends.
This was one of those moments when I am brought face-to-face with the differences between the world I knew as a child and my children’s world. I know I want for them the best of what I had as a child, and I attempt to spare them the worst. But when it becomes clear that they are growing up in a world that is radically different from mine, I sometimes lose my bearings. I don’t know what to think. This is not a state of mind I am particularly comfortable with, as you might have guessed if you have been reading this blog for, say, a day-and-a-half.
There are numerous ways the scene in Youngest’s room bore no resemblance to my childhood. First, and most obviously, the computer and the cell phone. Neither existed when I was a child. For the twelve people in my family, we had one phone line with three phones. When I was an adolescent, my brothers and sisters and I fought to use the single line. I remember talking for hours to my best friend, T, in long, meandering conversations punctuated only by the sound of increasingly annoyed siblings picking up the phone to see if they could grab the open line. I treasured those conversations in part because I was exploring the first real friendship I ever had, but also, probably, because I must have taken an obscure pleasure in holding onto something that my siblings wanted.
Everyone in my current family has their own cell phone. I have been known to tell, make that yell, at my children that the only reason they have a phone is so that I can get a hold of them when I need to. The fact that they never have to fight for the land line is just an ancillary benefit of my desire to be able to stay in contact with them. Or is it?
I read somewhere long ago about a study of adult sibling relationships which compared the adult sibling relationship of those who had shared a bathroom growing up with those who did not. They found that children who shared a bathroom grew up to have closer relationships with their siblings than those who didn’t. This makes great intuitive sense to me. If you are forced to share, you are forced to learn the arts of relationship: compromise, flexibility, turn-taking, respect for the needs and time of others. My children, each with their own cell phone, have one less opportunity to learn those lessons that I and my siblings were forced to learn.
So back to Youngest, video chatting and iChatting and cell phone chatting. The scene is not exclusive to him, by the way. I have walked in on both Oldest and Middle in similar circumstances. Youngest looked up from his many conversations and grinned at me. I shook my head in wonder and consternation and left, becoming more positive with each step that the signal of real friendship, of intimacy, of connectedness would be lost in the chatter of new technology.
And then, I remembered that, right after the phone was invented, before every house had a dedicated phone line, everyone in town shared a party line. The town’s news: births, deaths, war, peace, feuds and reconciliations all were announced through a shared line.
The technology has changed. Youngest doesn’t have to fight, as I did, over the vehicle with which he connects to his friends. That is something new. And yet perhaps it has also come full circle. Because he can share, as I could not, his news with his whole town.
Maybe what I walked in on is nothing more than a 21st century party line.