15 December 2011

Life As A Big Brother Parent And The Vanishing Generation Gap

As a responsible twenty-first century, reasonably technologically competent parent, I know far more about my children's personal conduct when I'm not around than my parents did about mine.

Netflix provides me with a detailed summary of what was watched for how long on which day, and it isn't very hard to infer which child watched what movie or television show.

My daughter almost always prefers texting to talking on her cell phone or a landline, and a glance now and then at that phone details for me, what was said, verbatim, on every side of every communication, when it was said, and to whom it was said.

The Denver Public Schools provide parents of middle schoolers with not just a few times a year general report card, but the ability to look at every grade in the gradebook for my child in every class in real time, and almost all of my child's teachers have websites that provide details on current homework assignments, the school and superintendent and PTA have newsletters that go straight to my personal e-mail account, and every teacher and administrator is never more than an e-mail way.

A significant number of homework assignments and activities come with parental signoffs that require them to be reviewed by a parent.

I have access to my children's Denver Public library accounts that tell what is checked out and when it is due, because they expect me to renew their books online before they are overdue.

One of my children has a Kindle, that they both use sometimes, and every new download to it is reported to my e-mail account.

Every withdrawal from the children's bank accounts must happen with a parent present, and in practice, so must every deposit, because the bank is too far from home to get to without parental assistance.

A parent is usually present at music lessons, again, in part due to transportation considerations, so we know what is supposed to be practiced for the week.

We have the practical capacity to read our children's e-mail, and since they often choose to do so from a living room computer, we see who they write to, what they say, and when they write, on a regular basis.

Of course, we still have the old school options of wandering into children's rooms to see what is there, and evesdropping when car pooling kids in the back seat ignore your presence. We accompany each child to the either a schoool bus stop, or the school's front door, so we know what they wear to school and what they bring to school.

Neither of my children have ever kept a meaningful diary, but the middle school requires each child to keept a detailed planner with homework assignment due dates in it, which could be reviewed in detail.

I could access far more information than I actually do, of course. And, certainly, I don't know everything. For example, I rarely check Internet browsing histories, recently updated document files on computers, and recycling bins on computers, although I know how to do that. But, if I had concerns, it would be easy to be more vigilant.

Honestly, in an almost purely effortless way, I get more information about fairly private conduct by my children than I want or need.

The hard question is what to do with that information. How aggessive does it make sense to be in dogging a kid to study for tests after a low mark now and then, when better grades on homework give that kid straight A report cards? What should you choose to say when a child is watching television at times when it is permitted under house media rules, and the shows they choose to watch aren't harmful but aren't always what you would think were the most appropriate either? Your own parents didn't even know what you watched when they weren't present. What use should you make of your imperfect digitally based knowledge of your children's social networks?

In practice, it seems as if the choices our children make that we aren't particularly happy about have turned out to be the ones made with our full knowledge and not secret ones. Openness is good and secrets are bad, right? Convincing them to do the right things seems to be a bigger battle than knowing what their choices are at this point in life (a middle schooler and a soon to be middle schooler).

I'm sure that the Big Brother opportunities that come with twenty-first century parenting could be sorely abused by other parents with more strict parenting styles who had a stronger belief in the benefits of controlling the influences in their children's lives. But, in our family, we're relaxed and trusting enough that the extra knowledge is almost superfluous and probably excessive. Maybe when they get into their teen years the desire for privacy will increase, and this will become more of a point of tension. Then again, maybe it won't. It doesn't seem to be one for the parents we know who do have teenagers.

I've felt for some time (with support now and then in the media) that the generation gap is as small as it has ever been in recent memory, so maybe that defuses some of the tensions that I remember from when I was that age. As a Vanity Fair article I read recently, explained, in terms of visual cultural feel and style, the world hasn't changed much in twenty years:

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there’s the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past—the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s—looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.

Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it. It’s even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900. The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.

Moreover, when there have been changes in the past twenty years, my generation has adapted to it every bit as much as my children's generation experiencing it for the first time. I got my first cell phone a couple of years before my daughter got her first cell phone, for example. Three of the four members of my household have blogs, although only I use mine with any frequency.

When the children listen to Radio Disney, the music reminds me of the Top 40 pop music I grew up with, although my mix didn't have rap and country, and I listen to rap and country and pop music in the same genres anyway; often with the same songs playing, although the mouse is a bit more selective than I am. I've read many of the books that they're reading, sometimes, as in the case of the Harry Potter or Twilight books, for example, even though they weren't in print when I was a kid.

The political aspirations of my children's generation, so far as I can discern, are extraordinarily wholesome and in tune with those of my wife and I. The two mommies families I represent as a lawyer are the same families that they go to school with every day. The concern with the environment they show is the same one that I grew up with myself. The struggles over authority with school administrators and other adults that I recall being seeped in as a child are no where in evidence, in part, because those authority figures seem to understand the kids better than they did when I was a kid.

When I was a kid, the coaches of our soccer teams had to learn the rules from books at the library because they'd never played the game as children. Now, both of my children have played soccer and I haven't needed to learn the rules or the skills and strategies involved from books or strangers - it has become the near dominant team sport of their generation, just as it was starting to be in mine.

I will be taking one of my kids this weekend, without any parental prompting whatsoever, to a shoe store to buy the exact same sneakers that I wore in casual settings every day from the time I was ten until I was thirty-five. The style has considerably outlasted the company that made them (which licensed them to someone else as an asset in a bankruptcy).

Certainly, my children's lives are different than my life was at the same age. But, the changes have mostly been ones that align them more with where I am culturally now, rather than dividing us culturally.

Is this simply the calm before the storm? Perhaps. But, for now, we'll enjoy the tension it alleviates from lives that aren't so private anymore.

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