Parenting: Honey, I Wired The Kids

We have, in our house, among two working parents, two teens, and an 8-year-old, five computers (both Mac and Windows machines in various stages of obsolescence), four cell phones, seven phone lines, two Palm Pilots, one DSL, two ISP connections, a collection of personal domain names, a CD burner, a scanner, and, subject to much contention, one AOL account.

We function, in other words, near the technology level of an average work group in an information-related business. With various careers at home, different levels of schoolwork, the routing of various social and business contacts, and constant clerical and accounting functions, we do pretty much the same things that a work group does.

But a key difference between us and the work group is that the work group has the support of a variety of systems people, and we do not.

My wife, Alison, is a lawyer, and for a long time I wondered how couples got along in the world without at least one spouse’s being able to represent the family in business, administrative, tax, and real-estate matters, not to mention disputes with contractors. But my wife is also a technically adroit person (the most technically adroit in our house), and that seems to me now, modern-world-wise, an even more important skill.

Technology focuses family issues. In the future, therapists might say, “How did you feel about your family’s technology?”

How does a family function without its own chief information officer?

Not a week passes without substantial purchasing decisions’ having to be made, involving issues of functionality, cost, and supplier.

Not a day passes without maintenance and support obligations, if not outright crises, from hard-drive crashes and data-recovery efforts to Coke in keyboards to Mac-Windows incompatibilities to remote-server breakdowns to local-network failures to the problems of having to print large color documents for school projects (late at night, Alison will take this job to Kinko’s). When the DSL service was being installed (a multi-month process) and a technician called from the switching station saying, “Lemme speak to who’s handling your telecommunications there,” I handed Alison the phone.

And not a moment goes by when we are not altogether dependent on the systems she has put in place – the networking, the jury-rigging, the vendor relationships. (“Who is responsible for this?” my older daughter screeches.)

Of course, like almost all technologically equipped and enabled people, we (the end users in our house) think of ourselves as technologically deprived. We are most conscious of, and most frustrated by, what we don’t have.

We don’t have a high-quality color printer; we don’t have a high-performance copy machine (you have to make copies through the fax); we don’t have a wireless network; we don’t have a voice-mail system with individual voice mailboxes; we don’t have whatever game it is that anyone wants; we don’t even have multiple AOL accounts (while AOL offers multiple screen names, only one screen name can be used at a time).

And there are some of us who have lesser machines than others.

Alison is held almost entirely responsible for not only what doesn’t work but what we don’t have.

“Well, are we ever going to get it?” my middle daughter asks, with infinite resignation.

“It’s so unfair,” says my 8-year-old son.

Is there a correlation between a traditional motherhood role and this new job of family CIO?

There is really a lot about maintaining a technology system that has similarities to sewing and washing and ironing and satisfying all the old domestic needs. It can be as thankless and frustrating (try holding on a help line). And certainly it’s true that like traditional homemaking, the job of family information maintenance is never done. There might not be anything in our domestic lives that touches us so immediately and hotly as our technology (losing e-mail or network access is as paralyzing as having no phone – “Why not just resign from the human race?” as the older daughter puts it).

It is not just my wife’s technical skill (or patience) that has put her into what, I seem to be arguing, is a new kind of fifties-mom-in-digital-clothing paradigm. Along with the mechanical stuff, there is a kind of Zen thing – or maternal twist, if you will – you have to apply to technology, which is to understand that no one individual is ever going to be happy; rather, your job is to keep the system itself happy. In other words, this isn’t, anymore, a traditional kind of man’s thing, an equipment thing, a gizmo thing, a gee-whiz thing, but, in the network world, a connectedness, a nurturing, emotionally fraught whole-family issue.

Possibly, anyway.

Obviously, we spend time worrying about the adverse effects of technology on our children, but not, I admit, all that much. We tend to find that parents who do spend a lot of time worrying about these issues don’t have a lot of technology (when you have it, most of all you just want it to do everything it’s supposed to do). Still, I often think I would like to resist more than I seem able to do. (I am more protective and judgmental than my wife, who is more inclined to trust both the children and the technology.)

Cell phones, for instance, an unexpectedly contentious technology, started to appear in my now tenth-grade daughter’s circle in the seventh grade. They were, I thought, vulgarisms: just fashion and status accoutrements. (I felt about seventh-graders with cell phones the way I feel about seventh-graders with Prada.) The fallback position, a beeper, seemed worse, and, with its gang and drug connotations, even dangerous.

“You know you’re overreacting,” said my wife.

My issues, I understood, had nothing to do with the phone itself, with the technology or the functionality. They had to do with – well, not giving your kid everything your kid wants.

But then there is the push-down effect.

First, my daughter borrowed her mother’s beeper, then one of our cell phones, which after the third or fourth time was not returned right away, so that a de facto state of having a beeper or cell phone came to exist, at the price of inconveniencing one or another parent.

So finally, in the process of upgrading our cell phones (because the old cell phones don’t work very well in Manhattan), the old one is passed down from parent to teenager. But the old phone that didn’t work for the parent (although somehow the parent used it for the last eighteen months, and used an even worse one before that) doesn’t work for the teenager. Finally, it’s not even the teenager who complains but the parent who is suddenly cursing the obsolete technology while trying to get the teenager on the phone. Anyway, the failure to deliver something less than immediate gratification results in the teenager’s shortly being upgraded. At which point the issue is no longer a matter of what the cell phone means, implies, suggests, portends, but what it means, implies, suggests, portends when the teenager is not available via the cell phone.

“If you don’t keep that phone on at all times,” I say, often, “you can’t have a phone.” (Answer: “Whatever.”)

This is partly an issue of technologically facilitated control and supervision and convenience, but it is also a more basic issue of modern telecommunications. That is, you must have a person to talk to when you want to talk to him or her. What’s more, it’s a passing-the-time issue, something extra to do with an idle moment. When I am sitting in a restaurant waiting for a lunch companion, or in traffic in a cab, if I am lucky, my daughter will be willing, available, and within the service area to talk to me.

Indeed, I look forward to all new ways of being in greater and greater touch with the people I want to talk to (which is a different issue from being in closer touch with people with whom one would rather not be in touch).

In the future, therapists might say, “How did you feel about your family’s technology?”

Certainly technology has become the focus of some central family issues: money and sex, for starters.

After all, technology can be as expensive as a car.

There are families, of course, who deprive themselves, and families who go way overboard, families whose self-worth may be compromised by obsolete equipment, and families whose values may be corrupted by who-knows-what unnecessary electronic status symbols.

Who gets what and how is the issue with all things in all families. In the past, teenagers fought over the bathroom and phone and television; now they fight over the AOL account (apparently, attentive to domestic discord and to the power of teen chat, AOL is about to release a version that will accommodate multiple users).

And then there is the sex issue. You can’t have a discussion about the Internet with parents of teens without this specter’s rising (indeed, you can’t have a discussion with parents of teens about anything without this specter’s rising).

I spoke to a mother recently who has decided her daughter won’t be given Internet access until she is 14 (like pierced ears).

Of course, there are all these filtering applications, used policelike in schools and libraries, which work poorly and cynically, but which no parent (other than ones who are both sex-obsessed and technically proficient) would actually install.

In our house, we have decided (although I can’t say that Alison and I have really hammered out our digital-sex policy) that the world of digital media, instead of being a city of mean streets ready to rob our children’s innocence, is like a great, varied bookstore, which I suppose can take innocence, too, but not too roughly.

We do not actually want to know.

When you have no choice, it is better to find a positive outlook.

The issues of what you do in your family versus how you find it done in the outside world is almost always an awkward one. Now it’s an issue of technology too.

If you are from an under-wired family, you probably feel pretty bad (we know parents who have had to call consultants to install AOL). On the other hand, getting all this stuff up and running, being transformed by it in ways large and small, you expect the world to be up and running and transformed, too.

Striving, however, does not always pay off.

Having, for instance, chosen an academically superior school for our children, we find that technology is looked down upon.

“The kids tell us about computers,” said a fifth-grade teacher with remarkably deft condescension during one parent-teacher conference I endured not long ago.

My middle-school daughter has recently come home to report that every time she goes back to an interesting kid site or game site at a school computer, a blocking sign appears, saying do your homework!

I suppose the face-off here is a natural one between technology and pedagogy, but the snobbery is clear too. Technology is an arriviste thing (which is true).

Gallingly, we recently endured the great e-mail ban in our academically superior school.

The ban, which was instituted this winter, made it an offense to send or receive personal e-mail from a school computer. Now, this directly impacted on our household, because my older daughter passes a particular cheese store on her way home from school, which means that if I e-mail her in time with my preferences, she’ll pick my choice of Italian/French/Spanish cow/goat/sheep on her walk home.

I was going to write a letter. (“If you even think of it … !” my daughter threatened, heading me off.)

The solution, of course, is merely to upgrade our handheld devices to wireless network status, which I suppose also has the benefit of offering a lesson to my children in how technology subverts authority. Ha!

Certainly we spend too much time thinking about our technology. Possibly, we spend as much time in our house on the rituals, protocols, procedures, and complexities of digital media and communications as families in another era might have spent on religious dogma and training.

But our children are blasé. They are post-nerd kids (assimilated). These are un-meaningful appliances for them. Just a bridge to somewhere.

Indeed, I find the highest order of technological accomplishment to be my teenagers’ bedrooms. In fact, there is some kind of developmental progression you can watch in which, over a few years’ time, the technology comes together in a smoothly running universe of totally maximized communication and information access (among the dirty clothes, papers, food).

I know few offices or news outlets or international monitoring groups as in touch with the world as my 16-year-old daughter’s room.

This isn’t specialized geekdom, either; this is just an up-to-the-minute media universe.

There converge in my daughter’s room (and it is a very small room) multiple copper land lines, high-speed broadband connectivity, cable access, and wireless cell and PDA reception. From the Web, from anyone she has ever known who is sending her e-mail, from mobile teen callers to AOL IMers to Katie Couric to whatever Napster is scarfing down for later listening amusement to various English-class texts she is downloading for searchability, portability, and other use, it all ends up here.

It is cool.

At least it is when you have a mother to get it working for you.


Parenting: Honey, I Wired The Kids