Category Archives: Parenting

Responding to “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

Jean M. Twenge’s article in The Atlantic published yesterday, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” is a thought-provoking, and, I’m sorry to say, accurate look at what the author calls “iGen,” the post-Millennial generation. Defined as those born between 1995 and 2012, they have grown up with smartphones and social media, and they are markedly different from the generations before them as a result. I often read articles such as this one with the expectation that I will disagree with many of the author’s claims, and that my first-hand experience with adolescents will not support their theses, but in this case Twenge is consistently on target. Her research has unveiled some of the benefits of being a member of iGen (greater physical safety, less risk taking), but it is the drawbacks of all of that iPhone time that she focusses on. Depression and social-media-via-smartphone saturation seem to go hand in hand, as her research has clearly demonstrated. Whether or not the smartphone has “ruined” this generation is obviously not something we’ll be able to know for sixty years or so, but there are an awful lot of depressed adolescents walking around right now.

If you are not raising teens or working in secondary ed, you might be stunned to hear Twenge’s data about declining interest among teens in getting a driver’s license. But it’s true! Many suburban teens these days are showing no urgency to get a license. They socialize via their phones from home, or their parents drive them where they need to go. Twenge doesn’t mention Uber and other ride-sharing services. Among the ominous news in this article, the author may have missed an opportunity to talk about the environmental benefits that come from a generation that is ambivalent about driving. Ride-sharing and public transportation may decrease the number of cars on the road in the coming decades as iGen shifts fully into adulthood.

The iPhone and social media addiction that Twenge describes is also crowding out other risky behaviors, as other researchers have begun to suspect. Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use are all less prevalent among iGen. Given the long-lasting damage that substance problems inflict, often following teens through college into adulthood, until they finally receive treatment, I have to wonder if the smartphone and social media addiction is going to turn out to be less of a problem. Perhaps what technology hath wrought, technology can undo, in the form of new apps that limit screen time and social media use. There’s clearly an opportunity for parenting to make a difference here, too. Already, a small number of parents are taking the tough steps and confiscating their kids’ devices at bed time. (Twenge seems shocked to learn that adolescents all take their phones to bed with them every night. This elicits an eye roll from boarding school folks like me.) Whereas experimentation with substances often occurs away from home where parents aren’t present, this generation of homebodies can be helped by adults telling them, “No more phone time for you today. Go outside and play!”

Twenge also reports less sexual activity occurring among iGen. However, it seems to me that a significant amount of the shaming, bullying, and harassing that is causing depression among those addicted to their devices is sexual in nature (or proto-sexual, as it relates to body shaming, or not dressing like the cool kids, etc.). This is one of the saddest elements of Twenge’s research. This generation is getting extra doses of the worst parts of relationships/romance/sexuality — that is, the moments of shame, embarrassment, awkwardness, regret — without the good parts. Admittedly, teen pregnancy rates are down among iGen, and that’s heartening news, but not if everyone is walking around depressed.

What should adults be doing to respond to this data? I usually prefer carrots to sticks, and catching flies with honey. (Sorry about the mixed metaphors.) Yes, we can confiscate devices and shut off the wifi and so forth, but we need to put an emphasis on drawing youngsters into healthy physical activities, such as athletics, orienteering, biking, and the arts. And we need to create guidelines at dances and other IRL social gatherings that encourage kids to put the phones away and live in the moment, instead of recording it all for Instagram or Snapchat. One can’t help feeling that Twenge is recommending more square dances and roller-rink parties; i.e., a return to my Gen-X elementary school experience.

As is often the case when I read pieces such as this one, I feel privileged to work at a boarding school. Our 24/7 access to students creates an opening to shape their experiences in ways that might help increase mindful living-in-the-present and decrease nose-in-phone time. But even for us, it is a tough challenge. My colleagues and I will need to strategize as the school year begins in (alas) a few short weeks.

Advertisements

Father’s Day Number One

I enjoyed my first Father’s Day as a dad today. My son is only seven months old, but somehow he managed to buy me a card and a framed photo collage! Maybe he has found a paid, freelance night job writing copy for online advertisers. Kids these days; they grow up fast.

My father hosted the family at his house. I got to see my sister, who was in from the west coast, and my in-laws. It’s a joy being the sandwich generation; I am both a dad and I have a dad at the same time. Father’s Day makes us stop and think about the debts we owe our fathers, but at the same time reflect on the kind of father we wish to be.

Fatherhood has already changed me in ways that are predictable. I can’t dedicate as many hours to work as I used to. I can’t indulge my every whim the way I used to. As Aziz Ansari put it in that episode of Master of None, if I want to go out for pasta in the evening, I might not be able to. (Although my son is getting better at behaving in restaurants, his 6:30pm bedtime is a bit of a challenge.) Still, I knew what I was getting into before we decided to have our first child, and I had been looking forward to those trade-offs for more than a decade.

The unpredictable part of becoming a parent, for me anyway, has been the way in which it makes me reevaluate time. How old will I be when my son is 18? When he’s 30? When he’s 45? How many years do I have to save for his college tuition? How  many more years do I have to work, and how old will he be if I retire early? Or late? How old will he be when the mortgage is paid off? (Because I’m a 42-year-old new dad, the answers to some of those questions aren’t pretty.)

That stuff is all a cliche, however. I also have to wonder: How many years until climate change makes the planet uninhabitable? Will I teach my son to drive, or will driverless cars be the norm before he turns 16? Will the professions that my generation aspired to even exist when he is done with college? Will Congress ever pass sensible gun control legislation?

These questions about the future of technology, the nation, and the globe explain why so many parents of young kids seem to be politically active, and sometimes radically so. Look out Washington; I’m coming to a march near you soon! The idea that I might spend my final years in an environmentally degraded ecosystem is troubling, but the idea that my grandkids might grow up in such a world are unconscionable. Time to get to work on the problem(s).

Family Vacations and School Absences

I enjoyed reading Jessica Lahey’s piece in the NYTimes’ Motherlode blog, “Skipping School for Vacation: Good for Families, Or Bad for Students?” (2.15.16) Lahey’s piece is a  response to a blog post from September by Jeanne Sager in which Sager laments that the public school district where she sends her kids labelled it “illegal” when she pulled her kids out of classes for a family vacation, even though the teachers were given advanced warning and cooperated by sending the kids off with the work they’d be missing. (To be accurate, the entire state in which she resides passed a law declaring such vacations illegal!)

Because of my work in an independent school deans’ office, I often find myself on the front lines of this sticky conflict. Schools want to support their faculty and keep the focus on academics, so they frown on parents taking their kids on vacations that don’t align with the school’s calendar. Lahey makes all of the salient points regarding the challenges these absences pose to teachers, and she provides an even-handed look at the families’ point of view, too. I would add another argument in support of parents who occasionally need to pull their kids out of school for vacation: Many of them have children at multiple schools simultaneously. If you have three kids, ages 9, 12, and 15, they might very well be at three different schools. Perhaps they are all in the same public school district with an identical calendar, but often that isn’t the case, particularly if one or more of them goes to private or parochial school.

Of course in my work I am often on the other side of the phone when a parent calls to say that they are planning a vacation when our school is in session. What administrators appreciate most from parents is honesty and a recognition that some missed work might not be easily made up, and that could affect a student’s academic progress. As Lahey’s piece points out, missing multiple days of a student’s junior year of high school is a lot different than missing those same days in third grade. Like it or not (and I don’t), high schools are put in the position of ranking and sorting students for college admissions, and in the interest of fairness, it’s a challenge for us when a family pulls their child out of school when the major essay is due, or when the huge test is administered. In the independent school world, we are truly eager to partner with parents for the good of their kids. If the family vacation is a priority, be honest about that and approach the school in a spirit of willing collaboration, and we’ll see what we can do to help the student stay on top of their work. What we don’t much like is five phone calls on five consecutive mornings claiming that your child is home with the flu when we have already heard from all of their friends that your family is on vacation in Ft. Lauderdale. (And don’t get me started about the telltale social media posts!)

Lahey also notes that digital distance learning tools are eroding the differences between actually being “in” school or participating remotely. (Here she cites Zach Galvin, an assistant principal from Natick, MA.) It must be a rather joyless experience to take your child on a vacation only to plunk them down in front of their laptop in the hotel room so that they can participate in class through a video chat. I side with the mindfulness crowd: be present where you are. If you flew to Europe to see the Alps, breathe deeply of the mountain air, and turn in the work that you were able to get done when you get back to school.

While schools and parents will continue to come into conflict over family vacations that clash with the academic calendar, both sides need to show some generosity of spirit and work together. For schools, that means not acting like we never reschedule a test or push a deadline in order to accommodate a special situation. We certainly do! Having written policies that reflect reality would be helpful. For parents, please take Lahey seriously when she talks about the challenges that teachers face when asked to package material for a student who is going to be out for a number of days. Our classes don’t just cover material in a textbook. But Jeanne Sager was entirely correct when she felt maligned by her kids’ school labeling her family vacation “illegal.” Save that kind of rhetoric for the Israel-Palestine conflict. We’re just talking about children missing a few days of school.

 

Paternity Leave is Trending

Since I normally blog about my work as an educator, I didn’t expect to have much to write about while out on paternity leave. But it turns out that paternity leave itself is the topic du jour! About two weeks after my wife and I welcomed our firstborn into the world, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan made news with the birth of their daughter (and their plans to give away billions of dollars to charity).

Zuckerberg also made news by very publicly announcing that he is taking a two-month paternity leave; exactly the length of my leave. In today’s NYTimes, Claire Cain Miller examines how Zuckerberg’s leave might help reduce the stigma associated with men taking time off after the birth of a child. Despite the fact that my employer provides equal opportunities for fathers and mothers to take parental leave, it’s evident that the moms take leaves more often, and for longer stretches of time. I can understand why: though no one at work is putting any pressure on me to cut my leave short, I have internalized angst about how it might affect my career anyway.

The details of my leave fit with the data discussed in Miller’s article. She writes that, “Fathers of sons were twice as likely to take leave as fathers of daughters, though it is unclear why.” I am indeed taking paternity leave to welcome a son into the world, but I was planning a leave of this length regardless of the gender of the newborn, and my wife and I left that as a surprise for ourselves. (The first question everyone asks when they hear that you are having a baby: “Do you know what you are having?” Why this obsession with the gender of the child?) I believe that I’d be taking the same two-month leave either way, but since we had a son, I guess we’ll never know.

Miller also writes that, “[m]en who worked in jobs with a large share of female workers were also more likely to take leave.” Indeed, I am a faculty member at an independent school, and the entire field of K-12 education skews toward a female workforce. Were I an investment banker or a consultant or a lawyer, would I feel equally empowered to take a long paternity leave? The data seems to suggest that I would not. (Ironic, since I would presumably be in a more enviably financial position to take such a leave!)

The important reason to take a paternity leave of at least two weeks in length comes later in the article, when Miller writes “that fathers who took two or more weeks of leave were significantly more likely to do child-care tasks like diapering and feeding later on.” My leave has been motivated mostly out of a desire to be an equal partner in parenting with my wife, and it’s encouraging that the data supports that these roles, once set during an initial parental leave, persist long after the leaves are over. This makes plenty of sense; my wife and I are learning to handle diapering and comforting our son together. If I didn’t take the time away from work, there would quickly develop a powerful imbalance in terms of which partner in the marriage was skillful at these childcare tasks. I don’t want to be the dad who doesn’t know how to dress the baby, or what to do with the dirty diapers, or how to get the baby to stop crying.

Apparently Zuckerberg is publicly taking a long leave to set an example and thereby make it okay for Facebook employees to take all of the (generous) parental leave time that they have coming to them. While I am away from work, fretting over what my leave might be doing to my career, I might also be making it easier for more of my future-dad-colleagues to take a full paternity leave after their children are born. (And I am already benefiting from paternity leaves taken by some male colleagues in recent years who made it more acceptable for me.) If I reframe the issue in my mind, perhaps I can feel a sense of pride in what I am doing instead of worrying about the career consequences.