If there’s one word that best describes the Internet (and digital technology in general), it’s “disruptive.” Just look at the industries and economic sectors that have been reshaped or virtually eliminated over the last thirty years: telephone directories; photo processing; vinyl albums, cassette tapes, CDs, videotapes, and DVDs; travel agents; local bookstores; and so on and so on.
It’s not just businesses that have been disrupted, of course. The flood tide of technological change has reshaped many if not most of our cherished social institutions, from childhood to courtship to marriage. Parenting is certainly no exception; every new device and every new app makes modern-day parenting that much more complicated and disconcerting.
With Father’s Day just a few days away, this seemed like a good opportunity to look at the impact of digital technology on fatherhood. We’ve come a long way from the glossy determinism of “Father Knows Best,” to an era in which fathers, already buffeted by twenty years of economic shifts, struggle to adapt to a world in which their much more technologically-adept children have access to a universe of Facebook companions, Twitter advice, and YouTube wisdom and instruction. For what do we need fathers, one might ask.
I’ve had some direct experience with this. My sons Ben and Peter were born in 1993 and 1995, just as the World Wide Web was beginning to explode in popularity. It didn’t take long (a seeming eternity then, a nanosecond now) for disputes to arise over things like the sharing of portable gaming devices, the routine refusal to purchase gaming consoles, and time-sharing of the household’s sole computer. (Yes, Virginia, for many years, most households had just one computer.)
The complications accelerated at the start of the 2000s, with the arrival of step-brothers Graham (a little younger than Ben) and Emmett (three years younger than Peter). The new arrivals (and their mom Amy) brought somewhat different expectations with respect to electronic devices and additional demands for access to limited electronic resources. The rapid acceleration of technological change was both a help and a hindrance; dramatically dropping computer prices meant that the number of computers could expand, but at the same time, child pressure for the latest and greatest devices never really slackened.
I was fortunate that I could fill a new facet of fatherhood — IT guy — thanks to nearly forty years of hands-on experience. But I sympathize with so many fathers (and the myriad single moms who heroically take on both roles) who feel overwhelmed by the pace of technological change and the incredible ease with which kids seem to absorb technology through their pores.
Perhaps we can all take some comfort and guidance from the previous, less technologically-challenged generation. My father, to put it kindly, is not the go-to person when it comes to technology. Personal computers showed up relatively late in his work career, and they were never a critical part of his work. Throughout his years of hands-on parenting, the pace of technological change was dramatically slower. The big shifts during my childhood were from black-and-white TV to color, and from aerial reception to cable. We might perhaps have had a thermal imaging copier or fax, and certainly the answering machine was a great leap forward, but all in all, the electronics industry did not put a lot of demands on my dad’s time. When I was a junior in college, I was given the opportunity to buy an IBM PC as part of my tuition that year, and that 50 pound steel-encased beast was our introduction to the digital era.
My father’s two greatest gifts to his children, however, are as completely applicable to the Internet era as they were to the days of black-and-white TV: time and interest in our activities. Both he and my mother were tireless participants and supporters of our activities, from Little League to school plays to debate team to cross country meets. They liked talking to us about the books we were reading, the shows we liked, our good friends and temporary nemeses, our school work, politics, etc., etc. We were all incredibly fortunate.
Time and interest are not merely great gifts for children, but they are powerful parenting tools that are completely applicable to the digital age. Yes, children are more adept at technology, and yes, it can be frustrating to keep up. But with enough time, it can be done. Show interest in the programs they use and get them to teach you how to use them. It’s never wasted time, as my Dad knew full well. The particular circumstances of fatherhood will always shift, but the core values persist: show your children that you are interested in them, and commit the time to learning what they like and who they are. Happy Father’s Day.