It is tough to imagine, but I can still remember a time when I never owned a phone. Not a mobile phone, but a landline.
A few years ago, we took our then 7 year old daughter to a meeting with an accelerated learning specialist at her school in Thailand. She asked her a few questions, two of which were, if you were to go back in time, which period would that be, and if there was an old technological gadget you would like to learn how to use, what would it be? Our daughter answered the dinosaur era for the first question and an old-fashioned telephone with “the circle thing with the numbers in the middle that you have to turn around to dial”. Apparently to her, the dinosaur age is at par with the usage of the oldfashioned corded telephones.
Still, I did not grow up with a phone in the house. There are no vivid childhood memories of sitting by the sofa waiting longingly for the phone to ring. Not because those were relic times in which I grew up but because a phone, a landline, was not a necessity. It was a toy that I marveled at and played with in my mother’s office on the rare chance that I found myself visiting her there. My mom worked all her life as the secretary to the Chief Medical Officer at the University of Nairobi’s Health Services. Her phone etiquate was something which to this day, I chuckle about. It is in the way she tends to speak in perfectly polished English to a stranger on the other end, belying her ethnicity as a postcolonial African senior citizen.
Whenever she would leave me in her seat unattended, I used to dial 1 and continue to speak, in my most intellectual and polished way to her boss. He would ask me simple stuff like my age, my name, the name of my school, my grade and whether or not I was working hard. I would jovially answer, “Of course!” to the last one, slightly offended that he would doubt my work ethic. Didn’t he see how hard my mom worked? Surely he must know that a product of such a hard-working woman was nothing short of earning ‘Most Hardworking Student’ title. Then my mom would show up and tap my little hand and proceed to apologize to her boss for my inappropriate behavior. He would always say that he didn’t mind. I didn’t mind it either. Infact I welcomed the audience very much. It was the opportunity to be listened to by a real and very important adult, for I held him high on that pedestal that is designated to enigmatic characters such as principles and priests, the sort one never imagines eating juicy mangoes with their bare hands with the pulp dripping down their arms (the way that I did as a child).
I am a mother now and my oldest three children play with my phone all the time. They also eat whole, peeled juicy mangoes in the messy way that I did as a child. My six year old often dials international numbers and speaks with her cousins, grandparents and friends scattered all over the world in the six countries that we have lived in as diplomatic expatriates. Like my mom did, I playfully tap her hands and hung up unapologetically. Because it costs a lot of money to call internationally from my cell phone. Then I turn on Skype and she talks for hours on end for free.
Imagine if Skype was a village gathered in a circle and every child from every homestead took turns to sit in the middle and recount an interesting, made up story.
What a fantastic fantasy. Both the child’s fairytale and the idea of a Skype village.
I get this feeling that we have complicated our little ones’ childhoods so much in a quest for smart parenting. I have certainly over-saturated my mind with facts and figures regarding the art of parenting our ikids.
Yet a nagging feeling tells me that the simple thing that our children crave the most is an audience with us. Human beings who can dedicate their time and space to listen to them speak. When they speak, they speak like all children do. They speak childishly from the heart. They speak with innocence. When they speak. If they speak.
I enjoy hanging around older parents to get a sneak peek into my fast-approaching future as a parent of an iteenager, hoping that in the next year or so, Snapchat will be totally uncool and Facebook will be an embarrassment to our igeneration. What I hear is always the same conclusion. Teenagers don’t speak to adults. They exist in another world with only a select few of their friends, if ever. A shocking number of them exist in other worlds inhabited by only themselves and the latest bot technology.
What we seem to forget is that we are so consumed with finding ways to give our children a better audience with the internet as our village, that perhaps we have actually exercerbated this teenage silence. Maybe he’ll speak Mandarin in 14 days if he uses this latest app, or maybe my toddler will memorize his times tables in 6 weeks if I pay for twice weekly Kumon lessons. But the honest truth is, we haven’t asked the children what they enjoy most from us.
The answer to this came in a rare revelation from my oldest son 4 years ago. It was the UN’s International Day of Teachers and if you went to the UNESCO website, you could pick a pretty post card in various languages to send to your teachers. He was only 5 years old and needed help typing. When I asked him what he wanted to say to the headmistress at his small British school in Thailand, he said, “Tell her that I like it when she joins us at playtime and listens to us.”
He did not ask to thank her for allowing them to watch a movie on a school day when it was parent-teacher workshops, he did not ask to thank her for the brand new iPads that they are now allowed to use in their early years class. He asked me to thank her for using the most natural form of human interaction. Listening.
Now let’s ponder this incredulous idea.
Imagine if there was a global curfew on technology. That after dusk, all form of technological gadget shuts off automatically and we are all forced to speak to and listen to each other speak.
I believe that’s the world our children are imagining when allowed the rare occasion to daydream. If my five year old preschooler then, now a typical ipad-crazy third grader, could acknowledge feeling nice when an adult is listening to him, then some nonverbal communication is getting lost in the translation of our tech lingo.
My own house is home to all form of technology. Ipad, iPhones, blackberry, laptop, Mac desktop, tablet and an old-fashioned landline. Yet there is a standing rule. No technology is allowed until Friday night movie. This is the day that we make a fuss about by taking turns picking the family movie. We have had our fill with Disney shows and are slowly moving into more real-life films. This rule has held its ground since the birth of our first born more than a decade ago.
Our children interact with technology on a daily basis in their schools. Our 6 year old can effectively navigate a few educational apps downloaded for entertainment on that mommy-is-at-her-wits-end occasion. When they go to play dates, we know that they might play video games, maybe even ask for it but hope they ask to play outdoors instead. At home, technology occupies that back burner on our family stove. We dedicate the front large burner to stories, books, stories and more books.
We have attempted to recreate that lost village gathering at dusk, as the last sliver of light vanishes into pitch darkness, when the stories of the day, some invented, others relived, begin to take their form.
When the lights go off at bedtime, I sit on a bright pink and green polka dotted bean bag beside a fading night light under a staircase and begin to tell the children stories that I invent along the way. The children lay silent, the night remains still. So still that we can hear the creatures of the night. The squirrels scatter, the birds lay in silence, the nocturnal tree hyrax, a furry cuddle-ball hiding in a hole during the day, but a monster with a terrifying, murderous scream at night, all begin their nightly routines. When we lived in S.E Asia, we imagined the snakes and a monitor lizard or two, slithering about in our car park searching for their prey. Back in Kenya, we can hear the laughing hyenas inside the Ngong Forest that sets the backdrop of our backyard, or imagine hearing the silent preying footsteps of a svelte leopard, freshly escaped from the Nairobi National Park, a stone’s throw away from our newly rented home.
One by one an eyelid is shut. My children fall asleep in pitch darkness, just as I imagine they would, if we lived in a Maasai village, a mere hour drive from the shining lights of Nairobi’s bustling city life into the renown African wilderness, where stories like ours are recounted by children who may never know of a Skype village.
I imagine them all as one global village of storytellers.