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Helping kids keep out some of the noise

I’m a child of the 1980s. 

With side ponytails on full hairsprayed display, my big sister and I kept busy making mixed tapes, riding banana seat bicycles and collecting plastic charms for our charm necklaces. We stayed up late watching “Dirty Dancing” and “Indiana Jones,” swooning over Patrick Swayze and Harrison Ford. We heated our food in BPA-laden plastic, drank from hoses and ran around our neighborhood for hours before returning home happy and spent and ready to hurriedly eat dinner so we could be in front of the TV by 8 p.m. to watch “Who’s the Boss” or “Growing Pains.” 

Our cats were not spayed or neutered, so we learned how to comfort mama cat during labor, make kitten beds out of Avon boxes and feed them with medicine droppers. We had one cumbersome computer in our musty downstairs den. I’m not sure how or why it got there. The few times I tried to boot it up resulted in staring at a black screen with green letters for a painful amount of time with no reward. Exciting sources of technology were a Nintendo gaming system (the original), VHS player and a couple of Sony Walkmans.

Club sports were rare. If you weren’t good enough to make the school team, you just worked harder to make it the next year. We were baton twirlers and dancers, and my dear sweet mother entered us into a slew of beauty pageants. My sis and I complained endlessly about the itchy dresses and pain of eyeliner application, but we made the best of it by making friends on the circuit and becoming experts at sleeping with curlers in our hair. 

Kids today don’t have the luxury of scarcity like we had in the 80s and before. When I was little, we made our own fun. I learned patience by waiting my turn for the one landline or surviving hours of commercials. I learned about failure when I didn’t make a team, win a contest or get accepted into a club. I learned courage when other kids were cruel and I had to say something straight to their faces. I couldn’t hide behind a text or comment on a Snapchat feed. 

I learned how to entertain myself because if I annoyed my mom too much, she’d have me cleaning or raking leaves. So you better believe I was playing outside—not realizing I was getting exercise and appreciating nature. I learned about conflict resolution in the backseat of a car. With no Blu-ray player, we girls had to read, color or argue. But if we argued we got in trouble, so we figured out how to get along. 

Now, I’m a mom trying to raise two boys in an overstimulating universe. The outside world is relentlessly trying to suffocate them. They have to work harder than ever to keep out all the noise. And at the same time, anything and everything is completely accessible. It’s a tricky catch 22 and a toxic mix not offered to generations before them. Their young, impressionable minds are doing their best to navigate the input. 

My older child recently performed in HART Theatre’s rendition of “Mary Poppins Jr.” For over two months, he spent hours upon hours with other kids practicing, rehearsing, bonding and experiencing the magic of the theatre. No tablets, no phones. Just human beings using sheer creativity and talent to collectively produce something powerful and captivating. 

Watching these kids showed me that today’s young people have the capacity to lean into the scarcity and be very content doing so. It’s not that they’re incapable; it’s that the world is constantly shutting them down. The adults in their lives have to be intentional in creating opportunities. Unlike when we were kids, synthetic distractions are pelting their attention spans and manhandling their character. 

I sometimes wish the internet, smartphones and apps didn’t exist. But at the same time, I’m grateful for amenities such as online banking, Google Maps, a camera in my back pocket or a text from a loved one during a bad day. 

As a mother, I feel it’s my responsibility to not only monitor my children’s exposure to technology but also model appropriate behaviors and coping strategies. This is easier said than done because let’s be honest, it’s simpler for me to get things accomplished when the boys are on a screen than it is to create a craft project or go on a nature walk. But, which one reaps the most long-term benefits? I think it’s obvious and that’s what keeps me pushing forward. 

I don’t want my kids growing up without patience, courage, perseverance or problem-solving skills. I want them to reflect upon their childhood years with fondness and vivid images, not vague memories of watching Disney+ or playing on tablets. 

Perhaps most importantly, if we’re ever going to see a pendulum shift in our society in regard to kindness, generosity and awareness, it starts with the youngest generations. If you have children in your lives, take away some of that noise. Help them be curious and thirsty for adventure. Encourage them to try new things even if they fail. Let them be bored and irritated by not getting their way. These are the ways to raise future leaders and change makers. And it takes all of us to make it happen. 

(Susanna Shetley is an editor, writer and digital media specialist for SMN, SML and Mountain South Media. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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