In pursuit of a retro childhood

Kids these days. Mine in particular are being hijacked by a tidal wave of technology. Or maybe it’s a creeper wave, but it’s steady on its path to obliterate childhood as we knew it.

I recently attended my great aunt’s memorial service. Her four grown daughters each gave a eulogy. The common denominator in each touching speech was how their mother had forced them to play outside every day. They climbed trees and had clubhouses and tore around Gerstle Park on their big banana seat bikes. I imagined a combination of a soft lens Jodi Foster and the Von Traps’ clad in repurposed floral drapes, swinging from the trees.

It was a long drive home from the service, so we let the kids watch a movie on the iPad.

A few days later, while at the park with my son, I overheard him chatting with another six-year-old. It was January so the classic Christmas inventory conversation ensued. Everything this kid got started with an “i.” My son cautiously asked if the boy had opened any new toys.

“Toys? I don’t play with toys anymore.” The kid chuckled.

I half-expected the Lorax to drop from the sky with an amendment to his age-old mission statement. “I speak for the (toys)!” But the sky remained closed and we headed home.

I’d like to say I was shocked by the fact that a six-year-old could be over toys, and that our home is exempt from the evil blue glow of the screen. However, when my daughter was two she tried to swipe the face of an Etch A Sketch to turn it on with her pudgy little finger. When the screen remained peacefully grey, she tossed it aside and declared it broken. The little white dials and fine point lines just wouldn’t do. My husband and I run our own business, which means we are often working from home, in front of the kids. I was under the impression that we were living the dream, but I fear the reality is that we are exposing them to far too much technology. The lines of work and play are often a blurry mirage at our kitchen table.

Believe me, I get it. We live in a changing world and the next generation is speaking a whole new language. To make a difference, or even be relevant, our kids are going to have to know how to function in a fast-paced, wireless world. But is this the world they have to play in too? It makes me feel a little crazy, and I have a manic maternal instinct to unplug every device and appliance in the house. But when I reach the very last outlet in this fantasy, it dawns on me that you can’t unplug from something that is wireless. Which makes me pause and notice a glitch in the matrix. Ah, yes. Wireless is code for tethered. Mobile for shackled. You get the point. We can blame Starbucks for this antonym abuse. Ordering a small coffee by asking for a tall coffee says so much about society. But I digress. It used to be, in the very recent past, that when you were away from work, you turned on something called an “Out of Office” reply. Anyone who attempted to contact you received a very polite response that you were unavailable. As in “off the grid.”

But somewhere along the line, perhaps while working remotely from the beach, we got tangled up in an upside-down reality where kids don’t want to play with toys anymore. We’ve dragged our duties into free time and modeled the myth that all of life can be conducted on a touch screen. And now they crave it, beg for it, live for it.

Childhood should be wireless, but in the truest sense of the word. Dolls made from cornhusks, sticks used as swords to protect pirate vessels made from tree stumps. Branches turned brooms to dust the floor of a fort made from lawn chairs and beach towels. When I see my kids click into that ancient instinct to make something from nothing, I am energized by it. It somehow seems like truth, and exposes all the devices they crave as fables.

These outlandish observations found their way into a children’s book I was collaborating on and resulted in some truly beautiful photographs of a kid being a kid in the great outdoors. They tell the story of an over-stimulated city girl reconnecting with what is real and tangible; her loyal rag doll and the beauty of nature. One of the props I needed to procure for the photo shoot was a vintage fishing pole, so I called another one of my great-aunts to see if I could borrow one (I come from a long line of fabulously outdoorsy women). This aunt is amongst the finest storytellers you’ll every meet. A campfire with her will give you a Stanford education in two hours flat. So of course I could borrow an old fishing pole, and of course there was a story to go along with it. She had caught her first fish on this pole in the High Sierra in 1942. She’d begged a neighboring cabin owner to take her out fishing. And naturally, she’d caught the biggest fish in the lake. And it’s only gotten bigger over the years.

The book, Lulu & Pip, turned out to be a gorgeous tribute to what childhood should look like. The medium of still shots, glossy and big, paired with a weathered rag doll, a freckle-faced kid and beautiful scenery somehow hit all the right notes. But for me, my favorite shots in the book are those that highlight my sweet aunt’s fishing pole. Her petrified fishing wire, though old and brittle, felt timeless in my hand, like a link back to my own childhood. I felt connected and grounded, and this is the line I want to toss to my children. The thrill of pulling in a fish, or climbing a tree, or whispering in a tent late at night just might be the antidote to this virus that has all of us under its thumb(s). This summer, I’m thinking of implementing a retro-childhood around our house. And no, not just with a filter on Instagram. Campouts and crackling fires, road trips and kick-the-can ‘till the streetlights come on, flushed cheeks and dirty fingernails. I may even feather my hair. There is a big world out there, literally right in our backyards. We can’t let our kids get swept away without ever having played in it. Technology will always be there, taunting us to choose the screen, to bring it along because we can, to stay available. But it may have over-played its hand when it went after our children. Let’s not drink the Kool Aid. Let’s order a short coffee and go fishing.

Nina Gruener is a children’s book author, having written Above San Francisco, Above New York, Above Chicago, Kiki & Coco in Paris, and its newly released sequel, Lulu & Pip. She lives in Petaluma, California, with her husband and two children.

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