Toddlers, technology and my inner Puritan

One of my friends mentioned recently that her 3-year-old son recognises the Twitter icons of some of her friends. She mentioned it in a “isn’t he clever?” spirit of mild mum-boasting, but the news freaked me out. Then another friend, whose baby is less than a year old, commented that her kid has “seen loads of Twitter already!” and I was weirded out anew. They both asked me why I had a problem with this.

So I’ve been trying to work out: what exactly is my problem here? Why does it feel so wrong and unnatural?

I wouldn’t in any way freak out if somebody told me their 3-year-old can name all the animals in their favourite book. That would seem completely normal to me. And recognising recurring icons on Mummy’s Twitter feed is very similar: it’s just a question of recognising a picture you see regularly. But perhaps some of the weirdness here is because the Twitter feed is for the adult and not meant for the child.

Two things about parents and children that aren’t exactly secrets but nobody tells you:

  1. Little kids are usually more interested in things adults, especially their parents, are using than in the things that are specifically created for the child’s own use.
  2. Parents are frequently bored by their own children, but it’s apparently unacceptable to admit it.

The first “secret” is obvious within five minutes of encountering a toddler in the company of its parents: children will ignore the colourful, interestingly textured toys specifically designed to stimulate their growing brains and instead make a beeline for Daddy’s keys, Mummy’s handbag or, if possible, the most dangerous and unsuitable item in the room.

When a toddler visited us a few days ago, I wasn’t the tiniest bit surprised that she ignored the big fluffy toy rabbit we gave her and went straight for a shelf full of books she can’t read. When her mum pulled her away from the books, I did the usual routine of pretending the rabbit was talking, but the toddler didn’t give a flying fuck. She ignored me and ran into a different room, where she immediately found a box full of batteries to play with. The only time I’ve ever managed to interest a toddler in a cuddly toy is when I genuinely forgot the kid was in the room and started playing with the toy myself. Then, all of a sudden, it was interesting enough. (I’ve noticed that the relationship to toys is very different in older children, especially when they’re socialising in groups, but that’s a different story.)

To move on to the second “secret”: parents have tools for getting themselves through the boredom that dare not speak its name: friends, television, books, mind-games, an obsession with getting kids to sleep and yes, the internet. Combine this with the child’s interest in anything the parent is doing without them and it’s logical that kids will latch on to whatever the parent is using to handle the boredom. So of course it makes sense for a kid to spend a lot of time looking at Mummy’s Twitter feed, even leaving aside my feeling that there’s something innately attention-attracting about anything that glows. (My guess is also that furtive Twitter-checkers get more attention from their kids than those who actively try to interest the child in what they’re doing.) So saying “My kid recognises lots of Twitter icons!” is effectively admitting two parenting “secrets” in one go.

But that doesn’t really explain why it seems so wrong to me. OK, so it’s partly because I grew up in the early Eighties when hardly anybody had a computer at home and I learned to use a computer many years after I’d learned to read and write. So I expect a logical progression that goes: learning to read books, learning to write, getting reasonably good at both reading and writing and then learning to use a computer. The idea that you’d be exposed to computers or smartphones before you could read or write “properly”, using paper, is odd to me because it feels like doing things the wrong way round. (Also, my parents had the vague idea that it would stunt my development to play too many computer games or watch too much telly, so my childhood exposure to glowing screens was limited.)

I was a Brownie leader in the early/mid-90s, a nursery assistant in the late 90s to early Noughties and a school librarian around the same time. So my first experiences of child-related responsibility date from a time before smartphones or tablet computers. More to the point, most of my experience of dealing with kids has involved a specific, time-limited job. It would be inappropriate to check Twitter in the middle of nursery sing-song time, just as it would be inappropriate to get out a book and start reading. But I’ll admit I did enjoy it when the nursery watched a video, or when the Brownies were absorbed in some activity, because I could relax my attention, drink tea and chat quietly to other adults. These days maybe I’d skip the tea and chatting to refresh my Twitter feed on my smartphone. It’s the same kind of light, semi-distracted entertainment.

What I’ve never experienced is the job of actually being a parent, getting past the platitudes of “it’s a full-time job, you know!” to the reality of inescapable 24-hour responsibility. I’ve never done the work of being just around, putting in the tedious hours of quantity time that are actually more important than scheduled quality time. My experience has either been about work (including voluntary work) or it’s been a time-limited social interaction with someone else’s kids. So the idea of long-term, open-ended responsibility for a child is foreign to me, even though that’s the reality of actual parenting. The closest I’ve come to that mix of responsibility and boredom is various jobs where I absolutely had to “man the phones” and “hold the fort” and couldn’t leave the room even though nothing was happening. And in a situation where I had responsibility but little to actually do, you bet your sweet bippy I surfed the web. (And felt a bit guilty despite the knowledge that I was doing precisely what was required of me.)

So that’s part of the answer. The idea of a parent repeatedly checking Twitter in front of their kid weirds me out because it doesn’t match the way I interact with kids myself. And that’s because I’m not a parent.

But there’s more to it than that. My reaction also involved feeling that on some vague moral level, a child being familiar with Twitter is just Wrong. I think it’s partly because boasting about your kid recognising Twitter icons is breaking the social expectation that you shouldn’t admit trying to do other things while “spending time with” your child. Of course there are many other ways of breaking that expectation: talking about your kid getting in the way when you’re cleaning the house, or copying you shaving, or whatever. And, as I said earlier, a parent who is focused on something else is in fact a subject of intense interest to a toddler. If you tie yourself in knots waving colourful toys at them, they’ll probably lose interest and look for something dangerous to play with instead.

But the Twitter thing still shocked me, more than seeing my niece pretending to swipe a credit card or mimicking adult conversations on her toy phone. And it’s taken me days to work out why: it’s because I have an expectation that mothers should emphasise the work they do but play down the fun and relaxation they have. My own mother tells and re-tells the story of how I once tipped her bucket of water over when she was working as a cleaner. That’s an OK story for her to tell because she features in the story as someone who’s working. But she was embarrassed when my sister was asked in primary school to draw a picture of her mum and drew a picture of her sitting down. “All the things I do… and you draw me sitting down?”

Even now she’s a ridiculously hard worker, working at least 20 hours a week even though she’s supposed to be retired, going to the gym several times a week and keeping her house show-home spotless. She hated board games and jigsaws when I was a kid for being “pointless” and “a waste of time” and now things have moved on, she dislikes blogging and Twitter for the same reasons. She’s now, like me, actively trying to have more fun, but I think for a long time she had the idea that fun was what happened when you should be doing something else. And I never realised, until my tech-savvy friend called me on my ick-reaction, how much of that attitude I’ve internalised.

The funny thing about unquestioned assumptions is: when you actually look straight at them, they mostly change or dissolve completely. I’ve had a few days to think about why a tiny child seeing Twitter seems so wrong to me, and now I’ve worked out why, hey presto: it doesn’t actually seem so wrong at all.

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One Comment on “Toddlers, technology and my inner Puritan”

  1. […] wrote a few months ago: “Little kids are usually more interested in things adults, especially their […]

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