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Techie kids

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I got the feeling that we were behind the digital times at our house recently. Last week I needed to get in touch with my daughter Anna Lee during school hours. After trying the school’s main line and the teacher’s cabinet extension without reaching a live person, I went next door to my neighbor for advice. “Just call Anna’s mobile,” she offered. Her 13-year-old daughter attends the same school and carries an iPhone daily. Anna doesn’t have a mobile, however. I know it isn’t unheard of for a six-year-old to carry a phone, but I personally thought it was unnecessary for Anna. Since she isn’t yet required (or permitted) to go by herself to and from school or anywhere beyond our neighborhood street, I haven’t felt the need. I also feel uncomfortable entrusting a child with the responsibility (and the burden) of carrying around a piece of modern technology. However, not being to get in touch with her on that particular morning did make me reconsider my stance.

Only the week before another friend had relayed the story of her seven-year-old daughter’s recent school field trip to the zoo. The class of first graders was going to the zoo via the metro from downtown Prague, a common enough trip for Czech elementary students, most of whom are well-experienced riding public transportation from an early age. But mishaps happen. On that day one student missed the stop and stayed on the metro an extra station. The teacher had instructed the students that if they got separated to simply get out at the next station and wait there. But, she didn’t anticipate the panic her student might feel upon discovering that she’d been left behind and the hysteria she’d create in the metro, rousing the attention of fellow passengers and metro officials. Within minutes, the child was successfully reunited with her class, and the trip continued without further incident. Still, the following day over half the students then appeared in class with a mobile in hand. My friend said the students were obsessed with comparing which color or model they’d gotten or had been handed-down. Although she didn’t really want to, my friend was planning to get her daughter a phone for her upcoming birthday. In part, she too felt frightened by the school trip incident, and she also felt the pressure of her daughter wanting to fit in with her classmates.

In the Czech Republic, where children often travel on their own, by public transportation or on foot, to and from school and their after-school activities, I’ve noticed that more and more elementary-aged kids like Anna have their own mobile phones. In the free pamphlets that we received after the school registration last winter, there were advertisements for mobile phones and advice about how to set up the phone safely for a young child’s usage. Although I didn’t pay this information much heed, I know that children nowadays are far more technologically equipped than they were even just a few years ago. Apart from mobiles, children now commonly use computers, iPads, tablets and other electronic devices for educational purposes, to play games, upload music and check email. A Polish friend’s toddler watches movies on her laptop while I’ve heard my Canadian friend’s young son beg for her iPad, which he uses to play Sesame Street matching and memory games. Electronic devices are the new babysitters, seen often at restaurants as ways to keep both younger and older children quiet while parents have a civilized meal. What happened to a paper placemat and a few crayons?

Childhood is lived differently these days, and I fear that it’s only a matter of time before I am persuaded, or pressured, to catch up to recent technological advances. Still, I’m holding out. What’s the rush of teaching our small children to use the computer or other digital device? Won’t they have enough time later in life to have their own digital experiences?

Luckily, my husband and I stand united on the anti-tech-front. Although we’re eager to stimulate our children’s intellectual and creative growth, neither one of us is very tech-minded and the motivation to push our children in this direction just isn’t there. Despite having read studies that suggest the benefits of electronic games in promoting mathematical skills, logical thinking and even reading, I just can’t get past the feeling that the kids can learn all this in time. Apart from clicking the mouse (or, as Oliver fondly says, the “rabbit”) to sign on and off Skype calls with their American grandparents, our children have no real computer experience. They’ve watched a few YouTube videos and listened to some music with us, and I’ve used the computer on their behalf to find English language learning worksheets and games. But I haven’t yet taken the time to sit with them in front of the computer, I’d rather read them a book. Both kids do have a handheld learning device marketed for children from ages 3 to 8. They play with them on long car trips or airplane rides. It’s been a lifesaver on occasion, but still I find they both crave the interaction, more than the game-playing itself, reporting back enthusiastically to each other or to me on their progress.

The other day though they both came from our neighbor’s house bursting with excitement about the “ele-pad” (iPad) they’d played with. Of course, they wanted one too, but then again, with Christmas around the corner, they’re quick to request any and everything that they see. I know that in order to keep up with their peers, exposure to technology is vital, but I’m hoping to postpone our family’s tech-leap as long as possible. I bet there are more than a few parents out there who agree. When Anna’s class had our first parents’ meeting, we discovered that none of the 18 first-graders had a phone yet. Their teacher nicely requested that we keep it that way as long as possible.

After talking with my neighbor, I went home and tried the school’s main line once again. This time, someone answered. Although I didn’t recognize the voice as a secretary, I explained what I needed. The person on the other end recognized my daughter’s name and without hesitation agreed to find her in the lunch room and relay my message. I was impressed. It wasn’t until I hung up the phone that I realized I’d spoken with the school’s principal. With direct communication like that possible at Anna’s school, I didn’t think I’d need to spring for a kiddie mobile anytime soon.

For “half ‘n half” families who’ll be in Prague next weekend and are looking for a way to blend multicultural Christmas traditions, there’s a chance for children to sing Christmas carols in English at a benefit Christmas Carol concert sponsored by several local organizations including Kids in Prague, the British Chamber of Commerce, Class Acts and CANZA. The concert will be held in December 10 at 16h in Old Town Square’s St. Clement’s Church.

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