The guest of honor had to be coaxed into opening his birthday presents and blowing out candles. He was having too much fun playing on the cargo nets at Planet Kid.
The guest of honor was my great grandson, who was turning five.
I was not ready to be a great grandfather when he was born any more than my daughter was ready to be a grandmother in her mid-30s. We were too young – no canes, no hearing aids, no long white beard. But there he was, ready or not, and life hasn’t been the same since. Nothing like a new kid to shake things up.
As he opened his birthday gifts, it struck me how different life is from what it was even a generation ago, and how different his will be from those of previous generations.
At age five, I was playing with kites, pea shooters and slingshots. Shooting marbles, learning to swim, playing baseball.
Simple pleasures. Pea shooters, for those unfamiliar with them, were plastic straws designed for a pea to be shot through with a forceful exhalation of breath. For a reason now forgotten, the kids in our old neighborhood preferred beans to peas. There was something enormously satisfying about expelling a bean through a straw and hitting what you were aiming at, usually a kid who was aiming at you. By summer’s end we’d fired hundreds if not thousands of them, begetting a bean-sprout explosion in every lawn in the neighborhood.
Model railroads were a source of wonder. Mine was on a pingpong table in the basement. It was a modest setup, but it was more than enough. Sitting at the controls in a darkened basement with the crossing lights flashing, the whistle blowing and the beam of the locomotive’s headlight cutting the darkness remains one of the happiest memories of my youth.
What a different childhood my five-year-old grandson is having. He’s into Netflix cartoons, super heroes and pop music. At an age when kids of my generation were dreaming of toy cars or footballs or bicycles, he’s dreaming of getting his own Alexa.
An Alexa? We’ve had enough Alexa wars at our house to know that it can be a fast track to insanity. Everyone wants to hear something different at the same time:
“Alexa, play the Beatles.”
“Alexa, play Dirt Wire.”
“Alexa play ‘Baby Shark.’”
“Alexa, shut up!”
Luckily the lad has a sensible mother who says that if he does get his own Alexa – a big if – it will be restricted to the confines of his room, where he can order it around to his heart’s content without the grownups hurling themselves out the windows.
We did not have a television, let alone an Alexa, when I was his age. Most of the neighborhood kids were in second or third grade grade by the time the flickering screens entered our lives with two channels and blurry, black and white images of Sheriff Spud and the Merry Milkman. Today, kids have hundreds of channels available 24/7, resulting in more screen time and less outdoors time. I’ll leave it to the experts to say how that’s affecting them, but my gut says kids need some time to switch off the screens, put the devices down and explore the real world.
Not that the kid who has captured our hearts isn’t doing some of that. He enjoys playing in the snow with his aunt’s dog. He likes model railroads and spending time at the playground in a neighborhood park. He’s caught a fish, soaked in mountain hot springs. His other grandfather, an accomplished coach, is working with him on his baseball swing.
Kids don’t necessarily need to hit baseballs or catch fish or play with model railroads to become responsible, well-adjusted individuals. And the reality is that comparatively few of them in today’s world will do those things. We who loved those pastimes when we were kids want our kids and grandkids to enjoy them at least in part for selfish reasons. We want them to love what we did and think it could help them on the hard road to becoming accomplished, self-reliant adults.
The reality, of course, is that they’ll find and enjoy their own diversions, whether we like them or not. Every generation, to borrow from the late Vardis Fisher, thinks the generations after it are going to hell in a hayrack.
Yet somehow they don’t. Yes, we have cyber bullies. We have kids who commit atrocious crimes, kids who are clueless and arrogant enough to do Nazi salutes. But for every one of those, there are way more kids who work hard, study hard and are committed to making the world a better place.
I’d like to think that my great grandson will be one of those, that he’ll switch off his Alexa and put down his devices long enough to appreciate the real world and join his more thoughtful contemporaries in trying to improve it.
Maybe one of the best things we can do as parents and grandparents is to expose them to that world, to introduce them to its beauty and wonders, to help them find the kind of meaning and fulfillment that aren’t found in digital entertainment.
Perhaps most important, we need to let them know how much they mean to us and that we’ll do our best, in our archaic, non-digital way, to help them lead purposeful lives in a changing world.
Know this, my five-year-old hot shot. Your families will always be here for you, and could not love you more.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.