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Instant Rewards

A number of years ago, my sister–whom I adore–introduced into our house a seemingly (to her and so many others) innocuous and fun object: the Nintendo DSi.  In the middle of a family birthday party for my oldest son where I was preparing or serving or otherwise distracted by food, I realized a little secret party was happening and I had not been invited.  Move from kitchen to living room, down two steps to playroom and oh oh oh what do we have here?  The innocence.  My niece, whom I also adore, was conveniently teaching my son how to use his newly acquired and already unwrapped and unpackaged toy.  Joy of joys…but I’m being facetious.  My sister knows how I abhor video games, too much tv, movies, electronics, etc etc etc.  I was fairly unhappy, and that is an understatement.

I was furious on a number of levels.  First, the gift was opened in my absence.  Call me crazy, but I want to be part of the gift opening process. Second, my sister knew full well that I limit electronics and that I had no intention of buying electronic devices such as this one for my children.  Third, that they were very obviously enjoying this without my knowledge because everyone knew I would not be happy.  They opened it without me on purpose; they took it out of its packaging on purpose; no one asked if it was okay on purpose.

Okay.  Cool down.  No big deal.  I’m not going to fight in the middle of his birthday party.  Let it go.  What’s the harm?  My sister, who is older,  in her usual they’re kids, let them have fun attitude insisted it was okay for him to have and continued to give me the usual response… everyone else has it, he’ll be behind if he doesn’t have it (behind what?), he needs to be doing things other kids do etc etc etc.  But I didn’t care.  I don’t care who else has what and why.  I don’t keep up with anyone or compete with anyone.  I am not saying I’m better; I just don’t make choices based on other people.

I am a bookie.  I love books.  I don’t have time to read them these days.  But we have a lot.  I love for my kids to read.  I love activity books.  I love for my kids to do these types of things: brain work, art work, self-fulfilling work, slow things.  Board games.  I grew up with board games.  It was not perfect.  We siblings and cousins fought.  Every holiday involved Monopoly and my cousin stealing money from the banker who was conveniently her father and slipped her some 500s.  Every holiday me and the younger cousins weren’t allowed to play because we were “babies”.  Every holiday the game board ended up thrown in the air over accusations of cheating.  My younger brother and younger cousin played an ongoing and endless –continuous over days– card game of War when my brother was in a leg cast and unable to do too much moving.  We did other stuff.  We played together.

Now? People play alone.  People play “together” virtually.  What’s the harm?

I’m not trying to be crabby about technology.  It has its place.  But it should not be a “re”placement for other things, like live interactions, like good old-fashioned game playing that requires cooperation, patience, and eventual fulfillment, or even plain old arguing.

That day when the handheld system came into the house, I had a choice.  I could have said no.  I could have said I don’t care if you opened it, I don’t care if it’s cool.  I don’t like it and I don’t want it in the house.  I don’t think it’s a good use of your time.  It is all consuming.  It will take you away from activities you enjoy.  But I didn’t do that.  One shoulder angel said do it.  The shoulder devil said it’s okay, let it go, he’ll play it and do other things.

Years later the devil is winning hands down.

My son may or may not struggle with ADD.  He has some symptoms.  And they have become more obvious as he has gotten further along in school.  One of the signs is acute focus on things the child really enjoys and an inattention, more than usual, to the things he does not enjoy.  So paying attention in school to things that do not hold his interest is a struggle.  He plain old doesn’t pay attention.  However, he is very bright and easily “bored” because once he learns something, he doesn’t need it repeated.  It is possible his brightness has masked the ADD.  But I also have always felt that he has not been sufficiently challenged.  A child who learns well ahead of other children struggles in a class where learning needs to be on  a level playing field.

Guess what?  Video games hold a constant challenge.  There is always a reward and it’s instant.  A child with ADD needs this.  Certain personality types need this too.  I have three other children and I know that he is different.  I didn’t know this until I had the other children and witnessed their development.  But I never considered there was anything “wrong”.  He didn’t have issues that didn’t seem “normal”.

What’s the harm?  I have asked myself since the day that thing came into the house.  Here’s the harm: my son, who had an interest in so many things, who was able to have patience with tasks, who was able to do slow activities now has so little patience, is often frustrated, wants only his next chance to play computer games.  He seems like an addict.  Once when I banned the games for a period of time (one month at most?), he seemed –I kid you not– to get an immediate high at getting his device back.  He suddenly was less anxious, more happy, relieved and visibly satisfied.  It was as if he was getting his fix, and it was scary.

Since the idea of ADD has come up in recent years, as suggested by his teachers when they use code like “he has trouble attending” (he is now in 4th grade), I can’t help thinking what came first–the proverbial chicken or egg?  Sure, he can’t follow directions and is often wandering and a bit like the absent-minded professor, but his poor habits have definitely increased in recent years.  Is the ADD more apparent as suggested because he is unable to do more of what is required, or has the constant reward-based system wired him for more instant gratification such that he doesn’t really care to follow along?  Is it that he can’t or won’t?  Sometimes he has no problem following directions.  Sometimes he has no problem not being frustrated or “attending”.   But instant rewards are on his radar.  Today he played “drums” on pots and pans and was upset when I didn’t “tip” him in the bowl he had set out.  He was actually upset that I didn’t give him some monetary reward (not at all common in our home in general) and insisted it meant I didn’t think his playing was good.  Tonight he couldn’t fall asleep because he had on his mind the one star he didn’t get in a game he played on the computer… he wanted assurance he would be allowed to play again so that he could get that star!

I don’t watch much tv in general and I especially don’t watch shows like CSI because, although that and others are great shows, they stay with me for days.  I’ll keep seeing the murder scene in my head for three nights straight and have trouble falling asleep.  So when my son can’t fall asleep and he’s played games that day, I can’t help but think it’s the same problem.  Those games are highly visual and he is highly visual.  I know they stay with him because he can’t stop talking or thinking about them.  We hear about them all day!

Ok so I limit the games.  No gaming (usually) during the week; limited gaming on the weekend.  But even then, it’s like, can I play now? How about now?  But I played outside!  (oh, 1/2 hour?? gee!)  Does the weekend start on Friday? What about on vacation?

I am thinking of having a summer free of these trappings.  I have suggested it and received deer-eyed panic.  But seriously, what if there was no “how about now?” because I removed the possibility?  What’s the harm?

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Spring Concert…Where’s my iPhone?

Tonight I attended the Spring Concert at the elementary school.  As I craned my neck to search for my son who would be singing (or mouthing) and playing (or blowing anyway) the trumpet, I couldn’t help but notice the iPhone attached to the hand on the person in front of me.  I saw a sewing machine.  I saw fingers adeptly copying a description and pasting into a Google search bar.  Up came the search, nudge to the husband, look at what I found.  Maybe her child wasn’t on the stage just yet.

What’s with not being able to sit through a performance, as tedious or chore-some as it might be, and just try to enjoy it?  What’s with not being attached to the phone every and any hour of the day?  Was it really important in that moment to look for a sewing machine?  Was it?

I admit I am not the most plugged in person.  I hung up my technology hat long ago to learn nursery rhymes and revisit new words, like car, red, big.  I did not have to forfeit everything, but I did forfeit a lot.  I wanted to focus on something else.  It doesn’t make me better or smarter.  In fact, I feel a whole lot dumber.  I am not savvy.  I am not fashionable.  I am not even all that much fun.  Okay I’m grumpy.  I don’t even care for computers.  I took a blogging class to learn what a blog was many years after blogging was a verb!

I may not be the best audience for the latest gadget.  But I am a better audience when I’m looking at the kids on a stage and not at that gadget.   When you go see a show, the screen is the stage full of kids who have practiced, or not, their songs and who are all dressed up and proud and happy and just having fun.   Having been a teacher and up on a kind of stage, I came to realize how much you see of an unaware audience.  You see everything.   If my son looked out with a big smile and searched for me and I was looking at my phone, well I guess I wouldn’t even notice.  But he would.

I am not the most Zen and I am certainly not present in every moment.  I definitely don’t focus 100% when one or any or all at once of my children are talking to me.  But I try.  It’s become much harder to do now that I have four kids and not one.  I am much busier than I even try to realize.  There is much more laundry, much more food to prepare, much more scheduling, much more everything.  And there is also much more out there to distract us, not to mention our children.  But we can also make choices.

I choose not to pick up my phone during a movie, or a concert, or anything where years ago my phone would not have even been present.  It is so easy to pick up the phone because there is so much to look at and search for and check on.  But really.  Is it necessary?  The sewing machine will be there.  Will the cacophony on the stage last beyond that one scheduled hour?

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Indecisions Indecisions

Making a decision is not in my tool box of strong skills.  Even Stop & Shop is overwhelming.  They finally have a good gluten-free aisle, but now check out all the pastas I can try…quinoa, corn, rice, rice and soy, corn and quinoa…

Years ago my husband and I were divided on what to plant along our back fence to replace aging bushes that provided privacy except when it rained and they sagged or it snowed and the snow sat on their limbs which bowed in every direction and acted as accommodating horizontal benches or it was sunny and you could see in between them.  Each year I said forsythia and he said arborvitae.  Another year would pass.  The aging bushes got taken out.  Another year passed.  I found euonymous.  Lovely green glossy leaves.  Bushy eventually.  Provides cover eventually.  Three years later they’ve grown quite nicely.  They do not provide full coverage quite yet.  Still, they have filled out, they are tall, they have glossy leaves.  They’re pretty.

But they are not forsythia and they are not arborvitae.  They are a compromise.  Neither one of us got what we wanted, but we did make a decision.  So I’m not sure I like them.  I can still see forsythia.

And that’s the problem with decisions.  You don’t always make the right choice, but you don’t know that until later.  And there isn’t a later if you don’t make a choice to begin with.  Or rather there is a later, but one that resulted from not making a decision.

I heard a story once about a woman who was pregnant and couldn’t decide which doctor she wanted to use for her delivery.  She was between two doctors (like Stevens’ of “two minds”) and pregnancy’s finale doesn’t wait so her due date got closer and closer.  Eventually she went into labor and ended up at a clinic.  Decision made.

Not clearing a pile of stuff is a way to delay a decision.  It’s very easy to clear a pile if you see that this go here and that goes there and this gets thrown away and that gets donated and everything is now in its neat little home and everything is put away and in its place.  I always liked that idea(l): a place for everything and everything in its place.  It sounds nice.  It is nice.  But it’s a kind of fiction.  A kind of control over things that maybe can be controlled.  When I look at a pile, I know I’m looking at decisions.  Does this go out? Does this get filed? Don’t I have that kind of file started?  That pile is a pile of decisions that may be easy or may be hard but decisions nonetheless and decisions, well, I don’t like them.

Here’s the thing with decisions.  In a sense, they are control: I have made a choice, I am in control, I will move forward and not back.  I accept this choice I have made and now the consequence.  And from that consequence, other choices and decisions to be made.  Move forward.  Move forward.

Having piles is a way of not doing that.  Not making a decision is a way of not doing that.  And that’s okay too.  Except it’s not really.  Because it’s a delay and a delay means stuck like stuck in traffic and you can’t see around that truck or around that corner.  And what is there if these cars get out of the way??

What is it about decisions? For me it’s making the “right” choice.  Intellectually, I know there is no right, but there are so many options! And each one a different consequence!  Remember the books with the choices you could make at every chapter and the choice you made got you to the next scene and subsequent choice until you got to the end?  I loved to hate those books.  I, of course, would always go back and try out the other options.  But the best part is: I always ended up safe.  I never went off the cliff, I never fell to my death, I never took the scary choices.

Ok, deciding between forsythia and arborvitae or between quinoa or corn pasta is not that life-threatening or risky.  But the point is you have to make a choice.  You have to say this is it.  I mean I can’t imagine picking Bachelor number 1 from behind a wall! Oh darn, I knew I should have picked 3!!

And the thing with decisions is they move you forward.  You have to accept.  You have to move on.  Or you can have regrets, which I am very good at.  Witness forsythia.

Yet what I am realizing is not making decisions is not fun.  What I decide may not be right or good or perfect.  What I decide will have its drawbacks.  But deciding is a muscle, like any other, that I have to flex and use and strengthen.  The more decisions I make and avoid delaying  the better I get at it.  And the stronger I become.  Even if I don’t like the consequence.  At that’s what I want to see when the traffic clears.

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