Published in Portsmouth Herald, Op-Ed Sunday Edition

Something's missing for kids in brave new e-world

As the ever-increasingly commercial holiday season approaches, parents are challenged to keep up with the latest toy trends or risk "getting scrooged."

I can't help but be reminded of the old singsong rhyme, but with a slightly new twist...

"Christmas is coming, our kids are getting fat
Would you please put a penny in the old man's hat?
If you have no penny, a Pokemon will do
And if you have no Pokemon, then God bless you."

I feel sorry for parents today. But mostly I feel sorry for the kids. It's an e-e-e-e-e world. Sure, it's great for convenience's sake not to have to fight the mall crowds or circle until spring for a parking space, but aren't they being cheated of something?

In our Internet frenzy and excitement over technology's progress, we're forgetting to allow kids their childhood. Overly scheduled, maxed-out on Mickey D's and zoned out on PlayStation, today's youth are becoming a generation of pasty-faced, chubby people who speak in tongues about megabytes, gigabytes and hard drives. When I was growing up a "hard drive" was a very long road trip.

I thank my still visible (until global warming hazes them away) lucky stars above that I'm not a parent — yet. Instead, I'm at the tail end of an unfortunately (and in my humble opinion) mislabelled, close-to-the-end of the alphabet letter generation — "X."

You always hear how we are slackers/dreamers, but you never hear why I have a few theories.

You see, we were fed a steady diet of imagination alongside our up-to-the-nanosecond trendy knickknacks, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls — the Beanie Babies of the '80s — came and went, but an empty box always made a heck of a fort. Barbie had her dream house complete with pink plastic accessories, and we had a revolving neighborhood haunted house decked out with fake blood and cobwebs.

Every year, my motley assortment of computer-free friends took turns transforming our basements into delectable spooky dens of horror, with home-baked cookies and cider to wash it all down.

Where did all that youthful creative fire go? To land? I have to chuckle at the commercials. Particularly the one featuring the mother and her angelic child bonding by the tide pool. I'll admit it, the ethereal music and scenic setting sucked me in at first until I took a closer look. Later hours after the precocious little tyke with the marketable skill of evoking a sense of awe (yes - we so-called gen-Xers are just a tad bit skeptical about child actors but that's a whole other rant) has retired for the evening, mom logs on.

She's surfing for plastic toys to recapture and attempt to duplicate the tide pool experience. Uh-uh lady...moment's gone.

Some of the best toys I ever got were from my grandmother, who at Christmastime would wrap about 25 gifts of varying sizes, just so we'd have the pleasure of opening them. What 8-year-old wouldn't adore travel-sized toothpaste and fuzzy pink socks? Every single item was wrapped with love and unwrapped slowly to prolong the experience. Time was a luxury then, but we didn't even know it.

Gone are the days when it was OK to get pruny-toed in the bathtub, reliving the Poseidon adventure while your parents caught a breather or debriefed on their day. Now, everything is rushed. "Windows" are no longer glass partitions to gaze out of longingly, but rather have become small chunks of what we used to call "free time", or a megalomaniac's software program. But, and here's the punchline...there is no more free time. It just doesn't exist.

Free time has become 'down time' with all that the phrase implies. Kids are sitting down at computer screens, on couches getting brain rot rather than running around hooting and hollering like feral animals loosed from a cage. This is not normal. They need a healthy outlet for their pent up rage so that don't bring an Uzi to school and blow each other away.

Do I propose that more free time in the formative years would lessen teen violence? Or that we should limit kids' e-intake to an hour or two per day? No, I wish it were that simple. But something important has been lost. Like I said...I'm not a parent yet but I often wonder about what my children's lives will be like. Will they be unquenchingly curious? Will their inner landscapes be rich? Will they ever know the simplicity and the beauty of playing in the street until the lampposts' warm yellow glow comes on signalling that dinner is ready? Or will they feel a constant gnawing hunger to have more, more, more?

What's the solution?

We can't turn the clocks back and live life backwards. But we can remind youngsters and ourselves to breathe in the colors of the sunset, draw lots of pictures, read excellent books and make an effort to recount the day's highs and lows over dinner. Or maybe it's about sharing the memories of the woman who wrapped the travel sized toothpaste and fuzzy pink socks, and saving empty boxes so our kids' imaginations can fill them.


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