Were the Good Old Days Really Better?

by Sherry- March 8, 2013 • 4:00 pm

Every day, I pass a sign, tacked on our office bulletin board, that says, in huge red letters:

“19% of kids worldwide (ages 2-5) can operate a smartphone app. Only 9% can tie their shoelaces.” 

Where did this dire statistic come from, and what’s it for, other than to leave us pining for a (better, more innocent?) time when presumably all Kindergarteners were shoe-tying dynamos? Turns out the stat came from a 2010 study of technology’s effect on children. Another tidbit in the report reveals that more children ages 2-5 are able to play a computer game than ride a bike.

While I’ll buy the truth of these numbers, I disagree with what they imply about growing up today. Because the question should not be: what are kids better off doing, reading books or using apps? The real question is what are they doing when they are engaged with technology? And could it, in fact, be just fine for them?

Yes, my 5-year-old daughter, Savanna, can’t tie her shoelaces (she doesn’t even have a pair of lace-ups). And yes, she’s been using smartphone apps since before her third birthday. And no, I don’t believe either of these is bad for her, when viewed in the overall context of her life. And from what I hear from other parents, I’m not alone.

Let’s go back for a moment to that statistic, past the sensationalism, and consider feet today. Velcro fasteners and slip-ons mean kids don’t need laces. And the implied expectation that 2-5-year-olds used to be able to tie their own shoes? Actually, the fine motor skills and multistep-direction-following required to tie shoelaces aren’t present in most kids until they’re in the first grade. And most children don’t possess the developmental skills necessary for bike-riding until they’re 5 or 6.

So what gives? What’s really behind the headline, and why does it strike a nerve? I’ll take a stab at it: I think it has to do with a natural assumption that the new is worse than “the good old days.” You don’t have to look much further than Facebook for evidence: “Click like if you drank water from an outdoor hose, never wore a bike helmet, stayed out past dark, and still grew up just fine.” We parents want our kids to share our experiences, so we can be close to them in that way. Totally understandable. But perhaps what’s “not as good” to us will be one day for them the object of longing. Think about it: what “newfangled” device will our grandkids lament is replacing the “good old” iPhone? Trust me: it’ll happen.

My daughter was born in 2007, along with the first smartphone. She loves coloring apps, games (like Talking Tom Cat, which cracks us both up) and photos. Who’s to say scrolling through our Yosemite trip snapshots is somehow a lesser experience because she swiped a screen rather than turning stiff, sticky-coated cardboard pages? How important is it that our favorite music (Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, these days) blares from my laptop rather than a turntable? Sure, aesthetics matter. But real life, and what’s “good” for kids, is more complex than “Oh my gosh, kids are abandoning shoe-tying for smartphones!” Let’s give ourselves—and our kids—a little more credit.

The “apps instead of shoelaces” lens wants us to believe that by letting go of how things were, we’re shortchanging our kids. But there’s a difference between truly harmful losses and those that are just part of life. Nobody’s too bent out of shape that kids enter school these days not knowing how to use an inkwell and quill, for instance. We ought to give ourselves room to appreciate the outmoded and the new, at the same time. And teach our kids to do the same.

Most important, “technology,” as it refers to anything with an on/off switch and a screen, is only part of the equation. Of course nothing can replace kids’ tactile experiences or our time face to face with them. But what a statistic like the one above leaves out is that just because a child is using an iPad doesn’t mean that’s all she’s doing. And it certainly doesn’t mean she therefore must be sacrificing learning how to climb a tree or throw a ball. Or tie her shoes. Eventually. Savanna and I are working on that.


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