Saturday, September 26, 2015
“Keep your eye on the ball, Trav. Watch it until it hits your bat.”
That’s what my dad used to tell me while he pitched to me for hours in the backyard after work. It was the 1980s, and I think dads all over the country were also out back pitching and catching with their sons and daughters, sharing similar sayings and wisdom. They taught us about baseball and softball, but more than anything they made us feel loved and important simply by hanging out. Back in those days, before the Internet, work stayed at work because, well, how the heck could a guy work at home anyway? And as far as it went for us kids, the first Nintendo was just barely out and cartoons were only on TV on Saturdaymornings, so we didn’t have much to do beyond riding bikes after school until Dad got home for catch.
Maybe it wasn’t quite that simple (after all, us Millennials didn’t grow up in the 50s and 60s, like our own dads), but, I tell you what, those days when we were kids were definitely a whole lot different from what’s going on now. And, if you ask me, here’s the key component: super-powerful, handheld computers known as smartphones and tablets.
Case in point: Wyatt’s first trip to the big league ballpark. The Rockies were doing so bad in July of 2015 that they just about gave away tickets to a Coors Field showdown against the Rangers. Amy’s mom, Sandy, is a coupon aficionado (no joke--she literally has a rolodex of coupons), and she worked the system to gain three tickets to the game. Even better, the first 10,000 entrants got a ballpark hot dog for just $1. I don’t know about you, but my four-year-old son likes few things more than a hot dog, particularly when both of his grandfathers spend a week talking up how good they are at the park. The stage was set for guys night at the baseball field, and Steve (Amy’s dad) and I were just as psyched as Wyatt was to get out there and cheer for the Rockies. A child’s spirit is special and unbridled; Steve and I felt the energy, and Wyatt brought us back to our own childhoods with our dads.
Enthusiasm grew as we parked the truck and walked a few blocks to 2001 Blake Street. My mind wandered briefly to Eric Young’s first pitch home run on the Rockies' original opening day and to the Blake Street Bombers, four exceptional teammates who all hit forty homers in the same season. Wyatt’s sprinting ahead brought me back to reality--the kid was stoked!
We entered the gates, and walked through the crowd. The diamond’s splendid, green grass against a freshly-watered infield under the night lights tugged my son so hard that he didn’t even notice that he was passing a cotton candy stand. He stood overlooking the field, speechless. An epic moment.
Back at our seats with $1 dogs in hand--“These are the best in the world, Dad!”--all three of us got into the game. Steve and I fell seamlessly into explaining the nuances of the game to Wyatt. His energy grew steadily, and by the time legendary slugger Troy Tulowitzki stepped to the plate, Wyatt was out of his seat dancing and chanting. “Tulo! Tulo!”
And then they arrived. The Rangers fans.
Truth be told, I’m a warm weather fan at best, and the full row of Rangers shirts in front of us didn’t bother me at all. Plus, they even had two kids, a boy and a girl, probably three and five, who happened to sit right in front of Wyatt--even better that he could get into the game with two other first-timers!
But then the phones came out. Yes, even before the Rockies could complete another three up, three down at-bat, both of the little Texans sitting in front of Wyatt were on their phones. They turned on the games, and tuned out the game. Even little kids pay attention, and Wyatt took notice.
“Dad, can I play a game on your phone?”
It was an innocent question, and a completely natural one given the peer activities in his vicinity. Nonetheless, my son’s inquiry lit a fire in my mind.
“Are you kidding?!?! You really think I’m going to let you play a game on the phone NOW? You’ve played less than an hour of phone games in your life, and there’s no way in the world we’re going to follow those idiots and start doing it here at the baseball game!”
That’s what I thought.
What I whispered in my four-year-old’s ear, thankfully, was something like: “Bud, we don’t do that here at the ballpark. Let’s pay attention to the world in front of us; look how Tulo gets down low with every pitch so he’s ready if they hit it to him.”
Wyatt was back in the game--the real one.
Those parents in front of us at Coors Field were not idiots. In fact, I’m sure they were and are nice, thoughtful individuals, parents, and professionals. So how does it get to the point that little kids in nice families are playing phone games for an entire baseball game instead of enjoying an incredible experience with their families? To the point that some young children are positioned passively in front of screens for hours every day, spending little time outside in the dirt? To the point that we have convinced ourselves that this app or that can replace the stories, adventures, and projects we could do with our sons and daughters?
My experience as a parent and education professional leads me to believe that we get to such a point not because we are bad people but because we are not thinking and acting with intent to our full potential. Technology is a powerful and ever-present force in our lives, and, as with many topics relevant to fatherhood, if we don’t tackle it head on, it will slowly take us down, seeping in, on, and around the bonds of our families and dreams. Tech is insidious because it’s so seductive and so easy. It’s fun and seems natural. The problem is that doing what seems natural (and what it seems like everyone else is doing) leads to kids playing false games instead of the game of life and dads sitting there next to them checking email, Facebook, LinkedIn, and ESPN.
So, how do we as dads (and moms, of course) avoid the pitfall of trading real-life engagement for high-tech plug-in? To start, think and act with intent on the subject. Think about how you want your kids to turn out. And think about how you want yourself and your spouse to turn out. Consider reading a book on the topic. Think about your values and what’s really important to you as a man and father: real-world living, or the false idols in that little, hand-held screen?
I know that’s a little wishy-washy, but I’m confident that simply considering the topic and acting with intent can change things for the better--or help you greatly in planning a life for that little baby sleeping on your lap right now.
And, for those who want something a bit more tangible, these ideas have been helpful to me and my dad-buddies where the rubber hits the road:
· Develop a shared language with your children around technology. Personally, I like to emphasize the difference between the “real world” and the “tech world.” Kids are smart; they’ll understand.
· Don’t give your young children a phone or tablet of their own. No, not even your old one that doesn’t have cell service. Believe me, they’ll have plenty of time to learn such gadgets without you forcing it on them.
· Think about your own habits, and change them if needed. Talk about this with your spouse.
· Stop telling yourself and everyone else just how freaking busy you are. You’ve got a full and active life. That’s great. But by focusing constantly on how busy you are (it’s pretty much a badge of honor in any conversation these days, right?), you’re ingraining the idea that you must constantly be doing something productive. And so you check the phone constantly, squeeze in this email or that text while the kids watch you or play their tablet game. The snowball grows as it rolls down the hill--soon enough it’s tough to stop. I know you’re busy, but that’s just one story you can can tell yourself. Try replacing it with something like, “I have the time and energy to lead my life however I want. I’m not busy and overwhelmed; I’m in charge.” A dad who thinks he’s too busy has young children who play phone games instead of baseball and teenagers who look at screens instead of the people around them. Refuse to be too busy.
A grandfather, a father, and a little boy at the ballpark, all present in the game of life. Man, that was awesome.
Things have gone well with book marketing, racing, and family for us. The Ultra Mindset appeared recently in SpartanUp! The Podcast and Ru El's Running Podcast, and I look forward to speaking about it this fall in South Dakota, New Jersey, and Texas. At the Wasatch 100, one of the country's classic ultra runs, I had a fun time with my parents and pacer Jon Brown. JB and I hammered it to the line and finished in second place, about one minute back...a real nail-biter!
Thanks for reading,
PS- If you're interested, I'd love to hear what you think about raising kids in the midst of tech.