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June 29, 2007

The implications of an iSociety

I've been ruminating (another word I love -- and which always reminds me of Gary Larson's Far Side Cows) for a few weeks on two separate, unrelated conversations I had with parents of teens and 'tweens that tie in (at least in my mind!) to recent posts by Jeff and Catherine and at least one of my own old posts.

Since I'm still in the middle of processing, this is more random, stream-of-consciousness thought but I wanted to throw this out there and hear your own experiences and observations on this subject.

In the first conversation, a parent was telling me that she thinks it's more crucial than ever to be in constant communication with her children, to know their friends (and their friends' parents), to know where they are and who they are with (and to sometimes tell them they can't go certain places with certain people) and to be vigilant in teaching them -- through words and actions -- morals, values, character, respect and responsibility. Her response to another parent who called her a slave driver for making her boys mow the lawn, clean their room and do other chores around the house: "My job as a parent is to teach them how to grow into men and to become responsible adults." But, she said, in a world where kids have, expect, and demand instant -- and total -- access to almost anything and anyone at anytime, it's made her job more difficult. Before I had a chance to ask her what that meant, exactly, the conversation shifted to another topic.

In a second conversation later that day with this person and two other parents, I commented on how different kids today are from us when it comes to manners, etiquette, and the idea of "what's yours is mine." When we were kids, it would never enter our head that we could just open up someone else's refrigerator or pantry, help ourselves to whatever and however much we wanted whenever we wanted without so much as asking and without a thank-you. We would have waited until we were offered something by a parent or at least by the kid who lived there. This was true not just at our friends' homes, but even at our grandparents' or other relatives' -- any house other than our own. You didn't treat others' possessions, or food, as your own and didn't take, use, or ingest what wasn't yours without permission.

I asked them why parents don't teach kids today not to do that. Their answer? "You have to understand, kids today are used to having whatever, and whoever, they want, whenever they want. They really think that what's yours is mine and what's mine is yours, and they mean everything and everyone. In today's world, you have to pick your battles even more so than our parents did. So, if it's a choice between taking what is in my refrigerator without asking and, how shall I say this politely, taking my child, I'll spend my time fighting the bigger battles."

There it was again -- the more subtle implications of what the concepts of instant gratification, instant access, total access, and "what's yours is mine" can mean. So subtle, that I didn't quite get their drift.

They then proceeded to fill me in with stories of what some of those bigger battles were in the fight against total, instant access to whatever and whoever, whenever: Like figuring out how to handle a kid who "dropped by" at 10 pm uninvited, knowing his friend wasn't home, and announcing he was just there to take a shower before heading out to his next late-night engagement, and who a week later showed up at 11 pm, again uninvited, to say he was there to spend the night and should he sleep in his friends' bed or on the couch?

Odd, but not as disturbing as the battles involving the "whoever" part of instant total access. Like having to teach kids that even if everyone else is nonchalantly changing clothes in front of one another (girls and boys together) they shouldn't. Or keeping their kids away from skinny-dipping swimming parties or, worse yet, "rainbow parties" (if you don't know what this is -- it was news to me too -- I can't explain it on this G-rated site) where cell phones snap photos that end up on MySpace the next day.

And to think I had to take my finals and almost didn't get to walk at graduation because I ran through the boys' bathroom after the last bell on the last day of high school (after having a boy go in to be sure no one was in there) and got caught!

My head was reeling after hearing these stories, and my heart went out to all the parents out there who are swimming upstream against the powerful forces of our iSociety (and against the powerful forces of parents who are hurtling downstream with their kids in tow).

And I'm still trying to get my head around how all of this connects to ideas of community, intimacy, authenticity, family, openness, connectedness. How much is too much? Does instant, total, 24/7 access equal true community and intimacy and connectedness, or is it, as others have said, really just extreme narcissism? (the "i" in iSociety standing for both "instant" and "I" as in "I get what I want")

Have the lines really blurred as much as these parents say, at least in some circles, so that there are no more boundaries between self and friend and family and private and public, and is that OK?

Do parents today really have to sacrifice teaching basic etiquette and respect for oneself and others to their kids in order to win the bigger battles? And what happened to my generation that our parents fought both large and small battles and yet it's my generation that opened the door for what's happening today?

And does no one but me see a connection between our culture's more relaxed, casual attitude towards dress (business casual for those who have Paris, Britney and Lindsay as their fashion icons now means showing more skin than I show at the swimming pool), and pre-marital, extra-marital and online sex, ("Mommy and daddy -- and everyone on TV and in the movies -- sleep around and watch porn, why can't I?") and what today's teens think is "normal" behavior?

Oh. My head hurts. Too much ruminating for a Friday afternoon. If any of you have any insight, observations, or comments on the implications of an iSociety on our behavior, relationships, culture, etc. post away. I'm unplugging and getting together with some real, live people for some real, lively conversation. And I'll stay out of their refrigerator and keep my clothes on while I talk!

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Comments

CLH

Wow--I'm totally shocked. Well, that's overstating; I've just not seen kids who would be so rude. My daughter's friends not only don't invite themselves, let alone just stick their hands in the fridge, they wait to be invited. And if my daughter pulled that stunt, call me 'slavedriver,' but I'd have her scrub their kitchen. Why can't the 'rents say no? It's not hard...

When you ask, "Do parents today really have to sacrifice teaching basic etiquette and respect for oneself and others to their kids in order to win the bigger battles?"--my first thought was the broken windows theory Chuck likes to talk about:
http://www.breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=3292
When you fight and win the small battles, you don't have to worry about the bigger ones. That one mom shouldn't be afraid to talk to the shower/sleepover kid's mom about her concern. We need to stop being afraid to offend, and be more afraid of what not risking offense might cause.

Pinon Coffee

I'm a young adult, and I agree with CLH. Teens and twenty-somethings don't have to be barbarians--for that's the opposite of being "civilized," "able to live in a city or community." It's ironic, isn't it, that my generation wants community so badly and does so many things to undermine it?

I was blessed by parents who insisted on table manners, correct grammar, and addressing adults as Mr. or Mrs. One of my treasured memories is of my sister babysitting for a man with a Ph.D who wanted to be called by his first name. She called him "Dr. Mr. [last name], Sir."

I do directly relate the general abysmal spelling-and-punctuation with the general decline of manners-and-courtesy. I don't object to blogs and instant messenger on principle--obviously!--but I think those media are conducive to sloppiness, and if you don't take care, you will get into the habit of writing badly. It's not completely the medium itself, but how you use it. Some of the best and most edifying conversations I've ever had were over instant messenger, with capital letters at the beginning of each sentence, periods at the end, and correct spelling all the way through. But I think that's the exception rather than the standard.

Grammar isn't a bogey constructed by English (worse yet, Latin!) teachers to make people's lives miserable. It's a reflection of the nature of language itself and an aid to real communication. Obeying the rules of grammar rather than expressing yourself any-which-a-way is an act of humility: and humility doesn't come easily to any nation or culture, ours definitely included.

Brian

Sheesh. I can't even imagine. I mowed the lawn, cleaned the dishes, took out the trash (my LEAST favorite chore for some reason), and routinely cleaned my room (my small victory was managing to convince my parents that making my bed didn't need to be made on the weekends!) ... I always saw it as just a part of childhood. Maybe it's nostalgia, but isn't that what growing up is?

That being said, my parents always impressed upon my friends to not worry about "offending" them by asking for food. I think context is important. My best friends eventually felt comfortable grabbing a drink from the fridge or a snack from a drawer but they certainly didn't expect it. In those cases, I think the sense of community was enriched. But only because it was built and earned, not taken for granted and expected.

Thanks for sharing your stream of consciousness!

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