Next weekend I’m supposed to run an informal, untimed half marathon with B. He’s 11, and we ran this race last summer too. He’s extremely proud of this accomplishment–and rightly so. He’s also earned age-group awards in several 5Ks, and he completed his first triathlon earlier this summer. But I started running in 2011, so he was eight when we entered our first race. We never did the running stroller thing, so take the rest of this post with a grain of salt.
This summer, I’ve run (or biked–which I did last night, thanks to the knee situation) on a trail popular with families, and many times I encountered parents pushing kids in running strollers. I am impressed by this–in the summer heat, or uphill, it’s hard enough to drag myself along at a respectable pace, let alone doing so while pushing another human or two. I think it’s great that parents bring their kids out to the trails–they’re setting a positive example of health and fitness, and they’re sharing time outdoors. Win-win, right?
Not quite. More often than not, the kid(s) in the stroller are glued to Mom or Dad’s phone. The device shrieks game sounds or kids’ movies as they ride along. The kid is in one world, the parent in another.
Running with B isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, but it’s time we spend together. He loves to chat about his Minecraft worlds, Iron Man suit designs, and books he’s reading. Sometimes he grumbles and complains, and he runs ahead to be by himself for a while. But good run or bad, it’s a shared experience–two people not just in the same place at the same time, but slogging along together. Maybe it’s easier for me because he’s older, maybe it’s because he’s an only child and has always been good at entertaining himself with limited access to digital devices. But I think handing the kid a screen (“sit here and watch this passively”) negates the message parents are trying to send by taking the kid along in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m no technophobe. I got an email account back when AOL (on dialup) charged by the minute. My first cell phone came with something like 50 minutes of talk time a month, and all it did was make phone calls. I’ve had an iPhone since its first generation, and I pink-puffy-heart love unlimited texting. I wrote part of this post on my iPad. In elementary school, B started with a basic Kindle and recently upgraded to the Kindle Fire. He also has his own laptop. He’s allowed unlimited reading time on his Kindle, but one hour a day of game/computer/Wii time. I am competent with all kinds of technology available in my classroom, and I’m often the one asked to troubleshoot tech problems around my corner of campus. So I understand that these devices are completely integrated into our society these days, and in many ways I embrace it. There’s nothing like taking a digital tour around the setting of a book my students are reading, or having answers at my fingertips.
But as a teacher, I also see negative effects of constant digital access. Many of my middle school students can’t focus on reading a short story or an article for more than 20 or 30 seconds (yes, I’ve timed it). Twenty minutes of independent reading is beyond some of them. They announce, “I don’t read, unless it’s the cheat codes to a video game.” They complain that they’re not allowed to text in class, and they beg administrators to allow them to use their phones at lunch “so that we will be quiet.” Students texting in class became such a problem at a local high school that the principal banned phone use during class time (still allowing them access between classes) and there was an uproar so mighty that it warranted an article in the newspaper. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t see a huge leap between regularly handing a small child a phone to keep him occupied in a stroller and a later inability to pay attention to the analog world of school and life.
So yeah, I’m troubled by this.
When I run alone, I listen to podcasts or music. I’ve learned obscure trivia from Stuff You Should Know, and I’ve laughed out loud to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. I enjoy both of those podcasts–when I’m by myself. But any time I run with someone else–my kid, my spouse, my running buddies–I leave it all behind. We definitely don’t talk 100% of the time, but I think the shared experience is important. Not just parallel experience where we’re doing the same activity within our own bubbles, but actually sharing the experience. I mean, I’ve got some fantastic memories–G’s stories during the Army Ten-Miler. K’s dancing through mile five of the Cleveland half. Getting J across the finish line of our self-proclaimed Achilles Heel 10K. Listening to B describe every Iron Man suit ever designed. Laughing while S and P invent some kind of runners’ diaper. Trying to figure out if A used “fuck” as all eight parts of speech. And the list goes on. For me, running with others isn’t just about completing the distance. It’s about friendship. Is that too touchy-feely, new-age, idealistic of me?
Some of you might think I just don’t understand, that parents want an hour to run in peace, and giving a kid an iPhone in the stroller makes that happen. And some might justify it by saying the kids are playing educational games. Others might say that since I’ve never run with a kid in a stroller, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Yet others dismiss me as a fuddy-duddy English teacher stuck in the last century, staring over her half-glasses while grumbling about “kids today!” Fair enough. But instead of focusing on reasons I’m wrong, try looking at your next run with your child(ren) not as something they have to endure, but as something you can do together. That hour-long run is an hour you and your kids have to observe the world around you, to chat about anything, or about nothing. No educational game can do that. An hour of silent, glassy-eyed staring at a screen can’t do that.
We have seen the Zombie Apocalypse, and it is us.