A friend of mine recently texted her baby sitter to confirm a 7 p.m. arrival. She received a quick “yep” right back. But there was something else in the text, too: the sitter’s personal tag line, which read, "I eat tha pussé."
I spit out my coffee when my friend shared this with me. Look, Cr8zSexyThang99, I thought. No judgment on your sexual practices (or your spelling), but is the vagina shout-out really necessary? I mean, on your own time, do what you want — go for it! But it’s hard enough monitoring what my kids are doing online. I don’t want to be up at night worrying that I’m paying their baby sitter $16 an hour for lessons in sexting.
Welcome to parenting in the digital age. Figuring out how to ensure that my daughter, 5, and son, 4, don’t grow up to be iPhone-addicted oversharers feels like a losing battle. Britain identified the youngest iPad “addict” in April — a little girl, age 4 — propelling my anxiety into a new stratosphere of Oh My God These Kids Are All Going To Be In Straitjackets type of thinking. Maybe it sounds early to be worrying this way, but my kids don’t exactly scream “we can manage our own media intake, Mom.” At home, my son excels at growing his "boogie collection," a green, pus-like blob of boogers he wipes on the side of his bed. My daughter has a habit of leaving her beloved buhbuh, a soft bunny-blanket-combo with whom her attachment is fierce, in odd places. And yet, the media onslaught is all around them: You can’t fill up a tank of gas, take a cab or get a haircut today without having a video, usually one involving Kim Kardashian’s baby bump, blasted onto your eyeballs.
So I decided to exert some control over the situation. Much like a crazed woman alphabetizing her cosmetics to manage her nervous breakdown, I have put my children on a technology diet: one hour of TV on weekdays, family movie night on the weekends, and no access to iPads, iPhones or video games except on airplane trips. (And for other hostage situations, like when the stomach virus swats all four of us to the ground in a single night.)
Navigating this terrain of Parenthood 2.0 has been a challenge. Buckling her seat belt on a recent trip to Atlanta, my 5-year-old daughter frothed at the mouth like an overheated horse as I pulled my iPad out of its sleeve. By hour three of the “Dora’s Adventures” app, her eyes bugged out like she’d been on a 24-hour cocaine binge. Her fists pumped in the air to the beat of “Do-do-do-do-do-Dora!” at 12 times normal volume and speed. I pretended not to notice her mania and returned to my magazine. We'll be landing soon, I thought.
But I see children lost in the netherworld of portable devices daily, especially here in the Bay Area. Last month, I met a friend for dinner at a popular spot in the trendy Mission district. As the hostess walked us to our table, we passed a family of four dining together. The mother and father were chatting over their sauvignon blanc, while their toddler daughter and preschool-age son sat sucked into the vortex of their separate iPads, each enjoying a movie via personal headset. As I stared in amazement from our table, the children looked like dolls, sitting perfectly in their seats without moving an inch or making a sound. It looked like the grown-ups were playing “tea party,” and each had brought their own stuffed-animal-like “kid” to sit at the table with them and pretend to join in on the meal.
Technology has long created a generation gap, even if it wasn’t always as noticeable. Just 15 years ago, while I was in college, my grandmother struggled to master the voice-mail box. She spoke into the machine as if dictating a letter. After the beep, she’d say, “Dear Jackie, I hope you have a great time at the smoker tonight. What will you wear? A pair of slacks? Love, Granny.” I always loved that she thought the fraternity and sorority “mixers” I attended were called smokers. I thought a smoker actually sounded more fun.
But today's technology evolves so fast that my rules can’t keep up. My children’s new media consumption is no longer defined by what I allow. I can lay down strict rules, but it’s like oxygen; it permeates everything. My daughter has recently mastered Instagram. A baby sitter showed her how to use it, once, which is all it took. This new generation masters screen-swiping years before butt-wiping.
Our rotating crew of 20-something baby sitters has exposed my kids to a slew of inappropriate content: One sitter accidentally revealed a naked photo of her fiancé posing, full frontal, in front of a jacuzzi. "Why would someone take a picture like that?" my daughter asked me that night. Another young caretaker clicked on a music video of the popular song “Party Rockers,” not realizing it was R-rated. “Mom!” my son squealed, “the singer said, ‘I’m going to make you lose your mind,’ and then ripped his pants off!"
"Um, he was warm?" I tried to explain.
At a restaurant for Cinco de Mayo last month, my daughter pulled my smartphone out of my bag. Before I could lick another piece of salt off my margarita glass, she had snapped a photo of my husband, cropped it, picked her favorite Instagram filter to enhance it, and posted it on my feed for all of the online world to see. This from the daughter whose mother only allows apps on airplanes.
But while it may feel like the rules of parenting have changed on me, I know that my struggle is merely a new version of the age-old dilemma: How to give your children enough rules to protect, but not suffocate them. Ultimately, I don’t want to dictate what my kids do; I want them to self-regulate technology, the same way they’ll have to with sugar — and later, as adults, with credit cards, work and margaritas. It’s not always easy. But I will keep fighting valiantly to get them to turn off their devices once in a while; ask them to think before they post. “What you write on the Web, stays in everyone’s head!” I’ll remind them over the years, wagging my finger back and forth as they roll their eyes. A refrain that just may become this generation’s annoying parental scold. But maybe — maybe — they’ll actually hear it.
And one poignant afternoon, when the time comes to drop my daughter off at college, I’ll cock my head toward the sky with a satisfied look that says, Fly away safely, my love. I’ll congratulate myself on raising a wise girl, who is confident enough to make her own good choices. As my husband starts to drive away, he and I will exchange a bittersweet look and, then, panicked, I’ll roll down my window to utter one final piece of advice. “Remember what I said about e-signatures, sweetie!” I’ll yell to her across the quad. “Nobody wants to know if you eat tha pussé!”