“Is that your daughter?” The question, expressed urgently, is often not a welcome one. While trying to navigate the perils of a public restroom with multiple children, it is especially unwelcome. When I hesitantly answered, “yes,” acknowledging my child, the woman launched quite unexpectedly into a shower of praise.
Insisting the children were “so polite,” she enthusiastically raved about their manners, awkwardly erupting in applause, proclaiming, “This is your standing ovation, Mom, because I know they don’t come out the chute that way!” That’s about as close to poetry as you are likely to get these days.
What monumental event had led to such high praise? On entering the restroom, we encountered a handwritten sign posted on one stall. A child, not yet able to read, asked about the scrawl, the meaning of being “out of order,” and the viable alternatives. This simple interaction, one that you would assume is commonplace, stunned the woman of grandmotherly age.
You might be tempted in such a situation to swell with pride, but this urge is quickly followed by a sinking feeling of horror. Is having a brief exchange with a child about an observable fact in the physical environment really remarkable? When did the bar get so low?
In a world with fewer children and more isolation and technology, the bar is, indeed, that low. Open-minded people have been saying for years that technology has always changed lives, and we should not be afraid. It’s perfectly normal, they assured us, for children sitting in the same room with each other to text answers to the teacher as part of a review game. The old-timers used to be afraid that kids reading books would be stunted. This is no different!
Yet, you cannot help but notice that people who read books are still able to operate a microwave and tie their own shoes. For kids growing up on smartphones, the outcome looks less promising. When children are plugged into iPads to keep them quiet during daily activities and hooked up to televisions suspended from the ceiling at the dentist’s office, what are the boring quotidian experiences that they are missing out on? And what are the consequences?
Writing in The Wall Street Journal about the challenges posed by Big Tech for little kids, Peggy Noonan captures the frustration of many parents. It is clear that popular apps negatively affect the emotional health of teenagers, especially teen girls. Perhaps the most damning evidence is that some of the very same people making money off such apps send their children to schools free of the taint of computer screens and smartphones. But how do you, the plebian, get off the treadmill and disconnect? Half-measures are difficult to enact, and banning technology renders children veritable social outcasts. Still, it seems worth it.
Noonan includes an anecdote about a mother with many children whose children used little technology. While at the grocery store, she was asked, “Do you homeschool?” Noonan explains, “The mother wasn’t sure of the spirit of the question but said, ‘Yes, I do. Why do you ask?’ The checkout woman said, ‘Because they have children’s eyes.’” If it is that obvious that children are being raised differently, there may be something there worth investigating. Sitting out the technology quagmire seems increasingly reasonable.
A full two years after Covid-19 brought normal social interaction to a grinding halt, you will still find stray signs affixed in waiting rooms, hanging so long they have been overlooked. Expressing the rallying cry of March 2020, they plead, “Stay Home. Stay Safe. Save Lives.”
Setting aside the question of whether isolating healthy people was ultimately a prudent decision for society at large, the forced closure of schools was a catalyst in many families. Brought together by the strange events in an increasingly strange world, many families discovered that homeschooling was not as far-fetched as they once imagined. Absent the grinding strain of institutional bureaucracy, some children’s migraines disappeared, their moods brightened, their sleep improved. Covid-19 or not, staying home might really be a good thing for some children. More than anything, what children stand to gain in home education is the ability to be real children, innocent and not yet deformed by antisocial technology.
Homeschooling does not mean isolation. As William Edmund Fahey rightly noted, “Catholic and Western tradition have always held that education is communal. Since man is a political or social animal—as Aristotle, Cicero, and St. Thomas Aquinas tell us—we must never neglect the communal dimension of education.” Fahey argues that homeschooling can lead to an unhealthy individualism and should not be considered the norm. But in a time of crisis—like when it is considered normal to screen 8-year-olds for anxiety—Catholics are called upon to respond. Teaching children primarily in the home or in small group settings is a viable option for many.
But will your children wear socks with sandals and struggle to understand conventional humor? Homeschoolers you meet now are not the stereotypical weirdos. In a strange role reversal, it’s now often the homeschooled child who can make eye contact and give a firm handshake. Of course, there are still children in schools of every kind who can accomplish basic social interaction, but they are increasingly the exception. As for humor, it seems our culture is increasingly humorless, so there is little cause for concern there.
It is true to say that children “don’t come out the chute” civilized and selfless. If most schools are failing to encourage the virtues necessary to accomplish these aims, leaving the schools behind in favor of small communities of like-minded, largely technology-free families seems advisable if not outright necessary.
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