Communication Blackout

By Donna Simmons

My sons have left home. They are now 18 and 20 and live in England, which is where they were born.  They are tall, strong, articulate young men, deeply concerned with the inequalities and tensions of our current day. The elder seeks community-based political solutions and the younger is focused on the quality of human interactions in his everyday life.

And neither of them uses social media or even the computer or a phone very much. For me, this is hard as it can mean that I don’t speak with them for weeks on end. But overall, because I see how it impacts their independence and their growth, I am very pleased.

For instance, the two of them hitch-hiked to France a couple of weeks ago. They were aiming for a particular city, and an event that was taking place there. They agreed that if they got separated, that they would meet in a particular park. And that is what happened. My older boy got lucky and got a ride all the way to his destination. The younger – as he told me a week later – had three days of “trials and tribulations”. And so Daniel, the older boy, simply hung out in the park for three days, waiting for his brother to show up. Once there, they navigated an unknown city in an unknown language and found their way.

This probably sounds crazy to some people. Why not avail oneself of modern conveniences like GPS units and cell phones? Why have to take such chances and rely so heavily on….on other people. Which is what happened. During those three days in the park, Daniel found   people to pass the time with. He got to know a bit about the city and the culture. And he also relied on himself and his own inner resources.

This kind of life lesson is especially valable for  Gabriel, the younger boy. Here’s a boy who has in the past refused to ask shopkeepers questions and described himself as ‘timid’ and ‘shy’. Well, during those three days of trials and tribulations, he had to depend on himself, on what he could call up from deep within, to keep going. No one was going to do it for him.

Both boys had a wonderful experience concerning how to survive without communication tools several summers ago when we were on a bus taking us from La Crosse to St Paul. The GPS on the bus suddenly broke and the driver was completely helpless. There were paper maps in the vehicle but he was so used to using a GPS that he could not read them. Maybe he forgot how. Or, scarier still, maybe he had never learned how. So my husband went up to the front of the bus. He didn’t especially know the way, but he knew west from east and that, for instance, Winona was in the right direction – and so directed the bus (and without even the aid of the paper maps for extra Brownie points!). Our boys were very impressed by this and over the years we have seen again and again how deeply this simple lesson in common sense and a rudimentary skill such as knowing how to read a map, influenced them.

Gabriel did have some preparation for these current adventures last summer when he spent a couple of months hitching around the UK and US. What was especially wonderful were his experiences with strangers, with people who extended help to this unknown boy. He had people drive out of their way to take him places; he had people buy him food; he had people (not scary ones) offer him a place to stay. And he got to hear the stories of mothers, veterans, people bored with work or looking for work, ex-hippies who used to hitch…all sorts of people.He got to experience a connection with other human beings in a way that many people, who stick only to those whom they know, never have.

Back to the use of cell phones, well, Gabriel did have one for a while. He had a girlfriend who insisted he get one so she could call him all the time. I can remember one notable evening when she texted him at least 20 times in the course of an hour. He was doing his homework (he was at school at this time) and every time she texted, he’d put down his work and read what she had written and usually respond. I was sitting across from him, knitting. Finally I said ” what is the deal here?” Nothing, he responded. Just my girlfriend. So how about you focus on your homework and then when it’s done,   you text her? Because of the way he’d been raised, he knew that a) this was a reasonable suggestion and b) I was not about to be fobbed off by ” but that’s what all the kids do”. So we “entered into  negotiations”. He could see that breaking one’s focus and concentration repeatedly was simply not a good habit to cultivate – whether it was interrupting one’s homework or something else in one’s lfe. As a (mostly) homeschooled boy who valued long uninterrupted periods of focus on a particular interest, he knew from his own experience, how disorientating split concentration could be. And he didn’t want that.

The end came, though when one night I went into his room to look for something and found him asleep with the cell phone, switched on, on the pillow next to his head. The next morning we had a long discussion about the health effects of cell signals. And I asked the question of why he needed to have the phone on like that. What it came down to was that his girlfriend was having some problems and that she “needed” to be able to contact him. Frequently. So I pointed out that if she was in trouble, she needed him in person, not via text. And that in the interim, both she and he needed to sleep and not be constantly at the mercy of such communication.

Well, that chapter of the cell phone story ended soon after because Gabriel and his girlfriend broke up. Most of his friends had cell phones but he was starting to become uncomfortable with how they were used. And besides, he had facebook.

But eventually, without me saying anything at all, Gabriel became uneasy about facebook. His brother eschewed social networking from the beginning, knowing how dangerous it is for internet companies to have all of one’s data and  to also have such a potentially powerful tool at their ultimate control (witness the fact that the British PM contemplated blacking out facebook and twitter during the recent riots in the UK). But Gabriel only really got fed up with facebook when, once again, he saw how it affected his friends’ relationships. He thought it weird and unnatural how one “friends” people whom one has never spoken with in the flesh and how people can post anything, including hurtful or misinformed information, one someone’s page. He saw how his friends were affected by this and he saw how a few teens seemed to live for updates and messages on their page – but in real life had trouble socializing.

So he closed his facebook account – which was an eye opening experience for him as it is not possible to simply delete one’s page. Facebook “saves” it for you “just in case”. It took him three days of downloading special programmes to be able to override Facebook’s possession of his personal information and finally be rid of it.

By now the cell phone had gone. Again, this was mainly because of what he observed around him. What bugged him most was how kids would arrange to get together – and then spend half their time communicating with other people on their cell phones!

That’s the story of my media-free boys. They value human relationships in the flesh and they know how to handle themselves in difficult situations. How could I be prouder of them?

Posted on November 3, 2011 in Family Life and Parenting, Older Children, Technology

  • Penny says:

    This is a great post Donna – I hope a lot of people read it and ponder social media in their own lives. And bravo! to your boys for figuring it all out for themselves, and for sharing their experiences. I hope they always enjoy their adventures.

  • Daniele says:

    Both sound like fabulous young men with great heads on their shoulders!! The fact they’re confident enough to ward off the social networking ‘norms’ – in which so (too) many others naively immerse themselves – is more than admirable… Kudos to you too mom & dad!!

  • Catherine Forest says:

    This is awesome Donna!So inspiring! We are in Costa Rica now and it is such a learning curve for us, adults, to deal with people in another language, feeling (and looking!) clearly different than the local. It is a great lesson for us, and obviously for the girls too!

  • Carla Melton says:

    It really is so lovely to hear about how your boys are doing, now as adults. I just listened to your festivals audio too. Thanks so much. I always enjoy listening to you and reading your thoughts. Always food for thought. Merry Christmas,

  • Terry Galbraith says:

    Hi Donna,
    I’ve just visited to buy material for the year ahead … a bit late already 🙂 Anyway it is great to read about our once “little homeschoolers” doing well in the wide world as young adults. Thanks for sharing. In fact blogging is the only “modern” thing I do so I may be back to have a read through the year.
    I haven’t read too much of your blog just yet, but I’m wondering whether you have just the two children, and whether they have flown the coop now. I reckon that’d be pretty hard after being so close through homeschooling and engaged parenting for so long. My thoughts are with you and your husband.
    BTW my children and your sons share names, I have Mia Gabriel and Joe Daniel, quite a bit younger though (just now).
    Thanks, Terry

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