A Christian colleague of mine, the shortly-to-be-retiring headteacher at a school in Guildford likes to write to parents from time to time about things he hates. I like the idea and perhaps should emulate it, just so people know where I stand. Being socially conservative and politically on the left is a strange place to be but it leads to some good rants. It also meant that when I went on some of these websites that you plug in policy preferences to see who you should vote for, I came out on the cusp of the Green Party and UKIP, because I have a strong and high view of marriage. Apparently none of the mainstream parties think that that is worth fighting over – and yet, as the single most powerful social unit in our society, we ought to fight for the place of marriage in our culture like never before. For those of you who worry about me, well, thanks. But UKIP? Are they the only socially conservative force in our society?
Anyway, back to things I hate. One thing I hate to see is parents picking up children after school and ignoring them because they are updating their status or whatever on a smartphone. Just unreal, to be honest. I have written on this before, I know. Nothing I said nearly three years ago has changed. It has probably got worse, I suppose. This sign is therefore something I would like to put up around school (the fence would be of better quality, obviously) just as a not-so-gentle reminder of our responsibilities to our children. Has anyone ever said, when faced with the struggles of teenager angst and children’s difficulties, “I wish I’d spent more time on my smartphone“? There are some great pictures here to remind us of these responsibilities. More seriously, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in the April 2014 issue of its journal, published a study of patterns of adult phone behaviour at a collection of fast-food “restaurants” in and around Boston (MA) suggesting (and only that, to be true to the conclusions) that child behaviour deteriorated with increased mobile device use, and that there was an observable correlation between phone use and negativity of adult-child interaction. A “focal practice” of eating together and talking while doing so is perhaps the opposite of this, and has also some surprising results. A study published in the Journal of Development and Behaviorial Pediatrics last year also suggests that there is an observable increase in child social-emotional health as they engage in family routines. And this unfortunately brings me to another thing….
….another thing I hate is the fact that more and more children are coming onto schools with a decreasing ability to relate to other children, as though the choices at home for children’s entertainment have been a screen rather than a friend. The media has a huge responsibility for this in two ways: it has, firstly, promulgated the fear of the outside world and the dangers in it (target audience: parents) and secondly, it has shamelessly encouraged the virtual world of watching TV programs and the merchandise that tags along to the virtual world as being the real, worthwhile world (target audience: children and their pocket money). Recent research points to this lack of relationship as being partly caused by the obsession (and it is one – just walk along a street to see) with smart technology, resulting in inability to read other human faces and to pick up on the body language of those we are communicating with: both of these are features of children on the autistic spectrum. Once again we come back to the intention of God that we live and function in community in order to be fully human. In order to do this, we have of course to fight 400 years of the western emphasis on the individual, but more recently, upon those focal practices that allow us to reach our full richness of humanity, within local community. Talking to real people face to face is a good focal practice to cultivate, whilst slipping your iPhone back into your bag.
If anyone is in any doubt about this, as a head of a school, my expectation of parents is that they choose, deliberately, to allow their children to interact with their friends and with family at every opportunity, and to give to their children the gift of others. I expect to see children in school whose preference is for each other and for the love of their parents and relatives, not for the machines that isolate them from those they love.
As always I am interested in reactions, and would especially like to know whether we ought to trial this sign up outside school.