Virtual childhood

Information-age kids tend to get less fresh air but more social awareness

Illustration By Charles Nitti

I thought I’d stumbled into a time warp the other day when my 13-year-old son and a kid down the street logged off their home computers, met outside our front door and pedaled their bicycles out of the neighborhood. Had the Ghost of Summer Past suddenly materialized and conjured up the year 1959? I imagined Norman Rockwell raising a paintbrush over his canvas, hoping to catch a pair of scruffy boys with skinned knees in the middle of an innocent prank.

The truth is the only reason my son and his friend got together in the first place was because they’d been chatting off and on via the Internet for a couple of weeks. Apparently, one of them suggested it might be interesting to get off their butts and experience a less-virtual reality. From what I’ve gleaned about teenage Internet-chat speak, the conversation probably went something like this:




“N2M, U?” (Not too much, you?)


“Have U seen Dodgeball?” (The movie.)

“Yeah. LMAO.” (Laughed my *** off)

“I’m bored. You should come over or sumthin.”

“LOL…..Uh, OK.” (The idea of getting together seems so bizarre at first, he literally laughs out loud.)

I realize times have changed, and a bicycle isn’t the symbol of empowerment and adventure it was when I was a kid. In addition to the obvious reasons that contemporary children prefer to remain housebound—video games, computers and cable TV—there also are practical considerations. When I was growing up, children weren’t randomly grabbed from the street and murdered. “Don’t take candy from strangers” were the only words of caution we heard before we took off for parts unknown. We didn’t have to strap on helmets, either, so I can relate when my kids tell me they hate riding a bicycle because their heads get sweaty and uncomfortable. There’s also the problem with friends whose parents both work outside the home. Most preteens are housebound latchkey kids who aren’t allowed to leave the house when their mom and dad are gone all day.

But that doesn’t mean I’m inclined to believe my childhood represented “the good old days,” either. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father managed a gas station 16 hours a day in a part of Sacramento that some would call “a bad neighborhood.” There was no such thing as self-service back then, and he had so many incidents with unsavory characters that he couldn’t help but bring his anger home with him. I grew up hearing people of color referred to in terms that would shock my sons, but when I was a kid, those words didn’t faze me. I knew my dad worked long and hard for a low wage and had problems with the non-Caucasian people he encountered, and I accepted the name-calling because I had no basis for thinking life should be any different. In our home, African-Americans were referred to as “colored” or worse, and I certainly wasn’t learning about discrimination in school.

What concerned me more was my father’s ability to somehow buy me a Schwinn bicycle, a purple and white Spitfire, when I was about 9 years old. I couldn’t believe my luck: That bicycle was my ticket to a blissful summer. While my mother baked, sewed and took care of my baby brother, I was gone all day. She had no idea where I was most of the time, but I knew something about her. I knew she got into my father’s liquor cabinet when he wasn’t around. Her drinking was another situation I didn’t question.

For the past few years, I’ve worked in elementary-school classrooms, and occasionally children have confided to me that they spend their afternoons and summers with baby sitters or in daycare and that they wish their career-driven moms were more available. When it’s time to write an essay about what they did on the weekend or during vacations, they list their favorite video games. Sometimes, I can’t help comparing their lives to my idyllic summers as a kid. While my mom watered her sweet peas and sipped bourbon, I’d ride my bicycle to a library a couple of miles away and load up on all the juvenile fiction about heroic dogs that my handlebar basket could hold. I have an image of a small mom and pop hamburger stand nearby where I’d stop and buy a cherry snow cone for about 10 cents, and I can still remember sitting in the shade savoring that sweet frozen ice before my hot ride home.

But there are other images that are less benevolent: for instance, the image of the man who came to our house and collected the garbage every week. He was a strong, burly African-American man—a man the size of a linebacker—and he would come through our back gate with a huge metal trash container hoisted up on one shoulder, his right arm circled around it to hold it in place. He’d dump the contents of our garbage can into his larger container and then heave the load up on his shoulder and go on to the next house. I realize now that he probably bore the weight of several cans of trash before he dumped the whole load into the garbage truck itself and started over, but at the time, it didn’t occur to me that he deserved better working conditions. I knew a white man delivered dairy products to our front porch, but the man who came through the back gate lived in the same shadows as the men who came into my father’s gas station and gave him trouble. One of those men tried to rob my father one night, and when the police caught up with him, they beat him senseless. I didn’t see it happen, of course—I only heard about it—but it’s another image I have: a man who pulled a gun on a gas-station attendant and ended up with his head so battered he almost died.

In some ways, life has improved in the past 40 years, and in other ways, it’s deteriorated. It still saddens me to watch my 16-year-old and 13-year-old turn to electronic games, TV and chat rooms for their entertainment instead of climbing on a bicycle or grabbing a book, but on the plus side, they have a far better understanding of the world than I did at their ages. They can’t know what it was like for my father to grow up during the Depression and help support his family when he was 11 years old—and then later support a family by pumping gas in an impoverished section of town—any more than they can know what it was like to be an African-American hauling a back-breaking load of the white man’s garbage. Neither could I back then. But at least my kids aren’t utterly blind to social, economic and racial issues like I was.

I don’t berate myself for not comprehending what was happening right under my nose in the late ’50s and early ’60s—my father’s work-weary rage, my mother’s alcohol problem and the racism no one discussed—because it was a different era. I’m just glad my sons have had the chance to form their personal outlooks based on the information they’ve received from improved school curricula, diverse media sources and open discussions in our household. They’re aware of hardship and prejudice, and they know how those factors can shape a person’s attitude and behavior. Maybe they’re too focused on modern technology most of the time, and maybe they should pull their dusty bicycles out of the garage more often, but my kids would take a look at who delivered the milk and who collected the trash, and they’d grasp the implications immediately. My younger son has even questioned me about why we live in predominantly Caucasian El Dorado Hills, and I detect the disapproval in his voice. I don’t have a good answer, except to say that we bought an old house in the hills on his dad’s Veterans Affairs loan because we were hoping for a rural environment.

The things my kids know, compared with the things I didn’t know when I owned that Spitfire, make me want to LMAO. Either that or go brood in my flowerbeds with a glass of gin.