I took my family on vacation to a place with no electricity and no running water. We stayed there for ten days. It was electronics cold turkey, and at the end, the consensus among my three children—10, 13 and 15—was that we had stayed too long. I’m inclined to believe that the problem was that we did not stay long enough.
Ten days was not enough time for them to really lose the habit of their electronics addictions. They were never weaned of its pull. Once in range of electricity, it took all of five minutes to revert entirely to their old ways.
During the 10 days away they did grow accustomed to the routines of drawing water, an outhouse, a variety of outdoor activities and—to some extent—reading, but it seems there always remained a deep and nearly ever-present longing for the solace of instant gratification, instant communication.
This year the weather was nothing short of perfect. The blueberries and raspberries were ripe and plentiful. The fishing good. The water clear and ideal for swimming. All was as good as it’s ever going to be, and the verdict …
I do admit that when I was 15, my time on the island—away from anyone who was not immediate family—was hard, but when I was 10, as is my son, it was NOT. When I was 10 and summer came, with its long stretch of freedom, fewer friends and good chunks of semi-boredom, our trip to this island in Canada where we could swim and play, remote, primitive, in the company of only my immediate family, was always the height of my summer. It was so anticipated that it was always nearly impossible to sleep the night before our departure. It was each summer’s great adventure, even though it was essentially the same trip every year.
When I asked my kids if we should come back next year, they said, “No. Let’s go someplace else.” What’s so different for them? The place and the experience are nearly exactly as they were. We share a good bit of genetic material. My wife and I both spent large chunks of time essentially alone in vast natural environs. We loved it. Their response though is dramatically different.
Perhaps this is a reflection of the immense power of the new virtual experience that plays an increasingly prominent role in the lives of our children. For my 9-year-old, the adventures he creates or enters on MineCraft are as good or better than those obtainable on this real trip to the real wilderness. It has all of the upsides—challenges, autonomy, opportunity for mastery, social experience—without most of the downsides—mosquitoes, outhouses, annoying sisters, cleaning the fish you catch and the dishes you use. It’s all the adventure and fun of discovery with none of the interstitial dullness and routine.
How do you compete with that?
I think an answer may be time. Time enough to begin to forget. Time enough to really slow down. Time enough to find new physical and mental routines and habits that satisfy the senses in subtle ways perhaps unachievable in a virtual experience. Vacations, it seems, now require even more time than they once did, even as they are given less. If they are to truly restore us, taking us back to ourselves as we were before electronics stole our solitude, our slowness, our simplicity of thought, they must be given more time to work their magic.
Ten days was not enough. So my children and I only experienced withdrawal—loss, loneliness, boredom, moments of fun and accomplishment, but not mastery, not autonomy, not a sense of being at one with this new environment. We were ever only tourists in a strange and beautiful land. It hadn’t the time to give us what we really needed.
This is sad. Do I force my children to stay longer next time? Do I push them harder by removing electronics from that car ride, making them stare out the window for 3 days on the trip as I once did, so the arrival at the island really does represent an event, an achievement and not just a sudden severance from communication with the world?
I took them cold turkey and it left us … dissatisfied. I could take the opposite tack. I could facilitate their addiction even while on vacation. We could put solar power on the island, collect a cell signal and extend our normal lives into this far away and beautiful setting.
I had an interview recently in which a mother told me the story of the worst vacation of her life. She planned intensely and took her whole family to a beautiful tropical destination with swimming pools and a stunning white sand beach. There were hundreds of fun outdoor activities for her kids … and yet the only thing that any of them did the whole trip was stay in the hotel room umbilically connected to their familiar electronic games.
I refuse to allow this. I will persist. I will take them electronics cold turkey again. Maybe next year I will be able to break through.