My kids need never worry about where the next hour of Baby Shark will come from

Pandemic parenting: unlike my childhood of negotiating time and space with adults, it’s children who commandeer time and space

A word to the wise: never show kids the wonders of a smartphone
A word to the wise: never show kids the wonders of a smartphone

I guess I am new at the parenting game. A five-year-old daughter in her first proper year of primary school and a three-year-old in kindergarten are at ‘brain-sponge’ age, requiring little more than light-touch schooling. For those parents who need to ‘lock down’ their children for more intensive remote schooling hours, I envy them not. Solidarity and all that.

Even with a reduced-hours scenario, the pandemic has granted some of us a new lease of life. COVID-19 took out the alarm clock, allowed us to sleep in when at 6am we might be otherwise preparing lunches and beckoning the children to wake up, and took away the grinding routine of the day: the early morning meetings, the school pick-ups, the drop-offs elsewhere, the family visits... it’s been like a holiday from the mundane, the regimen of ugly, modern life. Can’t we live like this a bit more? With our social lives on a socially-distanced hiatus, allowing us to sift the chaff of familial get-togethers from the wheat? With workmates dealt swiftly by the power of teleconferencing? With less exertion and vehicular displacement, and just more time for ourselves?

Surely not. Not with the kids locked inside, their minds addled by the emptiness of television entertainment and computer games. At least, that’s how I have come to see it, even as I cherish the peace of the pandemic and the way it filtered out the cantankerousness of modern-day living.

But then, my children’s lives are unlike what mine was, having been born in the watershed year of 1980 between one generation of X-ers and millennials, a native of both the digital and analogue years.

For many like me, the world was a place that had to be negotiated with adults. We did not have 24-hour television channels dedicated simply to cartoons (Cable TV came to me sometime in 1991). Before that, life had to be negotiated with the elders. There was a time for cartoons, maybe before school, then right after school and in the early evening slots after homework would be done; the rest of the hours were for parents to rule supreme over.

The lack of sophistication in the world of video-games or the prohibitive cost of digital entertainment kept children out of homes in search of thrills outside... at a time when the streets were also less taken up by cars. Yet once again, these physical spaces were also negotiated with the activities of the adult world: football in the street meant moving out of the way of passing cars; hide-and-seek in the neighbourhood meant trespassing though porches and verandahs; going out and meeting someone in a public place was never preceded by a blow-by-blow account of your itinenary on WhatsApp - you would call ahead on a landline to say that you’ll meet in a spot at a time, or perhaps, just be at the most popular spot where people hung out in the hope that you’d meet your friends soon enough. Even the landline was another negotiated space; you spoke to friends in a common area of the house, with conversations kept to their bare minimum by vigilant and cost-conscious parents.

So have not our lives been enriched by broadband, Internet, contactless payments, and Netflix in the pandemic age?

Yes, parents can further delegate their children’s thirst for recreation to the behemoths of entertainment. But will children grow up to never have to worry where their next hour of Nickeledon and Baby Shark is coming from? (oh, no they won’t, say the real veterans of parenting)... My daughter grunts like a teen before letting go the remote control when told her time is up. She then picks up the iPad or pilfers an unguarded mobile phone with YouTube on it. There are no two ways about it: you cannot expect children to get lost in the wonder of books or the simple act of play if you don’t take away the digital opiates, and let them deal with it, cold turkey. (For new parents, the secret is simple: never, ever show the children the wonders of your smartphone).

Now that we have spent the last 60 days under soft lockdown, have parents like me learnt anything? Yes, children do need the regimen of schooling and the drill of early rising and early nights.

And yes, parents and unions must ask employers (and employers must consent) that workers be allowed to work more from home. I have had to reckon with the selfless, thankless job of stay-at-home and remote-working parents like my wife (always mostly women) who care for their children even while keeping down teleworking hours. Now I realise that much work can be still done with less desk-banging and more undiplomatic WhatsApp messages.

But lockdown lethargy can be dangerous without some proper rules of engagement. And with children (and parents) able to isolate themselves in individual pods of self-curated and unlimited entertainment, the risk is that more of our home life is happening without a sense of collective sharing, of negotiating the hours and spaces we are given with the people we live with.

So, now that I see what the pandemic’s soft lockdown can do to our digitally-enhanced lives, I do also miss some of the old ways. I do realise we can do away with the cutthroat ambition, and turn FOMO into JOMO, or as any journalist will tell you, enjoy the stillness of the news cycle (which is a direct product of people doing less shit and just staying at home).

But I also want the kids back in school. And to help parents become better at sharing the load. Then maybe, we can start rewriting the rulebook.

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