Education Opinion

A Movable Feast or Beast?

By Susan Graham — February 22, 2008 4 min read
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Ten years ago I was sitting around the table with my fellow PTA Board members discussing the lack of communication between parents and children. Someone brought up a piece of research on the correlation between family dinner time and student success. One mother of three agreed that she thought family meals were important, but bemoaned the complications of working around the schedules of her kids. “I think I’m going to buy a Winnebago,” she said. “I’ll just load up the crockpot, and we can have family dinner in back in between soccer practice, ballet, or scouts or wherever the next child has to be.” I thought she was being facetious, but it appears that she was just a woman ahead of her times.

Annie Gowen writes in The Washington Post:

Thirteen-year-old Danielle Mangrum loves her new room. It has two TV screens, so she can watch the Disney Channel while her 9-year-old sister, Diamond, watches a DVD on the other. It has an elaborate stereo system, new leather furnishings and a table where she can hunker down and do her homework. It also gets 20 miles to a gallon.

Good for Danielle, she’s doing her homework! And if you read the whole article, it’s clear that these parents, just like my PTA friend, are trying hard to give their children the best of all worlds. Most of them worry about finding a balance in a fast-paced lifestyle where both parents have careers and their high-achieving children supplement heavy school loads with lots of enrichment activities. These parents are cognizant of how much time their kids spend in the car and the “quality” of that time. Attentive auto manufacturers have identified that concern and are marketing to it by producing new vehicles with “homelike features.” And that’s the way we like it -- plenty of choices. I picked my current car for its sunroof, seat warmers, audio system, sturdy cupholders and storage space. I wanted it to be comfortable even though I’m not burdened with a long commute or afternoons of carpooling these days.

But many Americans do spend an awful lot of time in the car. Here where I live, outside the nation’s capital, the average commute is more than half an hour. Grown-ups can make that travel choice for themselves, but children don’t have much say in the matter, and too many are spending way too much time in the car. My younger colleagues occasionally verbalize their concern about strapping their children into the backseat at 6:30 a.m. for the 30-minute drive to day care. Yes, the car seat is safe, but they wonder about the long term effect when a two-year old spends an hour a day in total body restraint in the backseat.

What understanding does a child construct from this and other regimented daily travel schedules? We look (and drive) long and hard for the best dance studio or the most challenging soccer league for our older children. But in our effort to provide them with the “best” opportunities, do we strip them of all their unstructured time? Is possible that they would get the same benefit from parks and rec teams and other activities that may be less advanced but closer to home?

Perhaps what worries me even more is how children spend car time and “wait time.” It seems they have become almost totally dependent on electronic entertainment. Auto manufacturers market “quality family transportation” in the car that provides each child with a personal video player/game station in the back while the adults listen to their own musical selections or cell phone conversation up front. Together, but alone, they proceed down the highway of life, encapsulated in virtual bubbles. What happened to looking out the windows and talking to each other?

(Warning: old fogey commentary ahead.) The quality of car time has changed. Back in the day, my carpool sang songs together. When they were little, it was Old McDonald; in middle school, we sang with the radio. We played games. “A: My Name is Alice, I come from Alabama, my husband’s name is Alvin, and we sell atrocious alligators.” There was the Geography Game where the next player had to name a geographical location that began with the last letter of the preceding location. (Just so you know, there are more places that end with “A” than begin with “A”.) We played Twenty Questions -- like “I’m Thinking of an Animal,” starting with doggy and kitty cat in preschool and advancing to obscure species such as pangolins, tapirs, lemurs, and the naked mole rat by middle school.

In Technology’s Impact on Child Growth and Development, David Elkind says:

The high-tech culture has also changed children’s social relationships. Before the digital culture predominated, there was a language and lore of childhood that was orally passed down from generation to generation. They consisted of games, riddles, rhymes, jibes and so on that were adapted to the child’s immediate environment. This traditional culture of childhood is fast disappearing. In the past two decades alone, according to several studies, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week, and eight of those lost hours were once spent in unstructured play and outdoor pastimes. In part, that is a function of the digital culture, which provides so many adult-created toys, games and amusements. Game Boys and other electronic games are so addictive they dissuade children from enjoying the traditional games. Yet spontaneous play allows children to use their imaginations, make and break rules, and socialize with each other to a greater extent than when they play digital games.

I put great thought into the quality of cupholders during my minivan period of life, a guilty acknowledgement that, too often, I fed our kids fast food on the road. But I also cherished the laughter and silliness of car games and the long philosophical discussions on road trips. Today’s parents are shopping for the backseat tray tables and the DVD players with individual audio ports, and it is quite possible to drive cross- country with potty stops being the only interaction with the other occupants of the car. I suppose it is unrealistic to try to turn back the clock, but I wonder: Have we given new meaning to providing our children with a “moveable feast” -- or have we, with the best of intentions, fed our children into the belly of a “movable beast”?

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.