Education Opinion

Your Children Are Not Your Children

By Susan Graham — February 06, 2008 3 min read
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I popped the CD that my TLN friend and colleague, Nancy Flanagan, had sent me into the player in my car and the mellow a capella voices of Sweet Honey from the Rock began to sing “On Children”:

Your children are not your children, They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
The words took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. As a mother of young adult children, I have experienced the difficulty of letting go. But at 57, I also accept that letting go is as it should be and that it is not unique to our generation. My grandmother was born in 1899 and missed living in three centuries by about eighteen months. She told me about the first time she rode in a car, listened to the radio, and saw an airplane. As a teenager I admired her ability to adapt to a world that had changed so drastically. Now my students view me as the same sort of ancient time traveler when I tell them that I was six when we got our first black and white TV. They struggle with the concept and the logistics of segregated schools--what about Amari from Pakistan or Juan from San Salvador? For them, the Age of Aquarius is as abstract as the Age of Reason. Many have never seen or operated a pay phone. They were born post-Internet.

In the comic strip Zits, 15 year old Jeremy rolls his eyes impatiently as he tries to deal with his digitally dysfunctional parents. I can identify with their ineptitude relating to ring tones, Wii, and Tivo. I’ve upgraded to a CD player in my car, but cool people have a dock for their iPod. I don’t even have an iPod. While I am pretty impressed that I blog, I have never posted anything on YouTube and am not sure I could figure out how. I use email extensively, but I don’t text message. And while I can be all atwitter, I don’t Twitter, although it sounds like fun. Like my grandmother, I’ve tried to keep up and adapt, but no matter how hard I chase after my students, I know I am falling behind and moving toward obsolescence.

PBS Frontline: Growing Up Online is a look into the concerns and the possibilities of the future that lies ahead for adolescents. They live on the cusp of a new day in a new digital world that’s flattened and shrunk by technology. They are natives, but is our responsibility to prepare them to live in a culture that is foreign to most us as teachers. Can we possibly prepare them for a future where they will work with tools that have not yet been invented yet: At jobs that do not yet exist, producing goods and services that have not even been imagined at present? The song provides the answer.

You can give them your love, but not your thoughts. They have their own thoughts. They have their own thoughts. You can strive to be like them, but you cannot make them just like you.

The young people we meet in Growing Up Online hold great promise as they navigate their passage to adulthood. They struggle earnestly to define themselves even though they are bombarded with endless options. While their online existence concerns adults, it is completely natural to them. To their credit, they seem genuinely concerned -- if frustrated -- that their parents don’t get it and that this virtual aspect of their lives drives a wedge between the generations.

But their parents are immigrants to their digital world. Like most immigrant parents, while eager and proud to see their children adapt and conquer a new culture, those parents also struggle to keep up with and hold on to their children. Their pain and fear is palpable as they try to balance their need to understand the shifting perimeters of cyber society, respect their children’s privacy and independence, and keep their children safe. Is it understanding or acquiescence to support a 14-year old’s creation of a MySpace cyber alter-ego (who posts soft porn photos of herself) because it gives their daughter a sense of acceptance she does not feel in her real world? Do responsible parents monitor their children’s online social networking in an effort to avoid losing control at the price of losing communication with their son? Does a parent have a right to access a child’s Facebook page? To what extent do parents allow their children to be their own person and at what point do they say, “This far, but no farther”?

You can house their bodies, but not their souls For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow That you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

The first time I heard this song it took my breath away. But then I realized that the lyrics were not new. On Children is from The Prophet, written by Khalil Gilbran (1883-1931), probably sometime around the time my grandmother was a teenager. Is the digital divide really that different from the technological divides of my grandmother’s day? And here’s a thought: Could it be that the same tools that seem to push us apart have the potential to bridge that gap?

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.