Christmas had passed, and with it the usual onslaught of ads urging us to buy with abandon. One December commercial showed how blissful holiday travel could be with children tucked happily away with a video in the back of the new family van.  With apologies in advance to the many of you who own and swear by that concept, I’ve always found it disturbing. I’ve been concerned for some time now about the growing invasion of electronic entertainment into every moment of our daily lives, but the video in the van bothers me most of all.

Travel is good for children. Road trips teach them many things, not the least of which is how to sit still for hours at a time and still manage to entertain themselves.  Traveling by car in particular, teaches kids to read a map and follow directions, explore small towns and big cities, read billboards and license plates, and count cows on their side of the road. Traveling means a round of “Row Your Boat” and captured conversation for families who rarely have time to talk. It means learning to wait: for the right rest stop, the right place to stay, for the destination they thought they’d never reach. 

Traveling with kids is not, of course, easy, but then few things worth the effort are. They get whiny and restless when there are miles to go. We used to hand them the map, sing songs or make up games to pass the time. Now we pop in a video and hand them headphones. It’s just so much easier!

We’ve become a society that can’t tolerate waiting, or quiet. We have to have TV at dinner, and music to sleep.  At restaurants we stare past our partner to the TV on the wall. A seventeen year old told me she plays games on her cell phone to stand waiting for fast food. Ten year olds sit in our waiting room with their devices, ignoring dozens of books and barely acknowledging my ‘hello’. Children play instant computer Solitaire, without ever learning to shuffle a deck of cards.

Easier isn’t always better, and boredom isn’t always bad. Parents reminisce about sweet days of youth when we played neighborhood baseball and rode bikes for hours, but this is more than sentimentality. How often do your kids complain of being bored? How much time do they spend with electronics? I would wager that there’s a direct correlation between the two.

Kids must learn to entertain themselves, without the crutch of batteries. Constant electronic stimulation provides rapid, external distraction for internal discomfort. It teaches them that something outside them will make it all better, fast. As they grow older, they’re more likely to continue turning to quick fixes and external comforts, like compulsive shopping, gambling, or substance abuse.

Mary Pipher, author of “The Shelter of Each Other”, advises families to take an annual “Electronic Vacation”. Once a year, she suggests they turn off all electronics for a week, and re-learn how to tolerate time with each other without that distraction. It’s harder than it sounds, but it’s a great idea.

See what happens if you turn off the TV at dinner. Try riding in the car without the radio. If your kids complain about being bored, that probably means they just need more practice. Try having them take a book to read or a notebook to write in the next time they’ll be stuck in the car for a while. When they start complaining, tell them to sing a song or better yet, look out the window. They’re sure to be entertained; the picture changes every second.