“I’m bored, Mom.” My twelve-year-old daughter, Mita, spat out the words. I knew this was a prelude to the next question, and it came predictably disguised as a polite inquiry with undertones of a demand. “Can I play on the computer?” I shook my head, and the no-nonsense look quelled the teetering complaints on her lips. The entitled look in her almond shaped dark eyes, so much like my own, promised to slowly but surely erode every opposition. I recalled that my parents had no trouble saying no and meaning it. Had it been as hard for them as it was for me? What was different now?
My mother, unlike me, was a stay-at-home mom. I don’t recall her spending all her spare time with us. She was busy cooking, gardening, cleaning, sometimes playing with us, nursing us when we were sick, and seasonally making ketchup, chutneys, and pickles. But just knowing that she was around was enough. She did teach me to repair buttons and hooks on shirts, hem and embroider, make crepe paper flowers, and she instilled in me a love of the movies. My father, like most men of his generation, had a typically hands off attitude, occasionally treating us to a dinner in a restaurant, circus, a movie, or a late night drive.
Was I overreacting? Was Mita going to be fine despite excessive time spent indoors, on computers, and in digital environments devoid of meaningful human interaction? Summer vacation was particularly challenging now that she was older. In the past, I had scheduled various activities for her – recreation center classes, play dates, and soccer. She had been kept busy every waking minute of the summer.
Lately, I was beginning to consider the value of being bored. I certainly came from the generation who thought that being left to my own devices meant I could play with friends, paint, knit, read, draw, get in trouble, or even be bored. But each time I began a sentence with, “I remember a time…” I was met with rolling eyes and groans. And, on one occasion, tongue-in-cheek Mita had muttered, “That is so twentieth century, Mom.”
Mita huffed and stomped out of the room. Normally, I would have gone after her and given in to her wishes. But I decided to let her stew and hoped that getting bored would make her creative, and maybe she would find something to do or do nothing at all.
Unlike my daughter, whose grandparents lived across the ocean with a significant language barrier (Mita knew basic words but, as she was growing up, her vocabulary was not enough to express herself), I had spent every summer vacation at my maternal grandparents’ home with my cousins. There was not much available for entertainment in the small village, and most days were endless while the evenings were dull. In fact, some days were so hot and tedious that sitting in the shade of a tree for hours staring at a contraption consisting of a reed basket, a stick, and a string tied to a short stick with a bowl of water underneath to catch an unsuspecting sparrow, was the only way to pass time. When I think back, we never did catch a bird. But I can recall the hot and gritty sandstone tiles against my stomach, sweaty thighs, and dusty dress. Dirt under my nails as we built mud castles, played hide and seek in the dark, wind in my eyes as we ran over tall and narrow concrete compound walls, scrapes on my knees with scars that still remind me of the fall off the bicycle; these were tactile experiences that defined my childhood memories. What was my daughter losing? Or was it simply my guilt? There was something sad about coaxing Mita to go outdoors. It was not an only child syndrome. Even when her friends came home or she went to their houses, they preferred to, despite good weather, play on a device. What happened to painting nails, giggling about boys, and browsing through magazines?
Another vital experience that I wished for my daughter was the joy of listening to stories. Story time, cuddled with my grandmother, was my quintessential memory of her. The story of the churning of the oceans to obtain the nectar of immortality during the eternal struggle for dominance between the gods and the demons was my favorite. A mountain was the churning tool and serpents the rope. It must have looked like the buttermilk churning pot in grandmother’s kitchen, only bigger. The gods held the tail of the serpent while the demons held its head, and they pulled on it alternately, causing the mountain to rotate, which, in turn, churned the ocean. The gushing and swooshing sounds that came from her churning pot as the rope, wrapped around the wooden stick, rotated must have been amplified as the ocean was churned.
Mita read a lot, but listening to stories — a typical experience of my childhood — did not exist in hers. Time had slowed down and sometimes even stood still as I was transported into the fantasyland that was Hindu mythology, and grandmother had a way of making it come alive. Mita reminded me that there were audio books! Were the digital environments in computer games capable of not only transporting imaginations but also slowing time to create a lasting impression like grandmother’s stories?
Slowing time? Was this really about my desire to savor Mita’s childhood even as she grew into a young adult more than it was about digital media and its effects? Every generation must feel that their problems are unique. For my generation of new immigrants to the United States, it was the lack of family support. I have a wonderful family of friends, but my daughter did not enjoy the comfort of multi-generational care, and I, due to my past experiences, was attempting to stand in. Letting her go, to fly on her own, making choices, mistakes and learning from them, was proving harder for me. But I had to learn to appreciate the quality of time spent with her – picking pebbles on our secret beach, hanging out in the porch, playing speed, or learning to play ‘Crazy Taxi’ on my phone.
My mother had advised me to never taunt my child with “I told you so” and, however busy I was, if my child came to me to drop everything and listen. Good parenting, I was concluding, was not about insisting that my child play outside or not spend excessive time on the computer, but about listening. Memories would take care of themselves.
I joined Mita as she sat on the rocking chair with her knees tucked under her chin. She glared at me as I pulled out the crochet project. For a while the only sound was of the chair scraping against the floorboards. I forced myself not to fill in the silence. After a while the rocking slowed and, leaning forward, Mita asked, “Did Nani teach you to crochet? Is it easy?”
Aparna Datey is an Academic Advisor at the Center for International Education at University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She has a Masters in Architecture from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She enjoys hiking, knitting, making fused glass jewelry, and cooking. She loves to travel with her family, and on a visit to India a few years ago, she was lucky enough to see a tiger in the wild!