Put this in your child's PDA and co-ordinate it

Let's see. What's in my personal digital assistant (PDA, in case you live in an unwired cave) for today? Oh, right: "15:13 to 15:18:30: Go mad, in belated effort to keep up with world." I put it in after reading in Wednesday's National Post that PDAs are de rigueur for elementary school children. Oh, the sweet memories. Also on my schedule: Try to figure out how a young child can even use, let alone need, such a thing. In my salad days (homemade dressing, real fat) starting school at 9:00 was, in some sense, on my schedule. But really it was on my parents': "Morning. Drive kid to school by 9:00 or boot him out front door in time to walk there by 9:00." I didn't have any say in the matter, I didn't have to keep track of it because they would remind me and anyway it wasn't all that hard to remember. "What shall I do today? Oh yeah, go to school. Repeat until at least 18."

Once there I went in a big door that didn't change in ways I needed to keep track of on-line, entered my classroom, and did what the teacher told me to (or faked it) until he or she said it was time for recess at "half past ten" (10:30:00). Then we raced around outside until the teachers rang actual bells with wooden handles, metal bodies and clappers (not by clicking a mouse but with a vigorous shaking motion of that long thing that holds your thumb in place while you enter stuff in your PDA). Then we lined up, went back inside and did what the teacher told us until noon, went "home," ate lunch cooked on a "stove," went back to school when a parent said to, and stayed until the teacher said "Go home... please."

How did we manage it without PDAs? And how did the neighbourhood kids often successfully gather after dinner to play some sort of game chosen on the spot, without referees, schedules or leagues? To be fair, we did employ one scheduling device, Mr. Sun: When he went away it was time to go in.

What's so different today? It seems the modern child is desperately overscheduled like (and by) the modern parent. But surely their schedule is basically do what harried parent (HP) says or, if in back seat of vehicle, go wherever HP drives, do whatever activity they are propelled into until expelled from it into car of waiting HP. If they get outside and HP hasn't arrived, what's the point of PDA Jr. saying "21:13: Get in car go home with dad eat microwaved food?" Who are you going to believe, PDA or your own eyes? "HP l8 must w8." It's so simple even an adult can understand it.

Besides, isn't the real answer for adults to stop overscheduling kids this way? Let's block out some time to consider whether an eight-year-old who can't keep track of his or her activities without some new electronic device might actually be in need of a new schedule instead or, heresy of modern heresies, a new lack of schedule. Does anyone remember fun? Fun does not compute fun is not logical fun will not happen. When do today's kids have time to do an activity because they feel like it, until their internal rhythm, the rhythm of nature or the rhythm of the activity itself tells them to stop? To smell the roses or skip stones?

In one country song, Boxcar Willie reminisces about unscheduled childhood activities like hanging out at the old swimming hole, fishing with a cane pole, hearing his mama singing across the fields and how once a week, "that old preacher man once more set my heart at ease." Where's that in your kid's PDA? Will they one day reminisce about rushing from practice to practice while harried adults shout into electronic devices? Or is reminiscing not on their schedule?

I grant that modern kids are highly efficient. But when did efficiency become a desirable attribute of childhood? I also grant that they are mastering technology and it will be useful. Especially if we are all assimilated by the Borg. But kids will master technology they're immersed in without force-feeding. And what about my favourite invention, fire?

I confess that I just got a cellphone and it's pretty cool. But will today's kids treasure their first blunder onto a porn site the way I treasure my first camping trip without adults where I successfully turned a heap of damp wood into a source of heat, light and beauty? (Or the time we tried to open a tin of spaghetti with an axe?)

I say we tie the straitjackets together, download ourselves from the window and make a break for the deep woods where food is cooked with heat, time comes in dollops not tiny identical digitized chunks and kids aren't just unhappy little clones of our own harried selves. An unscheduled break.

Hey, when they're old the kids might even look back fondly on such an adventure.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson