How I Lost My Kids to Technology (And Later Won Them Back)

Modern Family

How I Lost My Kids to Technology (And Later Won Them Back)

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Istill remember those days. We strolled in the park clutching each other’s hands. We snuggled together over cups of hot chocolate on winter mornings; summers were spent swimming or watching the latest blockbuster which would later be critiqued for flaws and strengths with the seriousness reserved for the national budget. We fell asleep in each other’s arms and rushed to seek each other out when parted for more than a couple of hours.

I am not talking about a torrid love affair from my past. I am referring to those creatures sitting in the dark corners of my house, subsisting on my food, depleting my bank balance, and staring into glowing screens that take them into worlds that I am too afraid to question them about. They grunt when I ask them a question and grimace in pain when I ask them to move. They are my teenage children.

One day you’re the centre of their universe – and then suddenly, you’re not. The world is too intoxicating a place for them to be yours forever, and rightfully so. Yet you’re never quite prepared for the way technology steals them away from you from right under your nose.

It can get a little lonely when they are sitting right in front of you, peering into those phone screens that cast a sinister glow on their faces and makes them occasionally chuckle loudly to themselves. Is it something harmless like a witty friend or something more sinister like a stranger trying to lure them into unspeakable acts? Like your kids, your overactive imagination is not your friend either. Asking them about what they are watching only leads them to clamp on some headphones and shut you out completely. If there was a way to snatch their mobiles away and destroy them like in the movie Robot 2.0, I would. Unfortunately, I live in the real world.

The world is too intoxicating a place for them to be yours forever, and rightfully so.

When the older one went away to college, I consoled myself with the thought that the innumerable internet-calling and messaging apps would make it easier to communicate with him, but I was disappointed. We called and messaged back and forth but mostly in mono-syllables. “Khana khaya? Exam kaise tha?” were the staples of most of my conversations with my son. The deep meaningful conversations I imagined remained confined to my head.

I can’t really complain because my son and my daughter haven’t become total strangers. We have meals together, we chat, we go on vacations together, but the connection feels superficial. I shouldn’t complain because I was the same way with my parents, only I had my books and Walkman instead of a smartphone. Yet deep down, it’s depressing to know that you’ve lost a little bit of your kids.

You never quite believe that that can happen to you. And yet, you’re not the only such parent. I mustered up the courage to discuss this with one of my friends. His reply was simple. “What are they getting from their phones that they are not getting from you?”

That blew my mind. Maybe I wasn’t losing my kids to technology. Maybe I was losing my kids because of the way I had become. The teenage years are a hormonal and tumultuous time but many times the tumult is controllable. I was quick to blame hormones and technology for isolating me from my children, but I had failed to monitor my own dialogue and behaviour which consisted mostly of platitudes, unwarranted lectures and monologues that began with, “Jab main tumhari umar ki thi…” Maybe, a change in attitude was in order.

Ironically, I turned to technology to bail myself out.

“Watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” I messaged my son, one day when he was away at college, instead of enquiring about the usual grades, laundry, and food. He had developed a preference for quirky, offbeat movies that I mostly ignored, sometimes even poked fun at, because I didn’t quite relate to them. What followed was a phone call – initiated by him – and a long discussion about all the movies that I should watch. It was a great start.

Ironically, I turned to technology to bail myself out.

It got me wondering whether all the adolescent angst and generational gap that we experience is really about kids trying to find themselves amidst a maelstrom of physical and emotional changes. Or was it just the tremendous societal and parental pressure to perform on demand that is thrust upon them between the ages of 15 and 21? This is the age when children write the most significant exams of their lives. Unfortunately, this is also the time when parents become their most overbearing and fearful selves. In our effort to raise productive and successful kids, we often become the worst version of ourselves at a time when our children need the best from us.

I often get advice that parents shouldn’t try to be their children’s friends because they have enough of friends, and that they only have two parents. But I am beginning to doubt that. Friendship is the basis of all good relationships, including that between a parent and child.

The summer following that chat with my son was spent watching and analysing a long list of movies with both my kids. There was no talk of exams or grades. It felt like a slice of their childhood was gifted back to me when discussions about movies merged with discussions about music, blogs, and books. Maybe swapping the smartphone for a smart TV wasn’t such a smart idea, but at least now I knew what they were watching. We are taking baby steps to get to know each other again and we are talking about uncomfortable topics like sex, drugs, homosexuality and gender issues all thanks to the bold, unconventional programming available on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. We are moving beyond the standard “yes”, “no”, and “theek hai” replies. And funnily, I owe it all to technology.