By Alexis Wolff
Growing up across the world from his “village” of loved ones, my¬†toddler is developing many important relationships virtually.
* ¬† ¬†* ¬† ¬†*
It was 3 a.m. and my cranky two-year-old son still wasn’t asleep. I’d¬†finally brought him into my bed and started an episode of Mickey Mouse¬†Clubhouse on my laptop, but not even this usually foolproof last¬†resort did the trick. Neither able to calm my son’s crying nor step¬†away for a much needed break from it, I was beat.
A break wasn’t possible because for the past five months I had been a¬†single parent, geographically anyway. Both Foreign Service Officers, I¬†was finishing up an assignment in West Africa, while my husband had¬†headed back to Washington, DC early to start an assignment of his¬†own. We worried at first that this living arrangement might negatively¬†affect our son, but as far as we could tell we were the only ones¬†suffering. I was perpetually exhausted. My husband was perpetually¬†lonely. But our son, Flynn, seemed to be enjoying his days of¬†beachside play dates as much as ever.
At least that’s what I thought until this particular sleepless night.
After hours of crying Flynn finally started mumbling that he wanted to¬†“talk Daddy.” It was heartbreaking to realize longing might be what¬†was keeping him up, but at least now there was something I could do.¬†Cue the Skype connection noise, and voila, there was my husband, lying¬†in bed on the other side of the world.
“Daddy!” Flynn exclaimed, now wearing a shy grin. He snuggled up under¬†my arm and requested “Row Row Row” followed by “Twinkle Twinkle.” My¬†husband sang, and before long Flynn’s tears were dry and his eyes were¬†closed.
We had moved to West Africa when Flynn was just 11 weeks old, and¬†Skype had been a big part of our lives there from the beginning. His¬†grandparents back in Illinois and Ohio would watch him sleep in his¬†bouncer as we told them about his latest squeaks or half smiles. These¬†early Skype dates were for them, and probably for us, but of course¬†they had no value for Flynn.
When Flynn was six months old, we pointed the laptop to the ground so¬†the grandparents could watch him learn to crawl. By a year we were¬†chasing him around the house and angling the computer in awkward and¬†ever-changing positions trying our best to keep the little guy in his¬†grandparents’ view. ¬†Sometimes he would acknowledge the face on the¬†computer screen with a quick wave or air kiss. But he would do the¬†same to Mickey Mouse and other characters on TV, so we weren’t sure¬†whether he had any idea that these faces on the computer screen¬†belonged to the same people who had tickled and hugged him during a¬†recent visit stateside.
By the time Flynn was about one and a half, though, his interaction¬†with those faces on the computer screen had changed entirely. Suddenly¬†he was giving Grandma high fives, honking Grandpa’s nose, handing his¬†godparents his favorite toys, and even bringing me the laptop and¬†requesting to talk to specific people. This was his portal to those he¬†loved and who loved him most, and he clearly knew it.
To be honest, I was surprised. I’m no expert in early childhood¬†development, but I didn’t expect Skype dates to have any value to my¬†son at such a young age. Maybe I should have known better. After all,¬†his command of technology was more sophisticated than I would have¬†expected from early on.
Despite several full shelves of books, traditional bedtime stories¬†weren’t yet a part of our nightly routine. When Flynn was very little¬†we realized he was best calmed by looking at photos or videos on our¬†iPhones as we told stories for him about when, where, and why they¬†were taken. Before long he was holding the phone himself and swiping¬†his finger across the touchscreen to navigate to one of his favorites.
Then we started to find him perched over the framed photos of friends¬†and family scattered throughout the house, growing frustrated when a¬†swipe of the finger didn’t result in a new image. Judging by the¬†comments I received when I shared this anecdote on Facebook, such a¬†penchant for technology must be pretty standard of 21st century¬†toddlers.
It’s not just ease with technology that’s common of today’s toddlers,¬†but distance from many of their family members and closest friends.
I spent most of my childhood living a few blocks from my grandparents,¬†and a few hours by car from every other relative I knew. We gathered¬†for all holidays and birthdays, and often met at centrally located¬†Holiday Inns for weekend rendezvous of swimming and arcade games just¬†because we could.
Flynn would not have the same experience.
My husband and I think our work overseas is important and see a lot of¬†advantages to an international upbringing for our son, but one obvious¬†disadvantage is the distance. He won’t ever ride his bike to his¬†cousin’s house or earn a crisp $10 bill for mowing Grandma and¬†Grandpa’s lawn. But then, who these days really will?
I think about other friends of mine. Relationships and ambitions have¬†taken virtually all of them to states and countries far from where¬†their own childhoods were spent. There are a few exceptions, sure, but¬†in my unscientific sample at least, the “villages” that are helping¬†raise our children span greater physical distances than ever before.
Sometimes I wonder if Flynn’s generation will serve as a giant social¬†experiment that explores the limits of virtual connection as part of¬†healthy interpersonal relationships. Whereas technology and its¬†capacity for connection to others gradually worked its way into my¬†daily life, it’s been central to his from the day he was born, and in¬†fact even before.
Flynn exists in the first place thanks to such technology: his dad and¬†I met online. Because of various holidays and scheduling conflicts, we¬†grew fond of each other through a month’s worth of emails before we¬†finally found the time for a first date. By then, though we hadn’t¬†even met in person, we were both already pretty sure where the¬†relationship was headed.
I’m not going to claim that virtual interactions are quite the same as¬†face-to-face ones. If they were, then my husband and I would never¬†have needed to move our relationship beyond emails. If they were, I¬†wouldn’t be lying in bed that night after Flynn wanted so badly to¬†“talk Daddy,” awake myself because I happened to miss his dad too. If¬†they were, Flynn wouldn’t have woken up that night after two hours of¬†sound sleep, moaning and crying like before. He wouldn’t have made a¬†new request of me, one quite a bit harder to satisfy than his first.
“Go airplane, see Daddy?” he asked.
One of the most important realizations many of my fellow generation¬†Xers and I have made over time about social media is that while it’s a¬†wonderful complement to face-to-face interaction, at some point you do¬†need the real thing. I suspect this is what my son and his cohorts¬†will ultimately come to find too. Or maybe they’ll grow up just¬†knowing it all along, like they intuitively know how to operate an¬†iPhone. After all, it’s a lesson that my two-year-old son‚ÄĒwho liked¬†Skyping with his dad but finally decided he wanted to see him¬†too‚ÄĒalready seemed to fully understand.
Unfortunately I couldn’t put Flynn on an airplane to see his dad that¬†night he asked, but the next day I did click the green video call¬†button to summon my husband back onto Skype. He explained to Flynn¬†that he missed him, he loved him, and that he would see him very soon.
“Flynn, when you get here, do you want to go with Daddy on a train?”¬†my husband asked.
Our transportation loving toddler lit up at the idea. “Go airplane?”¬†he asked, turning to me.
“See Daddy? Go choo choo train?”
“Soon,” I told him.
In just two more weeks our family would be reunited in Washington,¬†D.C., where we would live for a year before moving together to another¬†posting abroad. Leaving behind our careers and moving to one of our¬†hometowns just wasn’t realistic for us, but we did make sure to get¬†ourselves onward assignments somewhere that would allow us to visit¬†those faces on the computer screen more easily and more often than we¬†had been able to from West Africa. And one of those faces, Grandma,¬†would be moving abroad with us.
Because face-to-face interaction matters.
But virtual interaction matters too.
I’m sure it matters, because when Flynn spotted his dad in the¬†airport’s arrivals hall two weeks after that sleepless night, it was¬†not the reunion of loved ones reunited after five long months of¬†separation. Instead, Flynn gave his dad a quick hug and then continued¬†their conversation right where it had left off.
“Daddy! Hi!” he said, grabbing my husband’s hand and heading toward¬†the door.
“Go choo choo train?”
Alexis Wolff is currently on maternity leave from her job as a Foreign Service Officer and living with her family in Falls Church, Virginia. She holds a BA from Yale University and an MFA from Columbia University, and has previously been published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and in the Best Women’s Travel Writing anthology, among others.
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