When my 2-year-old granddaughter started preschool loaded with a backpack that came down to her knobby knees, she turned at the classroom door and waved to her family, as dry-eyed as Darth Vader pulling out his light saber.
"Bye, Mama. Bye, Papa. Bye, Lea," she trilled cheerily, and marched off into a brave, new world.
Her parents were devastated. For weeks they had been preparing for a tearful farewell. You know the kind, that ear-splitting, nerve-wracking scene that is as much first-day ritual as prediction of future separation. When this didn’t happen as expected, they rationalized that their tot’s initial equanimity would eventually give way to shock and tantrum. Surely she would break down during the day. Surely.
So Mama and Papa (and maybe baby Lea, too) did what any 21st Century parent would do in similar circumstances: They checked on their child’s movements, in real time, through the preschool’s website and on a smart phone app. Imagine that — surveillance amidst the building blocks and baby dolls.
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When I dropped my kids off a generation earlier, I had no alternative but to worry and visualize the worst. Information would be delivered at pick-up time and, most likely, glossed over by the teacher. How quaint.
As it turned out, my grand didn’t break down in a spasm of homesickness. Nor did she nap. Nor did she share her toys willingly. She was her usual self, sassy and self-possessed. Her parents knew all this as it happened, without delay or filter, thanks to what my daughter-in-law jokingly refers to as the stalker camera.
Unusual? Nope, not at all. Today’s children are watched, scanned, photographed and filmed, measured, evaluated and appraised at a dizzyingly detailed rate. I call it spreadsheet parenting, a result of our abiding love of technology and our obsession with data.
Don’t think I’m criticizing. I could’ve used whatever help was available to track the developmental milestones of each of my children. Back then the family’s frenetic routine was more blur than database entry. To this day I remain foggy on all kinds of things. The first tooth, the first step, the first word, the first sleep-through-the-night victory. When my three oldest children, now parents themselves, ask me about this or that important marker, I’m purposely vague. Sometimes, for a little while, I even feel guilty. Then I remind myself that, like most parents, I did the best I could with what I had. Anyway, years later the proof’s in the pudding: The five of them are conscientious, compassionate, hard-working adults. They even phone their mother on occasion.
So, yes, parents should avail themselves of what they can, but they should also grow skeptical of so much quantifying, of all this programming and mechanization. Apps that track everything from naps to diaper content remind me of how, in pursuit of the perfect photo to post on Facebook, we often miss the spontaneous smile or the unrehearsed quip. At some point compulsive collecting crosses the line into mania. Instead of an assist, recording everything becomes a crutch, a fixation.
I’m a few years out from the thick of child-rearing and hindsight has provided not only 20-20 vision but also magnifying glass and 100-watt lighting. Raising kids is a meandering journey, with both deliberate detours and unintended pit stops. But if given a chance to do differently, I would slow down to enjoy the fortuitous moment for what it is. No charts, no tables, no worksheet.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.