brucekluger.com

    USA Today, April 19, 2006

    Life's connections aren't all plugged in

    By Bruce Kluger


    My oldest daughter, Bridgette, has a pen pal. Her name is
    Pippa, and she lives on the other side of earth, in a small
    rural community in New South Wales, Australia. Like
    Bridgette, Pippa is 10 years old, and from the sound of
    her letters, she could very well be Bridgey's Aussie soul
    sisterbright, funny and bubbling with enthusiasm.

    The wonderful thing about the girls' round-the-planet
    correspondence is that it is completely terrestrialas in,
    it's conducted by regular mail. No click-and-send. No
    attached jpegs. No chat room rendezvous. In fact, the only
    thing electronic about their relationship are the pictures of
    SpongeBob they download from the Internet, print out and send to each other,
    folded up and slid into air mail envelopes, just like in the old days.

    They also include gifts from their homelands. Bridgey sent Pippa a miniature Statue
    of Liberty; Pippa sent back a small stuffed koala bear.

    "Great jubilation in our house," Pippa's momand my new friendDiana, wrote to
    me recently via e-mail. "Bridgette's latest parcel arrived! It was whipped out of the
    mailman's (Dad's) hands by Pippa, who then raced off to her bedroom. We all had
    big smiles on our faces as we heard the squeals of delight from Pip as each item in
    the package was opened!"

    I smiled, too, when I read that e-mail, as the same beautiful pandemonium erupts on
    this side of the ocean whenever Bridgey gets a package in return. In fact, I've never
    seen Bridgette so wired about something that has no wires.

    Among the many challenges facing parents today is the way in which we can help
    our kids reconcile new technology and old values. This isn't exactly easy for me, as
    I'm not one of those dads who distrust the electronic revolution. Both of my
    daughters were point-and-clicking at the PC before they could form full sentences
    (Sesame Street makes terrific toddler software); and, alas, our TV is constantly on.
    To use a popular parenting term, "screen time" in our house is liberally granted.

    And yet what I'm beginning to recognize is that kids will unplug from the wall and
    plug into the real world more readily than they'd like us to believe. Like adults, they
    are hard-wired to make the kinds of connections that don't require a modem, but
    the trick is in exposing them to both the crackle of technology and the warmth of
    human interaction, then letting them see the difference for themselves.

    "Television and the Internet shouldn't be used as round-the- clock babysitters,"
    says Christopher Cerf, co-creator of PBS' literacy education program, Between the
    Lions, which encourages children and parents to interact with the show, then
    continue their lessons by reading together off-screen. "But if people read books 24
    hours a day, they'd be missing something, too. It's important to find a balanceto
    let kids be engaged by the interactivity and instruction of TV and the Internet, but
    obviously let them experience real life, as well. It can't all be virtual."

    I got a decent window into this theory last month, when during my girls' winter break,
    my wife and I whisked them off to Florida for a quick Disney getaway. Arguably the
    ground zero of all things commercially chaotic, Disney's dense necklace of
    extravagant theme parkswith their line-choked gift shops, Internet kiosks and
    criminally overpriced corndogswas going to be a challenge, I thought, at least
    when it came to giving my children something of value to latch onto.

    But once inside the parks, I began to notice how effectively the architects of this
    marketing madness had built into the bill of fare ample opportunities for children to
    extract human interaction from the attractionsas well as a true sense of wonder.

    Epcot, for example, was designed as a global village decades before the term
    entered the popular jargon, and it's famous for its ingenious conceptits
    subdivision into 11 "countries," from China to Morocco to Mexico, each one draped
    in the cultural trappings of its host land, and accessible to one another via a
    leisurely stroll.

    I was as surprised as I was tickled to watch my children, and hundreds of others,
    routinely thumb their noses at the park's relatively few thrill rides in order to dash
    into each new country, enter the main pavilion and have their passports stamped.
    Then they'd sit down and crank out an art project together, an activity that gave
    them a precious moment to practice three fundamental exercises that strapping into
    a nose-diving roller coaster does not: the chance to use their hands, to stretch their
    imaginations and to make a friend.

    Even the hotel we stayed atthe Nickelodeon Family Suites, just down the
    highwaywas hip to the idea that, along with their love of toons and toys, kids like
    to travel in packs, even when those packs include Mom and Dad. Sure, Nick's
    notorious preteen targeting was constantly in plain sight (gigantic renderings of
    Jimmy Neutron, the Rugrats and, of course, SpongeBob loomed at every turn), and
    the video-game stations were constantly standing-room only. But when it came to
    activities, the hotel adhered to one basic concept: keeping the clans together.

    In a large TV studio just off the lobby, kids and their folks were invited to watch a
    live performance of one of Nickelodeon's sassy game showsonly, unlike on Nick
    TV, parents were required to be part of the action. While my kids were stoked by
    the head-to-head competition, I was riveted by the subtext: Here were families
    playing togetherreally connectingand there wasn't a computer in sight.