by Elizabeth Small
In order to understand the competitive nature of my family, you need to know one thing: As a kid, the popular game ?Pictionary? had to be unceremoniously removed from our family home because it ended one too many times with tears, accusations of shortcomings in moral character, and veiled threats of retribution. There are families that play games together, and then there are those that wage war. Obviously, we fall in the latter category.
This is precisely why we should have predicted it wouldn?t end well when we decided to have a fitness-tracker competition.
For the uninitiated: Fitness trackers like the ubiquitous FitBit are souped-up pedometers that can be worn on the body, synced to your computer or smart phone, and linked with other users so you can compete with users of your choosing to earn the most steps. Recently, my mother, father, sister and I decided to give said competition a try.
?Get up, Mama!? My 4-year-old daughter shouted into my sleeping face, ?You need to get your steps in!?
She hovered over me with a look I had last seen watching the USSR Olympic coaches on TV in the 1980s. ?Come on,” she demanded, while latching my FitBit to my wrist. “You need to get up now because you need to beat Papa!?
She grabbed me by the shoulders, looked deep into my eyes and asked, ?Don?t you want to win??
Part of me deeply reconsidered my parenting. The other part quickly thought, ?She?s darn right. I?ve got to win.? And, unfortunately, that part of me took over for the next several days.
Here’s what it’s like to be in a fitness-tracking competition: At first, you feel good about yourself. The spirit of competition prompts you to wake a bit early to get in a good morning run. You convince yourself that you are setting a good example for your children by constantly moving and suggesting exclusively outdoor activities.
Then you start to notice the little ways you are losing your grip on reality. Rather than just pushing your kids on the swings, you start doing laps around the swing set in between pushes. You wake up in the middle of the night to use the restroom, and when you realize that you sleepily forgot to put the tracker on to count the 15 steps to the bathroom, you are genuinely upset with yourself.
Then one day you notice at 3 p.m. that you forgot to charge your tracker. And when the realization sinks in that your steps haven?t been counted for God knows how long, your face goes pale and you involuntarily scream ?NO! NO!? As you are screaming, you notice a sympathetic look from a fellow parent in the school parking lot, who glances at his rubber-clad wrist with a knowing pity. You then worry about the example you are setting for your children. But this does not stop you from wanting to beat the snot out of your loved ones.
Nearly a week into the competition, my husband walked into the room. In his quiet but powerful way, he placed his phone on the table so I could see the message on his screen. It was from my sister?s husband. ?Is your wife pacing around the house like a lunatic too?? it read.
I was. Maybe I was even jogging. Who can remember?
?See that?? My husband said presenting his evidence. ?You are both nuts.?
?Maybe,? I shrugged.
?Well, at least now I have definitive proof that you two are just like your father,? he called to me.
I decided not tell him that at 11:15 p.m. the previous evening, my Dad, a man with a bad knee and a heart condition, texted me from a mile from his house to see if I was still walking or if he could stop.
?How dare you say I?m like my Dad!? I retorted. ?I?m not like him at all; I?m better than him! I?m winning!?
He shook his head. ?From where I?m looking, I do not see any winners.?
And he was right.
The fact is, we like to think we aren?t the type of person who would slowly drive by a potential employer or old flame?s house after googling their name in the privacy of our homes. But it’s not technology that’s making us do the crazy things like that; it just gives our crazy parts a convenient way to come out.
The famed existential psychologist Rollo May wrote that the ?danger always exists that our technology will serve as a buffer between us and nature, a block between us and the deeper dimensions of our experience.? In other words, while I was counting steps, I wasn?t looking at my daughter?s faces as they noticed the way the light hits the red-paper maple tree, casting dragon shadows on the grass. I wasn?t marveling at the way the caterpillar made a perfect pattern of peekaboo holes through the Kale leaf in our garden. I wasn’t being present.
Ordinarily, being in nature rubs away my rough edges so I no longer feel the burden of being anything. But this technology seemed to reduce my experience to a profile picture and a number. So, like the game of Pictionary, I sent the tracker to pasture, in the name of restoring sanity.
As parents, we often feel charged with the impossible task of creating a whole new set of rules for the world technology is creating. But regardless of whether the game played is played in a 1980s rec room or over Internet, the values we need to give our children do not change.
I don?t want my daughters to think of the outdoors as something that can be won. Instead I want them to be critical of the technology that will be raining down around them, allowing them to decide which tools help them achieve peace and joy, and which tools feel more like handcuffs.
Elizabeth Small is a lawyer by training, writer by nature, and wife and mother by spirit. She has lived up and down the east coast of the United States, in Miami, Washington, D.C., and Boston, and now resides in Connecticut.