Rolling vineyards surround us. Palm trees stand like sentries by the driveway. The crystalline sea hides, just visible on the horizon. And a battle rages. It is a fight played out daily in this idyllic setting, me against an army: iPads, computers, iPhones, TV and video games. The winning prize? The children’s undivided attention.
As an au pair, I thought the biggest challenge might be communicating with my host family or perhaps coaxing the kids to eat their vegetables at dinner. But in this age of technology, where 4- and 5-year-olds can operate an Xbox before they can read, the epic struggle is between real play and virtual play.
There is an entire genre of research and literature about this generation of kids, which journalist Hanna Rosin calls the “touch-screen generation” in a fascinating Atlantic article, and much of it is contradictory. Some research suggests unlimited access to the iPad and its relatives will mean the kids will tire of technology and eventually revert to real-life games; other studies imply that strict time limits are the best way to mete out technology access.
Personally, I have no idea which option is the best. If childhood development experts can’t agree on how to answer the iPad question, I’m certainly not going to try to implement my own rules on someone else’s children. All I know is that I’m here to play with and care for the children, to teach them English and most of all, to have fun with them. All of these things, as far as I’m concerned, involve human interaction and for this reason alone, the screens have become my enemy.
My main tactical strategy is to simply make myself more entertaining than the screens. With its thousands of games, bright colors, facility of use and instant gratification, beating the iPad can be an exhausting and daunting task. But luckily, I have a few of my own tricks up my sleeve. Riding bikes, making papier mache, playing tennis, baking cookies, painting, playing hide-and-seek, board games, Legos, cards and going to the beach are the most effective weapons in my arsenal of fun. I’ve even turned to “20 questions” to fill some boring minutes while we’ve waited for food to arrive in a restaurant.
Maybe it’s because my family never had video games when I was growing up (we didn’t even have cable on our single TV set until I was 12); or maybe it’s because I spent so much of my childhood lost in the pages of books; or maybe it’s because I was just flat out terrible at every computer game I ever attempted, but I don’t really get the appeal of the screens. This makes it especially frustrating when the kids elect some silly app over a rousing game of tag or soccer.
But then I take a deep breath, remind myself of my mission — be more fun than the screens — and go back to the drawing board.
Usually, I succeed in luring at least one or two of the three children away from the screens. Yesterday I made biscotti with the 10-year-old girl and her friend who had come over to play; then, I played tennis for two hours with the 12-year-old boy and two of his pals. Later, I spent 30 minutes manning the “bad guy” in a confusing Lego scenario with the 5-year-old. Every time the kids put down the iPad and play with me, I count a small victory. And every time they learn another English word or phrase, I feel like even more of a winner.
The battle continues, however, and it’s becoming harder and harder to come up with innovative ideas for games. But I won’t give up. So, if you know of any entertaining activities for kids, please do tell me. I’m eagerly taking suggestions.
Laura Wagner is a rising senior in the College and a former sports editor of The Hoya. The Au Pair Diaries appears every other Monday at thehoya.com.