What does a nine-year-old boy in central China know about work, life and hand-phone addiction right?
Well, it depends on whose perspective you are viewing it from. To him, his father has an addiction...yes, to his handphone.
The boy (named Xiaozhi) was troubled by this and did a rather public catharsis of it via a school essay. It was posted on Jan 17 by his teacher on Weibo at Luoyang International School in Henan Province.
The title of the essay was: “Father, I want to tell you this.”
In the essay, Xiaozhi described how “his father was glued to his mobile phone “day and night and every day” as though he could not live without it.”"
The essay won full marks for his year-end examination and here are some extracts of it.
“Father, every time I ask you to check my homework, you would just take one look and say “Not bad, now go play”. Otherwise you would just give me a phone so I could play too.”
At one point, Xiaozhi compared his father to a ”vicious wolf that has starved for three days and three nights, eyeing that big chunk of fat meat.”
“It’s also as though there is a vacuum cleaner inside the cellphone sucking him in...Father, what I want is not a house full of tidbits, the most high end cellphone, and certainly not ultra high-end toys.”
“What I want is only for you to put down your phone and play with me. That’ll be the happiest thing to happen to me in my whole life.”
“Father, as long as you put down the phone, I’m willing to trade my life for it. I love you, my father.”
Therein ends the essay.
Xiaozhi’s mother acknowledged her husband’s addiction and said that he “is a heavy mobile phone user as he uses the device for work and would sometimes play games on it for relaxation.”
She added: “Before this, we didn’t think using the phone all day was an issue, and we didn’t realise this child was so sensitive.”
Lesson? Mm....you really have to define “all day” here. Now, I do not know the family’s background in detail and so, whatever I write here is provisional.
But when you put the expression “all day” and “didn’t realise this child was so sensitive” together in one rather nonchalant statement, you get the feeling that normalisation within the household has different meanings for different people within the family. That is, what is normal to one can be extreme to the other.
Last night, my daughter Joy (8 yrs old) came to me. She was excited. She had recently learned how to tell time. She was all psyched up with the hour hand and the minute hand. I saw her tracing the seconds hand with great fascination just so that she could get it right. To her, it meant a lot to get it right.
Then, she came to me and can’t wait to tell time. To the adults, the expert time-teller, nothing could be more mundane. And mind you, this was not her first time telling me every few minute that passed her little life by.
Well, confession time, I was on the phone watching Seth Meyers dishing out on Trump and I do that recently as a form of mental relaxation, a brainless romp in cerebral empty space.
As a side note, Trump tends (unknowingly) to dump tons of materials on the lap of late-night comedians like Meyers, Colbert, Trevor and Kimmel, and they run with it like wild animals on a celebrative hunt.
And when Joy came in, all flushed with excitement, I paused (the phone) quite reluctantly and forced a smile.
After she told me her chronology expedition, and it took what seemed like an eternity to me who had to pause the phone at a cliffhanger, I told her deadpan bye bye.
There was no engagement whatsoever. No small talk with her. I just can’t wait to return to the screen no bigger than the size of my palm.
And so, this morning, Xiaozhi’s essay was a gentle awakening for me. It reminded me about last night.
My point is that while there is justification to what we have to do on the handphone or before the computer screen, sometimes, we have to stand back and take stock. We just can’t go on autopilot mode with this indefinitely.
From the adult perspective, handphone, digitalisation and technology in general can be part of work and meeting quotas so as to support the family. For doesn’t this ”vicious wolf” have a small trooper pack back home to feed?
But having said that, I still take my cue from the words of a nine-year-old when he wrote: -
“Father, what I want is not a house full of tidbits, the most high end cellphone, and certainly not ultra high-end toys. What I want is only for you to put down your phone and play with me. That’ll be he happiest thing to happen to me in my whole life.”
Now, as an adult, a father, I am not saying we shouldn’t have our alone-time, a sacred privacy space for us to wind down and live it up. Nothing’s wrong with self-care.
But what we need to take stock is, have we gone too far with some activities? Most time, we don’t even realise it.
And what’s worse is that our children (even our spouse) might think it is a lost cause to ask for our time, attention and engagement, knowing that it would often be no more than a patronising smile or a condescending nod. In other words, we are seldom fully there, fully engaged, fully present.
Alas, what we might not know, or wish not to know, is that these patronising nods add up over the years. They add up to dilute affection, undermine intimacy and backfire on personal authenticity.
And yet, despite all that, we often catch ourselves telling ourselves this in rueful lamentation: “Time flies. They grow up so fast. Where have all the time gone?”
Mm...I think it has gone nowhere. Time has always been there. It came to us countless of times, hoping for a glance from us, for a quick connection to affirm the presence, but it often walked away with desires unrealised.
For me, she came last night. She came with much enthusiasm, craving for what I could easily afford, that is, those few minutes to acknowledge and savour her little growth moments. But she walked away, with desires unrealised, opportunity missed.
Some may say that I have overstated the effect, but they all add up, and add up without our conscious awareness.
Most times, it is not the big disappointments that estrange the relationship. We can make up for them because we are aware of them. We somehow keep track.
It is however the small ones that accumulate over time that are most damaging because we are seldom made aware of. We seldom keep track, or it is easier to lose track.
So, going back to our earlier lamentation, the time has gone nowhere. It came with earnest and the only one gone is, well, us.
Let me end with this quote: “Relationships deepen not because we necessarily say something in particular but because we are invested enough to show up for another conversation. In family conversations, children learn that what can matter most is not the information shared but the relationships sustained.” (Sherry Turkle ”Reclaiming Conversation”).
And relationships are sustained by making every moment counts, not necessarily with words or elaborate engagement, but by simply making our presence felt.