March 18, 2010

The Kids Get E-Mail-- I Get a Headache

Lucy is counting the days until she gets a cell phone. Literally. She has almost 1,000 to go, as I am not getting her a phone before she’s 12 years old and can legally be left alone.

This counting thing would be annoying if it weren’t good math practice, which she sort of needs.

It must be hard, in some ways, being a kid today.

You see so much technology everywhere, so many adults and even some kids addicted to their Blackberries and iPhones. You can watch what you want when you want on TV, fast-forwarding through commercials. Even books have gotten digitized. 

It makes me feel like an incredible fogey to utter this line, but when I was a kid, we had none of that.

High tech glassesWe used to fight over who got to try my dad’s calculator, and even then, it was only when he was in a pretty good mood because it cost $72. (An equivalent calculator can be had, these days, for about ninety-nine cents. Or free with a pack of gum.)

I remember the first time I saw a computer. It was a Wang, and I was about Alice’s age—too young to appreciate the inherent hilarity of the name.

But I proudly showed off my souvenir printout to my grandfather—a small rectangle of tag board with holes punched in it—and he said if he could do anything on a computer, anything in the world, it would be to  build a database of all the varieties of rhododendron.

That was a really good way to deaden my interest in computers for many years to come.

Kids today don’t have that sort of turnoff. The graphics on the games are nothing short of incredible for someone who grew up looking at green text on gray-black screens. Even Turbo Tax looks kind of fun.

Both kids have been begging for their own e-mail accounts for a while. I promised I’d set them up as soon as they spent some time learning to type.

How was I to know that learning to type with Sponge Bob Squarepants was going to be not only fun, but also effective? Lucy can type better than many of the newspaper editors I used to work for.  And Alice’s nimble fingers are nothing short of amazing when set to the keyboard.

So the kids earned their e-mail and I finally set up accounts for them. I doled out stern warnings never to share their e-mail addresses with anyone they don’t know in real life. I told them not to reply to any e-mail from a stranger. And I told them this did NOT mean they could look at any old website. It was e-mail. That was it. Period.

The girls nodded. We had an understanding.

To make things easier, I stored a few e-mail addresses in Alice’s account. The addresses would pop right up as soon as she started typing. I thought I’d done the same for Lucy until for the third or fourth time in as many days, she asked if I’d received her messages.

At first I thought it must just be some delay in the system. My mail is sometimes poky. Then I thought maybe I hadn’t quite configured the account correctly (I opted for our own domain instead of one of the freebies, just for that added measure of security).

Then it hit me.

“Lucy,” I said, “What e-mail address have you been using for me?”

She rattled off two addresses, neither of which belongs to me, or anyone we know.

“Uh, did the e-mails come back to you? Did you get a message that said they were undeliverable?”

“Nope,” she said.

“Um, what did you write in those e-mails?”

“I wrote HI MOM in one. I wrote I LOVE YOU in another. And in a third, I wrote HOOPDEPOOP because that is a funny word. Also, I did that thing where you turn up the volume.”

By this, she means she made the font huge. She intuitively understands how to shout in a computer. That’s my kid. Fluent in loud, whatever the platform.

“Lucy,” I said gently, “I have some bad news. You sent that e-mail to a complete stranger.”

After my lecture about Internet safety, I thought she’d be concerned. Maybe even sick to her stomach. Instead, she and Alice thought it was funny.

“You said HOOPDEPOOP to a stranger,” Alice said. “A complete stranger!”

“I know!” Lucy said.

Then she and Alice succumbed to the laughter fairy.

When Alice is completely overtaken by something funny, her head falls back on her shoulders and she turns her face to the sky, as if asking the gods for mercy from the hilarity of it all. This happens at least three times a day, which is one of the side benefits of life with a funny big sister.

It’s probably highly symbolic that a technology that is life-sucking and potentially dangerous has already gone comically awry for us. Pandora’s box is open wide.

And I know I screwed up in not filling out Lucy’s address book. There is now someone out there with a name like mine who has an inbox full of inscrutable love notes from a nine-year-old.

But in a lot of ways, I like Alice’s response the best. It is pretty darned funny that Lucy’s been writing loud e-mails to someone who doesn’t know her. It makes a refreshing change from Nigerian bank swindles, at least. And when stuff like happens, you can only laugh, turn your face to the sky, and hope the world has mercy.

For more adventures in parenting, check out Martha's Family Journal. Record and share your own family moments - start an easy family website today.

--Martha Brockenbrough

Martha is mom to Lucy and Alice, who are 9 and 6 years old. They live in the Pacific Northwest with daddy Adam and doggy Rosie.





My daughter has her own email account in zilladog. This is an excellent system because it allows the parent to see the emails being exchanged. The kids can only send and receive messages to/from the people in their address book that were setup by parents.

Deana Brady

I remember, as a child, watching Wang build the biggest building I had ever seen outside Boston (I had a small worldview). Even though I was familiar with computers as huge, hulking room-sized monsters, I could not fathom such marvels in our homes. My girls are 12 and 15 and I still monitor their email, but while they don't take their smartphones for granted, they can't imagine living without constant connection. Yes, I am slightly ashamed that they have smartphones, but I am grateful that I feel secure giving them a bit more freedom than I would without them:) Tell Lucy that as soon as she has a cell phone, boys might start calling her; and we all know that cooties are capable of digital transfer!


So THAT's who sent me the HOOPDEPOOP email!
Thank you for sharing how you are pioneering this frontier. When my kids reach the age of email responsibility, I will look to you for guidance and giggles.

Kirby Larson

I want to live at your house. We are much too fluent in quiet at mine.


I so love your articles - my 8 yr old wants - not just any cell phone but an iPhone like Daddy's - with all the apps on it too.
I thought of you - March 17th on her way to bed my daughter frantically looked for the letter she'd written to the Leprechauns that had their teeny tiny reply written in green ink on the back (in barely legible 7 pt. celtic font). She found her letter eventually, but not until after she found two inexplicable drafts of the Leprechaun's letter on the kitchen counter. The drafts had been their way to the recycle bin before I got interrupted on my way and put them down. One copy was too light a green to read easily, one too small to read, but still recognizable for what it was by the now familiar and beloved green text. She was confused, but undaunted and seemed to accept my explanation that maybe the Leprechauns practiced. She's already pondering her letter to the Easter Bunny.

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