In her book “Animal Vegetable Miracle,” author Barbara Kingsolver describes a year where she feeds her family only locally grown food. When she vacations at an Amish farm to see how they do it, her hosts are fascinated by her Prius. In reality, the Amish aren’t against all technology. They just choose what won’t “change their lives for the worse.” For instance, when milking machines could replace the need for repeated lifting of 80 lb. milk cans, difficult for children and small women, the community voted to allow them, so that the whole family could work together milking the herd.
When parenting, we should make similar decisions about what technologies to adopt for our children’s health. Some fruits of technology are certainly harmful, like packaged snack foods and sodas, and polluted air, water, and soil. Some technologies are undeniably good, like municipal clean water. But with most, there’s a tension in doing more good than harm.
One such tension is the use of antibiotics. In some cases, where a child has pneumonia or other life-threatening infection, antibiotics are a god-send. However, antibiotics are overused, like when a child has a virus. Antibiotics don’t kill viruses, but many parents and doctors want to use them anyway, “just in case.” When too many antibiotics suffuse the environment, the bacteria they’re meant to kill develop resistance to them. Then one day when a kid gets that pneumonia, the antibiotics won’t work.
Besides not insisting on antibiotics for that green runny nose, there’s lots more good choices you can make for your kids to keep them on the good side of technology. Certainly the more home grown or locally sourced foods you buy, the better for them. Supermarket foods’ packaging and advertising scream about their healthfulness, but they don’t come close to the bread and produce from the farmer’s market at the Horse Farm. Likewise, a pedal bike is certainly safer, and healthier, for your child than a powered one.
Finally, as we discussed last month, playing a game of tag or reading a real book at bedtime are better than video games and phones. I’m not against these technologies- I’m writing at a computer right now. But later I’m going to the library to check out a book.
Many in the world are forced to live like the Amish we discussed above- little technology, lots of hard farm work. They must live this more “natural” lifestyle, rather than choose it as the Amish have, because of poverty. I just returned from my annual medical mission trip to Honduras, where I’m immersed in their world of cooking on open fires, sleeping in huts that let in weather and insects, and having to walk everywhere.
While we enumerated the advantages of natural living above- home-cooked food, fresh air, and exercise, there’s reasons those in the third world have shorter lifespans. Cooking fires fill the home with smoke, leading to asthma and burning eyes. Insects brings itchy bites, disease, and sleepless nights. Unending, back-breaking work wears out bodies. And there’s no modern medicine nearby to bring relief for these problems.
And yet, the kids seem pretty happy. WIthout smartphones, video games, cable, or even toys, they have smiles on their faces. They play and carry each other around. They innovate. And they are resilient, putting up with dental extractions without a cry or tear. When we bring paper and crayons, it’s a popular draw, almost more so than the dental, medical, or eyeglass clinics.
In fact, with their resilience and innovation, these kids often seem smarter and more capable than their American counterparts. If the natural life is so good for people and their brains, how did Europe and North America come to rule the world? In his book “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” anthropologist Jared Diamond recounts being asked the same question by a New Guinea tribesman when Diamond pointed out how smart his people were. The book’s short answer: dumb luck. Europeans weren’t superior; they just happened to settle lands with richer soil and better livestock, which is the basis of a society’s wealth.
So be thankful you can choose your technology; but do as the Amish, being careful to use only that which makes you and your kid’s lives better, not worse. Have them play freely, finding their own resources instead of having them provided by a computer. They’ll get some exercise too.