The beginning of the new school year radically increases the frequency of beeps, clicks, buzzes, rings and stutter dials in my home. My stack of unreturned phone calls is beginning to teeter. Reflecting on these mixed blessings, I am reminded of an incident from way back in the pre-history of July.
I was in a dressing room at the mall when my cell phone rang. The caller was a staff member at my daughter's camp. She sounded a little breathless.
"Notanemergency." I recognized the standard school and camp greeting. "Emma is fine, but USA Today is doing an article about camp in tomorrow's edition, and they want to use a picture of her. We'll need your permission ... right now." I had to think fast. In my underwear.
For two seconds I wondered how USA Today got this picture of Emma. Then I realized it was easy. Emma's camp, as well as 600 others throughout the country, subscribes to a service that posts and sells pictures of the campers on the Web (updated daily and accessible to parents only). They also invite parents to send daily e-mail to the campers and to "click here" to send a care package of little gifts. Young Emma could now be launched from her tent, by a lake, in the Sierras, to a million readers in one click of a mouse. I appreciated the allure of having an all-access pass to Emma's life, but I was not prepared for everyone else to have one too.
Our electronically assisted lives are undeniably bountiful. I cherish my ability to e-mail my brother-in-law in Indianapolis, to access a bibliography on pastoral counseling, to peruse the Web sites of far-flung vacation spots. The late Lubovitcher Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said, "Do not fear technology, it will knit the world together." Some of this connectedness benefits family life directly. In our sprawling city, I appreciate my cell phone link to the babysitter, to older children home alone and teenagers on the town. But does my child benefit from a daily e-mail or a care package when she's only gone for two weeks? If I don't send her one but all the other parents do, will she feel neglected? How much access is too much?
A few weeks earlier, I had the pleasure of lecturing at the Whizin Institute for Family Education at the University of Judaism. Shellie Dickstein, Jewish family educator extraordinaire, was in town from New York, facilitating a session for early childhood specialists. She provided the participants with an article by psychologist David Elkind, best known as the author of "The Hurried Child." Elkind writes about the shift from the protected and protective nuclear family to today's "permeable" family. He explains that boundaries between home and the outside world, between public and private, between family and work have become more open and flexible. The Internet, cell phones and faxes fling the doors of our homes open wide. Dickstein suggested, only half-joking, that parents consider putting a mezuzah on their computers. "These are our doorposts, our portals. This is where influences for evil or good stream into our lives."
All this connectedness is of value to ourfamilies only if we can tame it and teach our children to do the same. The e-portals that make our lives permeable are powerful tools, but we still have to do the thinking. Too much accessibility is like leaving the doors and windows open all the time. They can't shut themselves; we have to do it. When we allow ourselves to become addicted to a nightly e-fix of camp photos; when we send our kids daily e-mail and care packages, we have become too connected. We may insulate them a bit from homesickness and satisfy our urge to make sure they're happy, but it comes at a price. For children, camp is supposed to be a place where appearances don't matter, where the outside world can't touch you, and where parents can't protect or pry. Parents whose children go away to camp ought to be able to get a real break from them, as well as some practice in letting go. E-access 24 hours a day diminishes the experience on both sides.
I gave USA Today permission to print Emma's photo, "if you don't use her name, and she's not in a bathing suit." I then checked their Web site every day, searching for my sporting, windswept cover girl. Three weeks later they ran the article without the photo. Part of me was disappointed, another part relieved. For the time being, this window into Emma's life was still reserved for my eyes only. As the New Year approaches, we have the opportunity to take time to reflect on just how permeable we want our lives to be. I'm considering a mezuzah for my mouse -- and maybe one for my cell phone, too.