Over five decades ago, in the giddy early days of the space race, the Satellite Motel opened on the outskirts of Cambridge, Ont. It had one feature that set it apart from the other motels in the area — a crude life-size replica of a spaceship on its front lawn. The silver rocket has remained there ever since.
Last fall, the nose cone blew off in a windstorm. When I relayed the news to my sister, she reminded me that when we were very young and lived in Cambridge, our dad told us the rocket would blast off to the moon someday. In our innocence, we believed him.
She went on to make an interesting observation: our own kids never knew such innocence. Any innocence they may have had vanished the day they logged on to the Internet for the first time. The genie has been on the loose ever since.
Our kids, now in their mid-20s and early 30s, were the first generation of children with easy access to the digital world, and they latched on to it voraciously. Despite our best efforts to police their online activities, there wasn’t much they hadn’t been exposed to by the time they hit adolescence.
The Internet has a well-documented capacity to spread falsehoods, but in retrospect I wonder whether a big part of its attraction for our kids was the truths it told. Innocence is not entirely innocent. As British writer Tim Lott put it in a 2013 article in the Guardian, innocence “is, at one level, a rarefied quality of ignorance. To not grasp imaginatively that death will come. To be ignorant of sex, likewise. To believe in the irrational — Santa Claus, fairies, monsters under the bed. And, of course, the myth of the infinite power and goodness of parents.” My sense is that one of the things kids want most from their parents is the truth. Yet how often do we shield them from it, twist it or tell them outright lies in the name of innocence?
A 2013 survey by the popular British parenting website Netmums found that a majority of parents believe childhood now ends at 12. The site’s founder Siobhan Freegard called the results shocking and blamed a “toxic combination of marketing, media and peer pressure” for truncating youthful innocence.
There’s no question that children today are often exposed to things they’re not able to process. But isn’t that true for children of most generations? I grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Kids before me grew up sending their brothers and sisters off to war. My parents grew up in the poverty of the Great Depression. Innocence has always been fleeting. Yet most of us seem to turn out all right.
So it is with the first generation to lose its innocence to the Internet. My kids, my sister’s kids, their friends — they’ve started careers, they’re in relationships, they’re putting down roots. They understand right from wrong. They abhor injustice. My sister-in-law, a Grade 8 teacher, reports that her students are both incredibly plugged in and remarkably well adjusted when it comes to things that really matter.
Could it be that we underestimate the capacity of children to handle the truth, even when it’s harsh? Or that by shielding our kids, we parents have really been protecting ourselves? Or that children are less innocent than we imagine them to be? By the time I was 12, I knew a lot more about the world than I let on. I was a long way from being an adult, but I certainly wasn’t a child anymore.
Mind you, if you told me the rocket at the Satellite Motel was going to blast off, I’d have been first in line to watch. Still would.