The other evening, on a short diaper-buying trip to Target, I passed two young women in the electronics department (Yes, I get distracted in Target. Who doesn’t?) asking the help of a young red-shirt wearing fellow. The question I heard started like this – “We don’t know anything about computers. We’re totally computer illiterate.” One waif-like creature was speaking for both of them. She went on to ask, “Is this a router?” I didn’t wait around for the young man’s answer. Instead I went on my way comparing Huggies to Pampers and trying to remember if I’ve ever had a bad experience with either. But I got to thinking, as one is likely to do while tooling aimlessly around your neighborhood Target store, isn’t it funny that those two young women represent the generation we’re all convinced is technologically competent and well-versed? The funny thing was, the young gentleman they were asking for help could not have been more than a year or two older than the ‘illiterate’ girls. But they were comfortable looking to him for his expertise. The whole scene struck me as unfortunate.
When I was a kid my parents purchased the Encyclopedia Brittanica from a tv ad. Every month for 26 months (not counting the bonus books) we’d receive a giant, quite handsome, leather-bound volume to add to our collection. Eventually the set took up an entire shelf in our family room book case. In the evenings at dinner, or while attacking our homework assignments, every little question my sister and I would take to our parents got redirected to that shelf of leather bound books. “Look it up,” my mother would say. “Don’t ask me. Find out for yourself.” In the moment it was probably frustrating. It would have been easier and maybe more efficient for me if my mother just had all the answers to everything. But she didn’t and the closest thing we had was the books marked A-Z. It changed our behavior, really. We learned that if we needed to know something there were resources at our disposal, the encyclopedia was really just the tip of the iceberg.
Fast forward about 25 years. If my son has a fever. If I can’t sleep. If my car is leaking oil, or my grass isn’t green enough, if I need a map, or the names of constellations, or a recipe for creme brulee. If I want to find the name of an obscure poem I thought I read. Or the lyrics of a song. If, say, hypothetically speaking, I want to know what a router is I have the same response, I go look it up. I have, at my fingertips, this fast sea of interconnected resources. I start with Google and I can surf my way through world history and pharmacology and urban legends and infant development and, well, you name it. So why, with this kind of knowledge available, were these two young women so willing to let this pimply faced, red shirt wearing fella be a key influencer in the future of their LAN? You didn’t ask me, but, here goes – I think its cultural and it has a lot to do with how we talk about empowerment and knowledge and the spirit of curiosity. I think it has to do with having the permission to explore and to try and to fail. And, at the risk of offending some of our readers, I think it is a particular concern in terms of how we talk to and encourage little girls. Add technology to that equation and we’ve (generally speaking) got a culture making a whole lot of assumptions about a generation of users without really empowering them to get the full benefit of the resources available to them.
What can we do? Well, as parents I think its our responsibility to have at least a basic understanding of how technology fits into our families, our homes, the classroom, our communities. Too many parents are intimidated by technology and they either believe all the hype and are terrified of strangers on MySpace, or they let their young son or daughter be the resident ‘expert’ without having any real sense of what systems they’re putting in place for the family. This is really a whole other post, and I plan on writing it. But for this one lets just say that in order to encourage exploration in knowledge, parents have to first model it. If you’re concerned about MySpace or Facebook – get on them. Find out what the buzz is about. Get a sense of how they work. And don’t let your kid be a member without ‘friending’ you. But more than anything, encourage their natural curiosity and their interest in creative problem solving. If your teen daughter has the money to go to Target and shop for routers, she’s probably got a broadband connection available to her. If she has that, why not talk to her about finding the answer for herself? Perhaps take it a step further, suggest she compare routers on a hardware review website. And, if you’re really cocky, maybe you can encourage her to map out her own plan for the home network. Its not that complicated, I promise. Sure there will be failure and frustration. But what’s the fun in learning without figuring it out? What’s better than accomplishing something? Especially if its something that the general population thinks is complicated.
I do think we send different messages to girls over boys. I think boys are encouraged to be adventurous in their thinking, where girls are encouraged to be careful. Boys are encouraged to care little about being watched. But girls are encouraged to consider who might be looking at all times. Handling little girls with kid gloves teaches them to be tentative and it’s limiting. We’ve come so far, and we’re defensive when these topics are broached because of all the progress we’ve made. But come on, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit the crap our parents subjected us to still comes out sideways. And there is just way too much opportunity out there to be tentative. There’s too much to learn. Too many connections to make. To many conversations to take part in. Women have got to be part of those conversations. They’ve got to be influential in how those conversations are shaped. And they won’t be if they aren’t encouraged to jump in as children. I’ll stop preaching now. But the moral of this story is simple. Look it up. When in doubt — look it up.