Had a meltdown on my tween son when he asked, yet again, for an iPad at breakfast this morning.
Before the iPad he wanted a laptop. He’d insisted he needed my old HP the moment I purchased my Toshiba, though he could give no reason why he had to have it, since he had a powerful PC with an enhanced graphics card for gaming in his room. After weeks of needling me, I finally gave him my old laptop to share after backing up [mostly] everything. He loaded the same games he had on his PC, and played them in bed on the laptop for about a week, until he inadvertently downloaded a virus which destroyed every program, every file on the machine—all seven years of my work. (Between ‘mostly’ and ‘everything’ I’d backed up turned out to be the Grand F**king Canyon.)
Prior to the laptop, he needed an iPhone. He’s had a cellphone since the 5th grade, when he started walking the quarter mile home from school. In the two years he’s had it, he forgets it at home most of the time unless I remind him to bring it with him. More often than not the phone has no charge because he doesn’t remember to charge it. Though all his friends have cellphones, he’s exchanged numbers with no one, and, upon inquiry, this seems fairly typical among his contemporaries.
Before the iPhone he had to have a video camera, which he got for his birthday. He used it a few times to tape episodes of Sponge Bob off the TV so he could view them later through the camera’s viewfinder. That lasted about a month, until he tired of it and he hasn’t touched the camera since.
An iPod was before the video camera. I use his iPod when I’m recharging mine, since in the four years he’s owned it, he’s used it maybe 10 times collectively.
He sat at the kitchen table this morning eating his cereal telling me how badly he needed an iPad. They are so cool, he insisted, giving me his puppy face, and good for school, he assured me, though was unable to define how, since a home PC with internet access was all his middle school required. He kept at it throughout breakfast, bargaining away all other gifts for his upcoming birthday in exchange for just one iPad.
And I blew a gasket.
He wanted too damn much! He asked for too much with no purpose. What the hell was the point of all these things when he didn’t even use them?
To be cool, mom, he said through tears.
His palpable shame was a knife through my heart. At 11 years old, crying had ceased to be acceptable, except in tragic situations, and me yelling at him wasn’t tragic. I sat down at the table adjacent to him and stared at my son, fighting tears from overwhelming me as well.
Being cool isn’t about what you have, I reminded him gently. Cool is about what you are, who you are, what you do that makes you special, separates you from the crowd. He was a straight A student, in advanced at math, played electric guitar, but every accomplishment I pointed out just made him cry harder.
None of that matters, he insisted. No one cares about that stuff. And being a nerd might pay off later, but right now no one his age knew or cared who Bill Gates was, he said, throwing my refrain back at me.
Your dad would ask why cool matters, was the lame response I came up with. I knew cool mattered, even to me, but especially for a kid becoming a teen.
It just does, my son assured me. And I’m not, he added shakily, unable to stop the new round of tears.
My heart in my throat, and struggling to swallow back my own tears stopped me from lecturing, but I again reminded my son that iPads and iPhones and video cameras are tools, nothing more, and possessing them doesn’t make one cool.
Yes, mom, he patronized me. But an iPhone is still cool, and so are iPads.
They are cool, undeniably, I told him. And that makes the engineers who invent Apple’s products cool, but not so much the people who use them. I needed to be sure he understood what “cool” really is, and perhaps remind myself as well.
Michael has an iPhone and an iPad and he’s totally popular, my son insisted. Everyone likes him. He has tons of friends and no one picks on him, ever.
Cool means Popular when you’re 11, and I suppose even for adults. Most of us want to be liked, admired, feel special, unique, seen as cool. But I knew Michael wasn’t popular because of his iPad and went about trying to enlighten my son without losing his attention. I pointed out Michael’s rather jovial demeanor, and reminded my son that this popular kid was also an avid sportsman, into soccer, basketball, baseball…etc, the ultimate key to cool for boys in school.
Perhaps Michael’s popularity had nothing to do with his iPad, I suggested. And to further my reasoning I asked, If Evan had an iPhone or iPad do you think he’d be more popular?
Evan is a jerk, my son proclaimed. He’s mean and rowdy, and he has an iPhone, mom. His eyes seem to sparkle with awareness of his own words. Then he smiled. He got it, and I smiled, too, for about a second, until his expression darkened again. But I’ll never be like Micheal, do what he does. I suck at sports and don’t really care about ’em. And I’m not exactly what you’d call upbeat.
And I’ll never write like Stephen King, or Ray Bradbury, or John Fowles,” I said.
Who are they? he asked.
Famous authors you’ve obviously never heard of. Forget it. Tell me, who else is cool, dude? Name five, other than your classmate, Michael. Anyone. Doesn’t even have to be one of your contemporaries.
Greenday, he looked to me for approval.
Okay. Who else?
Death Cab [for Cutie] (another rock band). Thomas Edison. Einstein. And Jason, at school. All the girls really like him.
I laughed. Why?
I don’t know. He’s short, but kind of buff already, I guess. He’s on the track team, and the basketball team, and he tells everyone he lifts his dad’s weights. He’s really into working out.
And what do all five you just named have in common?
He fiddled with the remainder of the Crispex in his bowl as he pondered my question.
They’re all good at something.
And how do you get good at anything? yet another of my canonical refrains.
You bet. Find something you love, that turns you on, and work at it, my beautiful son. Practice your guitar more, and become a great musician. Invent a new video game instead of playing someone else’s creation. Learn how to program and develop apps, show us you need an iPad as a tool to create with.
He brightened, smiled at me. I had his full attention again, my reason for slipping in the iPad comment.
Owning an iPad is easy, my baby, and meaningless, just one of many who do, and more who will. Creating with one is cool. Cool is as cool does, kid. Pursue a passion and you’ll be engaged, entertained, and so enraptured in the process you won’t notice or care if you’re popular. And how cool is that! ; – )