I rarely hand my cell phone over to my six-year-old. But the other day, after picking up my kids at their tennis class, I was talking to my wife and he asked if he could say hello.
I handed him the phone and he started chatting away with mommy, who was still at work. They were having a lovely conversation until we got onto the elevator. As soon as the doors closed, the call cut off.
My son looked up at me with a concerned look in his eyes. “Daddy,” he said. “Why did Mommy hang up on me?” I couldn’t help but laugh and, of course, I reassured him that his mother did not hang up on him. I explained that the cell phone signal moved through the air but that it often was not strong enough to penetrate the steel of an elevator. He accepted this answer although he still seemed somewhat troubled by it.
He remained silent the rest of the way home and I didn’t realize he was still thinking about it until we walked into the house about 20 minutes later. Out of the blue, he turned to me and said, “I don’t think it’s fair that cell phones don’t work on elevators.”
This story is one of countless that I could share showing the cute precociousness of the six-year-old mind at work. But this conversation had an even more profound impact on me: It was the first time I realized what it means to have children who are “digital natives.”
My wife and I are the “digital immigrants.” We arrived to the technological age later in life. We can remember a different culture, a different way of life, as if we had once lived on some far-off distant shore, where people spoke a different language, wore different clothing and ate different foods.
We can remember what it was like to leave our house with no way to contact anyone, to have to memorize phone numbers, to stop and ask for directions, to ask a stranger to take a photo. We can remember what it was like to arrive on the rocky shores of the digital age. Stumbling around, cell phones in the air, delighted when we finally encountered a “hot spot.”
My son will never understand the concept of a “hot spot.” He was born into this new world, with “the cloud” connecting everything and everyone he knows. To him, the internet is not a new technology. It is a given, like air or water—a natural part of the universe that he couldn’t imagine a world without.
As with other immigrant families, we will struggle with this cultural divide in the years to come. It is only natural that the immigrant parents bemoan their children’s lack of respect for the ancestral culture. The parents try their best to instill the cultural values that they grew up with and to teach the language they once spoke. But invariably, the native children struggle to see the value. Why speak a language that no one they know uses anymore?
But this is a parent’s job: to teach their children what they know and to protect them from things they don’t understand. We realize that our children forge their own path in the new world, but we can’t help but try to instill our old-world values in them.
I am no different. For me, the realization that my children are digital natives instills in me a new mission. I must teach them about the strange land their parents grew up in. I will teach them the bizarre customs, rituals and language of their non-digital ancestors. And like any proud immigrant, I will hope that these values help them to live a better life, even in their new world.
JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group.
He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing and hosts a blog at psychologyofwellbeing.com.