Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.

The School Drop-Off And Social Trust

Three or four times every week, I drop my daughter off at our local public school. We leave, on almost every occasion, in a bit of a rush. My daughter’s school is close by, a mere ten minutes walk, but the window for her to eat breakfast school is quite narrow–thirty minutes–so I’m keen to leave on time to give her enough time to eat a bit before she heads off for her classes. On the way to school, as we walk, we talk about any topic that happens to catch our fancy. (Besides conversation with me, my daughter also has to put up with my angry rants at drivers who do not give us the right of way on pedestrian crosswalks.) On occasion, we stop to climb a rocky wall of a local yeshiva that lies en-route. And then, all too soon, we are at school, at the door through which my daughter will walk into a large hall packed with noisy children, in the midst of which she will locate her teacher and her class, en-route to her classroom, her home for the day.

As we approach the door, my pace slows; I want to say goodbye ‘properly to my daughter, who I can sense is already straining at the leash and wants to move on, to get on with meeting her friends. So we stop; I pull my daughter to me and ask her a few questions–the same ones every day–and then, after planting a few kisses on her cheeks, and giving her one last hug, I let her go. She walks on, and as she walks through the door, I yell out some variant of “Bye, sweetheart, I’ll see you in the evening” (alternatively, “Bye, sweetheart, mommy will be picking you up in the evening.”) I blow her a kiss, and as I do so, my daughter turns to look at me, waves, and is gone.

All around me, other parents are enacting variations on this ritual.

As I walk off, to the subway station to catch a train to my gym, or onwards to Brooklyn College to begin teaching the first of my three classes of day, I am struck, yet again, by the sheer incongruity of it all. My daughter is only five years old, a mere child, one whose welfare and safety and well-being is quite plausibly understood as a preoccupation of mine, and I’ve entrusted her, left her alone, in the company of ‘strangers.’ I’ve put my faith in other people to protect my child, feed her, teach her, give her company, entertain her after school; I’ve entrusted to them, my most ‘precious possession.’ I always feel, as I walk away, a slight tinge of panic and fear. We don’t leave her alone at home; why am I letting her walk off like that? But I’ve placed trust in many to help me out; and indeed, this is just continuation of many acts of trust like this that have helped me raise my child. I live in this world, in this society, an individual sure, but also one reliant on others to help me live my life. And those of the ones I love. This little act, of dropping my daughter off to school, is a daily, acute reminder of my social indebtedness, my social being.