October 04, 2007


Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet. By Kathryn C. Montgomery. MIT Press. $29.95.

The Guy’s Guide to Surviving Toddlers, Tantrums, and Separation Anxiety (Yours, Not Your Kid’s!). By Michael Crider. Da Capo. $12.95.

      Here are two attempts, one very sober and the other very lighthearted, to say something about childhood and parenting in the digital age. Generation Digital takes itself so seriously that its footnotes and index are more than half the length of its text (120 pages vs. 225). It is an advocacy book – Kathryn C. Montgomery is founder of the Center for Media Education (CME) as well as a professor at American University’s School of Communication – and is, at bottom, more for policy wonks than for parents (except when the policy wonks are parents). Montgomery makes a good basic point about modern, media-driven perceptions of today’s children and teens: on the one hand, they are the most technology-savvy people ever, far more connected to far more devices holding far more information than has ever been widely available in history; on the other hand, they are innocents who can and will be corrupted by the nature of much of the information to which they are exposed, unless something can be done to protect them. Just what that something should be is by no means clear. For example, Montgomery analyzes in some detail the political process that went into crafting the Communications Decency Act that President Clinton signed into law, but she is well aware of the legislation’s overreaching and poorly crafted language. She discusses supposed Internet “safe havens” for children, such as KidsCom, then points out that these turned out to have marketing rather than child safety as their primary goals. She talks a great deal about “policy intervention,” especially in terms of the work of her own CME but also in connection with efforts by the Kaiser Foundation and others, but never really formulates an approach that can help children stay digitally safe while ensuring their continued ability to reach and interact with a world of information and, not incidentally, allowing unfettered data access to adults. Montgomery’s primary concern is inclusiveness – “The true democratic potential of the new media can never be fulfilled unless everyone has the ability to participate” – but the specifics of getting to that goal are never made clear.

      Michael Crider’s concerns are as focused and humor-filled as Montgomery’s are wide-ranging and somber. Crider has written several books about being a guy in today’s dating, marriage and child-rearing scenes, and The Guy’s Guide to Surviving Toddlers, Tantrums, and Separation Anxiety moves his focus up the age ladder to the point at which a child is ready for school – or preschool, anyway. Crider is curiously bifurcated in his role as a modern father. On the one hand, he writes with obvious pride about being “sort of in the beginning of a climate shift in parenting, as a lot of fathers were choosing the stay-at-home route” at the same time he chose it. On the other hand, he is absolutely convinced that the way all men bond, with each other and with their kids, is through sports. Heaven help the boy who’s more interested in, say, ballet. The main thing Crider brings to his books is his rather juvenile sense of humor, which is most attractive when he makes jokes at his own expense: “There were only two times in my childhood when I can remember bringing up the subject of sex. And both times ended up with me knowing just as little as before I asked. …I learned about it the way a lot of Generation X kids first discovered the truth about sex: HBO.” (Quick – alert Kathryn Montgomery and the CME!) Crider ends every chapter of The Guy’s Guide to Surviving Toddlers, Tantrums, and Separation Anxiety with a series of “review questions: what have we learned here?” These are a nicely done sendup of similar chapter endings in many self-help books: “Do you ever wonder who thought of a vasectomy in the first place? I’m guessing it was first performed on a stay-at-home dad, and he probably did the surgery himself after spending too much ‘quality time’ with his children.” For all the joking and silliness, Crider’s book has warmth, which peeps through whether he is discussing the excesses of kids’ birthday parties or the weird interviews of children conducted by some preschool administrators. It’s his heart, not his joke-telling ability, that makes Crider a father worth listening to, at least some of the time.

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