When Parents Look to Children for Expertise

March 29, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. It is evening when my mother, whose life is booby-trapped by technology, calls. She is having an electronic breakdown. The television set which once merely and manually went on and off, now requires a series of instructions before it will obey.

There are numbers to be entered on two remote controls that are not remotely within her control at this moment. Something has gone awry.

To avoid an emergency house call, I talk her through the system, step-by-step. The scene is not unlike the old war movie in which a ship-to-shore appendectomy is performed by telephone. Eventually, the patient is saved.

I hang up the phone flush with my own prowess, more than a bit intolerant of my elder's difficulty coping with the television. The word I use is ''phobic.'' The feeling I have is superior.

But my smugness doesn't last long. Within days I am confronted by my own younger generation. They cannot understand why I am not up to speed -- their speed -- on the equipment we share. Why do I hesitate to program the VCR? Why have we never logged on the new computer program. It's really, we are told, fun. The feeling that I have is of incompetence.

What I am describing is nothing unique to my family. There is a three-generational model of technological life in America. Seventysomething meets fortysomething meets twentysomething.

The model has become the central sitcom of modern times. All across America, 10-year-olds are called from their bedrooms to work the video camera; 12-year-olds are wrenched from their homework to program the VCR; 14-year-olds come home from dates to fix the glitch in the computer.

We find it amusing, take it for granted, and rarely think about the vast revolution that has turned the generations upside-down. Technological change has done something our ancestors would have never believed: made experts of the young.

In part, this is the story of America itself. When immigrants came to this country, they left behind not only the language but the cultural knowledge that made them sure-footed guides through the old traditional world. In America, their children became interpreters of new words and ways.

Now each generation emigrates to a new technological country. Elders learn this technology as a second language, haltingly, imperfectly. Children grow up bilingual.

The pace of change seems to make experience obsolete. It's one of the things about being a parent now. Fewer of us have a skill to teach our children. Fewer children apprentice themselves to us as adults. There are times when we lose confidence that what we have to teach has any meaning.

A man becomes a printer and his grandchildren lay out newspaper pages on computers. A woman learns the intricacies of preserving food and her children buy a refrigerator.

One generation has a storehouse of home remedies and the next generation takes penicillin. For every man who teaches his child to fish there is another who tries to learn Nintendo from that same child.

The things that elders still show the young -- how to hit a ball, plant a tree, tell a story -- have become peripheral to their daily economic survival. They are stuff of avocation rather than vocation. Indeed, parents and children spend their time together before, after, around work. We have become each other's extra-curricular activity.

In all of this, the one subject that the elders are entrusted with as if it had some permanence is ''family life.'' We are told to teach our children ''values.'' But we all forget that values were once learned while watching, while working, beside the older generation.

Values came in the conversation over a shoe last or the hem of a skirt. Respect came from the knowledge of the older generation and the acknowledgment of the young.

The wonder is that technology hasn't severed the cord between generations, but just frayed it. The wonder is that the older generation still is expert in a subject that never becomes obsolete: life.

Skill comes quickly, but wisdom comes, if at all, slowly. Technology favors the young, but the soft information about our human kind, our own behavior, needs aging.

In the end, it's not a bad exchange for a little problem with the VCR.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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