When you were younger you wanted nine kids.
You had even named them all. You were going to have five boys and four girls, and they all had very grand names. One of your sons was going to be called Michaelangelo, another one Guiseppe. These days, you find yourself laughing when you imagine the horror that primary school would have been. How badly those names would have been hackneyed by unrepentant teachers whose tongues are still heavy from from the foothills of Central and Kisii.
You had this image in your head of the modern Brady Bunch. You know, the television show with a family of a bunch of kids, like Cheaper by the Dozen, and they all look so happy together. They are so perfect it stopped being cute and became a little annoying. They all do chores together and for each other, they get into these tulittlelittle fights that the parents eventually solve, because they have wisdom beyond their ages that they learnt from the triplets before this bunch of teenagers, and everything turns out fine. They really all seemed so wholesome and content, in these shows, and since you come from a family with only two children, you felt the need to rapidly propagate a football team so that there could be more of you. More always seemed better.
Today the number of kids you want has greatly reduced, of course. Life tends to do that to you, especially after you go through your first pregnancy. About two years in, right around the time you start sleeping actual whole nights and your mother starts pressuring you, you start getting the urge to have another child. Or rather, you think you do, until you remember labour. Oh yeah, it’s true. They say you forget labour, but some women don’t. You are one of those women. Its vividness is erased when you see the silly smile on your child, but you definitely remember pains of childbirth. The pangs in your abdomen as you usher in this beautiful- yet so impatient – creature into the world. The stitches and salt baths. Now you have changed your mind about forming a soccer team. Perhaps a tennis duo will do just fine. Two kids, like the family you grew up in. Ironic, isn’t it?
While you were planning your family, when you still wanted to be a television show, you also had all these grand ideas about how you wanted your kids to grow up. You wanted them to be home-schooled three days a week, then do the integrated learning the other two days of the week so that they would still get a regular dose of socialization and not seem abnormal, you know? You wanted to be able to take them out of school to fly around the world to learn geography or history in practical form as opposed to in a textbook. You had big dreams for the big money you expected to be making. Then, obviously, you would have an organized household, in which chores would be shared, among the nine, and work would be divided equally. If you had a house help, she would not be doing enough work to necessarily have to stay in the house all day. She could go home to take care of her children too. You and your husband would help with the homework, and get a tutor when necessary, and when the other kids got old enough, they would help out with the younger siblings.
None of these plans came to pass. And after having a kid, it’s funny how you realize there is so much more that you didn’t even think about in the first place. Couldn’t have planned ahead for, even if you tried.
Things like safety.
It’s a given that you want to protect your kids from anything and everything around them. In the first days of motherhood, it feels like there are so many ways your child could die. You’re morbid, and anxious, true, but this is also true. It feels like the list of ways grows every time you breathe. Colic. Crib mortality. Choking. Hitting their heads. Being dropped by the help. Developmental issues. STDs from guests who don’t know that it’s rude to kiss babies who are still young. Germs. More rude guests. Every year your kids grow, you’re taking a breath, like phew, they made it, but the older they get, the longer the list grows. You panic about how much you need to teach them before they become adults, and if you can possibly fit everything they need to know in between school, play time and feeding. You’re a mother who panics. Who panics a lot.
When your baby started pre-school, you thought it made sense to give her a simple kabambe. Why? Other than the fact that she wanted one so she could ‘be like Mama’, you had read countless horror stories about not being able to find you kid or locate them, and them not being able to locate you or find you if that happened. You managed to successfully freak yourself out into getting her a simple device to contact you if anything went wrong. You didn’t trust teachers completely. And you didn’t trust that the system would get her the help she needed if the worst came to the worst. You went to a high school where a girl went off from an asthma attack, simply because the teachers didn’t take her seriously. That wasn’t going to happen to your Kababa. Not if you could help it. Which is exactly what your mother did for you and your brother. When she would go to work every day, she would remind you that you could call her at work on the land-line if anything ever went wrong. You memorized her number and repeated it to each other and to her every so often. Which is why when the house help tried to make off with half the kitchen utensils and most of her clothes, she didn’t get further than the bus stop.
This whole childhood safety thing though is easier said than done. Sometimes you feel like the mother in that Black Mirror episode titled Arkangel. You know the one where there is a chip inserted into your kid’s brain and then programmed into your iPad so that you can follow your kid everywhere, see what they’re seeing? And can block out unpleasant images as well? The kid in that episode has never seen blood, because her mother has blurred that out in the parental control settings. You agree that Arkangel is a bit crazy – but you don’t think it’s far-fetched at all.
But even after you give your kids phones, you can’t guarantee that it’s a good idea. You can’t guarantee that they’re going to use them for the right things. And the older they grow, the more pressures there are going to be to get bigger and better phones, so that they fit in with their classmates.And now there’s a whole new monster to contend with; internet. Not only because they will be able to deplete your bundles downloading NFS, streaming Mia and Me, Sophia and Frozen, but because you begin to worry about what they are doing online. You set up controls and what not. But as they grow, they learn how to bypass Facebook for Kids. They can access Netflix on the laptop or phone and the smart TV (hopefully, without the chilling aspect of it).
People forget that the internet is a pretty new thing. Motherhood is as old as time. But if internet was a human being, it would barely be in his midlife crisis. The rate of growth is so fast, and internet has become so involved in our daily life, that we forget just how vast it is, as a resource, as a learning tool, as a database, and as a point of information. Mobile phone and internet penetration in Kenya is growing in leaps and bounds every day. The latest numbers places 51.1 million users of the wild wide web in Kenya. If you are talking about being connected to Safaricom – whether Home or 4G mobile network – then we are not just talking about access, we are talking about ridiculous speed of access.
This is an entirely new safety conversation. When your kid gets on the internet, it’s a whole different world. Things you never think of. The pop up ads. The recommended websites. The things kids innocently pass along or see somewhere and decide to try (God forbid). And kids now are smarter than you were, in terms of technology and adaptation – but this means that they are now more vulnerable, even younger.
The generation before you used television to babysit their children. That was during the day. In the evening, when that unforgettable soundtrack to the opening credits of The Bold and The Beautiful came on, you were sent away to bed even if you were not sleepy. There was nothing about being tucked away with a goodbye kiss. Your mother simply said “Dhi nindi! And if I come and find that you are not sleeping, you will agree that omena is also fish.” You did not need telling twice. The thought of the consequence of defying her alone summoned sleep.
It has been a long time since those days. Hell, The Bold is no longer even showing. Wait, is it? Your niece, by the age of 2, would grab an iPad to stream Peppa Pig. She knew which episodes she had watched. She could kind of say the names of the characters even though she couldn’t fully articulate yet. She knew how to press ‘Skip Ad’ before she knew how to speak. Is this healthy? Nobody knows.
You don’t think there can be a proper argument for taking your kids completely offline (as long as you’re not talking about pictures of your children on social media, because that’s a completely different conversation again) simply because the benefits of internet outweigh its demerits. Surely, nobody wants their kid to be that dude who checks into campo thinking that Internet Explorer was a British missionary. The things kids learn through computers and the online space definitely make them sharper, and more in line to deal with a world going largely digital – a future you can’t even fully conceive at the moment, because it is not your future. You already know that you’ll be the old one someday who don’t understand Snapchat, or whatever the new platform will be at the time. They’ll be rolling their eyes at you, like you did for your parents.
What you decide to do, then, with your child, is to balance the amount of screen time that your child has. At the end of the day, a better internet starts with you. You still need to be able to ensure that you can reach your child. That one isn’t negotiable. She won’t progress to a ‘better’ phone until you’ve properly ascertained that she will be responsible with it – and maybe her sibling, if that happens. And this varies from child to child. They’ll go on the internet for limited amounts of time every day, if that’s what they want to do. They will definitely only be visiting specific sites and channels. If they get access to certain things, which you’re sure they will, through their friends from school, it won’t be of your doing, but rather, from parents of other children who perhaps do not care as much about what the unfiltered and unregulated internet can do to the mind of a child.
In the fullness of time, however, it isn’t even about what your child can see on the internet, or what her friends are showing her, and you know this. It’s about who her first resource of information is. It’s up to you as a parent to ensure that you can provide a filter through which they can understand and process the world. It’s up to you to also ensure that she isn’t spending the whole day online, because there is indeed a world outside of her phones. It’s your role to help her discover it, to help her engage with real life, in real life. If your son sees an advertisement that doesn’t make sense to him, maybe about something adult, or particularly gory, you want him to be able to come to you to ask you about it. You can’t make sure he doesn’t see anything at all, because kids will always find a way to see what they want to see if they want to see it badly enough. Your kids will not be any different. You just have to make sure that somehow, they’ll get back to you about it.