Reality Check

My kids live in a fantasy world.

Their world is comprised of things to play with, full stomachs, a cozy home, and little to no hardship. Some say this is good, and is their reality, and that they are entitled to a life like this. What could I possibly mean by “fantasy world?”

Two reasons. First, most of the children on earth can only fantasize about having the comfortable life that my kids enjoy. Second, while my kids live in their fantastic “reality,” ironically they spend their free time visiting even more fantastic worlds through books, movies, TV, and computer games. Again, what is wrong with that? Shouldn’t I foster their imagination?

Here is what I think is wrong. A trend is emerging for young adults to be unable to cope with real life, so they turn to self-destructive behaviors or rely on medication to function (see my previous blogsfantasy for the research on this). One possible contributor to their inability to cope is having been raised for 15 – 20 years in the fantasy world I described above. This trend is affecting kids from good homes – like the one in which my kids are living. Between their good life and the even more fun life to which they escape, they rarely develop the resilience to withstand even the normal hardships life brings.

Here is an example: a few weeks ago, a friend and I came across a documentary called “Life in a Day” and decided to watch it. It followed the lives of diverse people around the world on July 24, 2010. Throughout the film, they showed a series of clips from people who don’t live in poverty or who are not in difficult circumstances, and what were these people talking about? They complained about the most trivial things. The topics they discussed revolve around their “toys,” from cell phones to Lamborghinis. One person was so attached to these gadgets that she even said “My iPod is my soul.” Between these clips, the film portrayed the lives of people undergoing hardships and trying to survive in third world countries. In one of these clips you see a single father with all his children living in an abandoned, broken down room behind a cemetery. This is what he talks about:

“My story is, I can’t work, because who else would look after my kids? My wife passed away, my children’s mother. I’ve got a 20 year old son who is sick. Fourteen people live in this place. We have no electricity, no water, no drains. But we are still alive. God will not forget us. He created us. That is what I believe.”

This widower has much more right to complain than those who are living well, yet he is grateful that he is still alive and turns to God in the midst of his difficulty. Unfortunately I can’t draw conclusions regarding why he is able to cope so well with his suffering from a 60 second clip. However, it is clear that he has somehow learned to deal with hardship better than those with petty difficulties, like a person whose cell phone apps are not working properly. Why is that? Could it be he has built up resilience to suffering because he hasn’t spent his life indulging himself and escaping into self-indulgent entertainment?

We have done experiments in previous months to help my kids get grounded in reality, such as serving in a homeless shelter, supporting two children from third world countries, finding happiness in something other than themselves, etc. But what if for one month, they weren’t allowed to “escape” further via books or visual media? Could they handle that? Can they appreciate how 90% of the world has to live, and 99% of the world throughout history? How did others cope when hardships came up? Will we see the entitlement monster crop up in their attitudes if they can't "escape"? Are my kids lives grounded enough that they don’t feel entitled to keep playing their games and watch cartoons? What this will look like in practical terms is that the kids will only read books or watch shows (or movies) that depict real real-life situations dealing with life’s true hardships. In other words, goodbye Eragon and hello Diary of Anne Frank.

I should confess that I am no stranger to escapism. When something hard comes up, I fight the urge to watch a movie, sipping a glass of wine, and disappear for a while. But that does little to make the whereredfernproblem go away. What HAS worked is talking with a friend, understanding my identity in Christ, reading my bible, and seeking the Lord to help me persevere. But the second path is a hard one to choose when you have been conditioned your whole life to go down the ‘escape-into-my-fantasy-world’ path.

Additionally, this isn’t an experiment designed to abolish imagination or a great story. I am a creative type myself and could never attempt to stamp out my family’s imaginations. The point of the experiment is to derail the fantasy train that they so happily ride in order to see how they react. I don’t want them to become dependent on escapist entertainment, or over-use this coping mechanism when things get tough in their life.

So sayonara escapism, at least to the degree us parents can control. See you in March (hopefully with a better perspective on where you fit in life)!

I let the kids know what this month’s experiment was, and the reactions were mixed. They seemed excited to watch real-life movies (or documentaries) and read non-fiction books, but when I started listing the shows they couldn’t watch, like Adventure Time, they struggled with that. Luckily I was able to come up with a long list of books for Morgan to choose from (my avid reader), and she found a few that looked promising.

With Netflix, there are actually a lot of documentaries or “real-life” shows the kids can choose from, but they seem to settle a lot on “How It’s Made”. Not sure that is exactly what I had in mind. I ordered “Colonial House”, a PBS show depicting 21st century people trying to live a 1628 life in Colonial America, for our family show to watch together, and we watched the first episode. It was a big hit! We are all hooked.

Meagan and I are reading together “Little House in the Big Woods,” Meagan is enjoying it immensely. It was funny because Morgan felt she was too old to join us (“that’s for little kids mom”), yet one night when we were reading it out loud we caught Morgan listening in. The next day I found it on Morgan’s bed – she had read the whole thing.

We are finishing up Colonial House, and it has been a great experience. Between that show and the books they have been reading, we are having a lot of great discussions on how different a life we lead then from many people before us. I can tell though that to get the full impact of what I want them to learn we will have to extend this experiment through March.

In March we slowly eased the kids back into watching and reading their regular forms of entertainment, which they were really glad to have back (too glad maybe?). Meagan responded the best with the whole experiment, but I am a little worried about Morgan because I loaded many free books onto her Kindle and she turned her nose up at them. Amazing classics that deal with real life like Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Not to be thwarted so easily, we rented the movies instead and watched them for family night, and they liked that. It led to some good discussions about hardships and the right reactions and attitudes to have in the midst of them. We are still carrying on productive conversations about balancing real life and escapism.