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Permanent Damage

By David Haldane

April 15, 2021


This morning we finally had the talk.

I’m sure you’re familiar with it or, if you’re a parent, probably engaged in it yourself. It’s the one where you look your significant other squarely in the eye and ask, “What are we doing to our kid? Do you think the damage will be permanent?”

It’s a conversation many parents have had since this damnable pandemic began. As I’ve written before, we left the Philippines seven months ago expecting US schools to reopen soon. And nearly half of them have. But not those in our own rural Southern California school district, which recently announced that it won’t resume in person learning until sometime this Fall. As for the Philippines, God only knows when its schools will reopen; an eventuality for which we are unwilling to hold our breaths.

And so every day around here is like every other day. My wife leaves for work early and gets home late. The baby spends part of each day with caregiving friends. As for me and my 10-year-old son, Isaac, well, we’re mostly reduced to staying at home.

Which is fine for me; I read several daily newspapers, stay abreast of current events and devote much of my time to working on various writing projects.

For Isaac it’s a bit more dicey. After spending a few hours feigning rapt attention to his online class, he usually passes the rest of the day glued hypnotically to one of his many available screens. Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Xbox 1… you name it, if it’s on a screen large or small, it keeps him transfixed for a very long haul. Blessed are the days—in my opinion too few and far between—on which he can ride his bike outside with friends.

Fortunately, Isaac seems to be holding his own in what passes for education these days, though I suspect that has more to do with his mother’s help than with any overwhelming effort on his part. What worries me more, though, is the level of tension creeping into his relationship with both parents.

“Isaac,” I called to him this morning, same as every morning, “it’s time for breakfast.” When he hadn’t appeared after 10 minutes, I tried again with a little more gusto. “Isaac!” I insisted a good deal louder, “come out and eat!” Finally, feeling my blood pressure rise, I yelled out his name while marching toward the closed bedroom door. Behind which I found him languishing under the covers in his underwear, watching the latest episode of Super Mario Logan on his mother’s misplaced cell phone. “ISAAC!” I screamed at the top of my lungs, “come out right now!!!”

I suppose I could confiscate all those screens. But then, well, how on earth would he spend his time?

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal bore some grim and alarming statistics. Researchers following 224 random children age 7 to 15 reported that two-thirds of them showed clinical symptoms of anxiety, depression, hyperactivity and inattention: significantly more than before the pandemic. “There’s more family conflict,” one psychiatrist explained. “That’s leading to stress, acting out, [and] increased suicidal thoughts in the kids.”

Evidence is also mounting that learning has suffered; in the fall of 2020, according to a report by the Brookings Institute, math performance among third- to eight-graders was 10 percentile points lower than the year before, a deficit that could be difficult to overcome.

All of which contributed to our need for that special parental talk. “Gosh,” I sighed with my wife nodding in ardent agreement, “if he acts like this now, what will he be like at 16?”

Neither of us wants to find out. And so we have vowed to keep calm. And speak to our son in only the most pleasant, supportive and reassuring of whispers. As in, “Isaac, we love you; Now would you please put down that phone and come out to eat? Oh yes, and did we tell you we love you?”

If that doesn’t work, we’re cooked.


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David Haldane’s latest book, a short story collection called “Jenny on the Street,” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines.



Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily



  1. Randy Kemner says:

    Hi, Dave,
    As a non-parent, I have absolutely no cred offering advice or explanations to child-rearing that can help, just observations.
    In response to your question asking what Isaac will do without his screens, what did children do before 1950? Were there no scientists, authors, mathematicians, teachers, musicians, volunteers?
    I was, and still am, addicted to my screen of choice, television. This (besides my weight!) has been my biggest vice, the time-killing, brain-sucking quasi-entertainment that has allowed me to avoid reading books, socializing with friends, listening to my wife, taking up hobbies, volunteering in the community, writing letters and exercising.

    In the 1980s, I’d watch in horror as my friends would park their kids in front of the TV connected to a VCR repeating the same show over and over again to distract them while the parents would entertain friends, or just check out.

    The main difference between our parents in the post-World War II generation and the parents in the years after 1974 was the cost of housing brought on by baby boomers hitting the housing market en masse, and educated women of our generation hitting the job market at the same time, all using the buying power of two-income households to bid up the cost of this essential need. Our parents, even if one had a blue-collar job in an aircraft plant and a stay-at-home mom, could afford to buy a newly built home with a yard on a safe street. That was lost by the 1980s.

    A result of this was the plight of parents too tired to pay attention to their kids, or too self-absorbed to spend the necessary time it takes to effectively parent. When this happens, one day they realize that their teenager had “suddenly” become an asshole, unable to recognize that cute kid they remember. Then they blame teachers for their kid not learning or causing behavioral problems, instead of realizing that the schools are only part of a kid’s education.

    I don’t wish to be critical of the parenting of the past 40 years. It’s a costly, impossible job in the society we live in today. I suspect the best solution is staying connected with kids’ education, helping out with the roadblocks in reading and math, exposing them to the arts, encouraging creative expression, and offering calming reassurances without allowing children to avoid their own responsibilities.

    Like I said, these are only observations from afar. I empathize with parents, but only have the tiniest clue as to how all-consuming that role must be.

    Good post, Dave.

    • David Haldane says:

      I appreciate your observations, Randy, all of which are right on target. Good parenting is a challenge in the best of times; during a pandemic that has closed most schools worldwide for more than a year, it has become almost impossible for many. And here I am at an age when, by all rights, I should be spending my days on a golf course or in bed and what am I doing instead? Bringing up two young children. I must be insane. Seriously, though, I do worry about the long-term implications of all this for a whole generation of children. Hence the title of this piece which, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, is only half in jest.

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