Over the holidays, I spent considerable time with my parents, who are in their sixties.
Neither grew up with the technology we use today, and hence, it takes a long time to teach them basic things like Skype, syncing Dropbox or downloading torrents (legally of course). It can be very challenging work.
However, I’ve learnt that teaching my parents technology is one of the best things I can do.
My parents are from a time when technological improvements didn’t rattle along at the pace they do now. At the age of 10, I was already using a cutting edge computer. A Macintosh Classic.
Sure, it didn’t have a colour screen, but it did have a whopping 40 MB hard disk. It also used 3.5 inch (9cm) floppy disks. You know those floppy disks that were not actually floppy? Cutting edge.
By comparison, when my father was 10, this is what a hard drive looked like. Not a computer mind you, just the hard drive.
The storage of this unit? 3.75 MB.
Even better, to use one of these units, you would have to rent it. For a cost of $3,200 a month.
As ubiquitous as technology is now, it’s easy to forget how inaccessible, or even alien, technology was to our parents. As Louis CK says, not long ago, you would never be able to say “where is my phone?”. There was just the phone.
To their credit, my parents are always keen to learn how to use technology better. They both understand that to keep in touch with the world, especially their children and grandchildren, they need to adapt and learn how to use the Internet.
As problems crop up with their home Internet or laptops, it’s the responsibility of their kids to fix these issues. It’s easy to get annoyed by this, because after all, when you get to your parents’ house, who wouldn’t want to just plonk yourself on the sofa and do nothing? My brothers and I sometimes feel more like IT consultants than offspring.
And yet, teaching my parents how to use electronics is one of the best things I can do.
Explaining how something simple works is tiring. It involves a level of patience that few, with the exception of yoga masters and kindergarten teachers, possess. Yet it is for this very reason that it is worth doing. Teaching your parents how to sync their iPhones forces us to be in the present, and to demonstrate zen-like patience.
And here’s the irony. It’s exactly this level of patience that our parents showed us when we were growing up. It’s the ultimate role reversal, and yet by complaining about it, we’re completely ignoring how useless we were for the first couple of decades of our lives.
Think it’s difficult to explain two-step authentication to your mum? Try waiting for your child to stop dancing around so you can put their pants on. Need to take a deep breath as you reiterate the dangers of clicking spam emails to your dad ? Imagine how many deep breaths he had to take when you stumbled home from the pub weekend after weekend, ignoring your curfew.
You get the picture.
The ironic thing is that technology has enabled me to be more dependent on my mum, for example, when I baked possibly the worst bread known to humankind.
A little humility goes a long way. In his excellent book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, Dan Pink recalls an exercise from a class run by Cathy Salit, a leadership and communication expert. The exercise, “conversation with a time traveller”, is designed to improve one’s ability to communicate and show empathy for the listener. Imagine you are talking to someone who has arrived in the present time from several hundred years ago. Your goal is to explain something commonplace in today’s world. It’s surprisingly difficult to do so.
A simple example would be ordering a home delivery pizza. You’d have to explain what this huge disc of wheat is, with an outrageous amount of dairy on top, what the device is that you used to either call or use an app to order, what an app is, and so on.
The exercise forces us to become better communicators, through better listening. The same listening skills are crucial teaching parents technology.
A whole range of people could afford to be better listeners.
Many doctors, for one. One study demonstrated that the average time it takes for a doctor to interrupt a patient speaking about their problem is 18 seconds. Imagine how many misdiagnoses have occurred due to their inability to listen. In my limited experience as an IT doctor, I‘ve often jumped in prematurely to offer a solution.
“Oh yeah, that sounds like you need to reset your password.”
“Well, have you checked your spam folder?”
As hard as it is to swallow our pride, slow down and demonstrate patience, teaching your parents how to use technology makes us more patient, humble and empathetic. It is one of the best things you can possibly do. And one day, in the not too distant future, when things like smartphones, FaceTime and Wi-Fi Hotspots are all but a distant memory, let’s hope our own children agree.