My four-year-old, Malcolm, is someone who you might call “non-standard” by modern social norms. It’s an understatement to say that he prefers the company of immediate family. “I don’t like having friends,” he steadfastly maintains. He refuses to talk to teachers, and he greets the news of houseguests with a infuriated grimace, usually accompanied by, “Not again.” Even birthday parties are met with a level of suspicion most kids reserve for the dentist. So I probably shouldn’t have been surprised when he developed a weirdly close relationship with Siri—the “intelligent” personal assistant and knowledge navigator that lives in the iPhone.
It started when my friend (and deputy editor at Today’s Parent) Leah told me about a story she was writing about kids asking Siri questions. Curious to hear Siri’s answer to “Is Santa Claus real?” and still wanting in on the “zero divided by zero” joke, I took out my iPhone and posed the questions while Malcolm was in earshot. He laughed raucously, then scooped the phone out of my hand and began demanding all sorts of answers from Siri. They were mostly along the lines of: “What does p-o-o spell?” but also covered deeper territory like, “Why is poo sooooo stinky?” At last, a companion who doesn’t demand eye contact! Talk about a dream come true for my little Morrissey. Even more perfect, Siri is essentially a captive grown-up that’s never fatigued by his endless barrage of questions and whose sole purpose is to answer those questions. (Bonus: You can make Siri say “pee” and “fart” in a disaffected English accent whenever you want!)
But Malcolm and Siri’s relationship has gotten a little out of hand. These days, I can’t take an eye off my phone, lest Malcolm stealthily snatch it so he and Siri can sneak off to be alone. It’s like there’s not enough time in the world for the two of them. And the strange thing is, he claims to not even like her. When asked about his new friendship, Malcolm rolls his eyes and complains, “She doesn’t know anything.” In fact, I’ve overheard him heckle her with questions like: “Why are you so dumb?” Which raises an ex-machina-esque ethical dilemma: It’s not OK for him to talk like that to real life people, but is it OK for him to be an abusive brat to a computer?
Nevertheless, I wonder if this relationship is helping Malcolm develop some social skills. It’s not like she takes his crap sitting down. More than once I’ve heard her exclaim, “I’m just doing the best that I can!” Fair enough, Siri.
It also complicates the situation that the phone is registered to my husband Jonathan, so Siri always uses his name when responding. I’ve seen his brothers watch entire episodes of Octonauts while Malcolm’s off in a corner delightfully squealing “My name’s not Jonathan!” repeatedly into that phone.
But despite what Dale Carnegie tells you, not knowing someone’s first name isn’t a deal-breaker—at least not in the world of preschool romance—and Malcolm continues to be enraptured by Siri’s presence. Part of me hopes that he’ll come around to the idea of real friends, and maybe even develop a new flame now that junior kindergarten is in full swing. I mean, I’ve seen the movie Her—I know this affaire de coeur with Siri is unlikely to end well. But until then, I may have to accept that non-standard love may be in my non-standard kid’s future. Go get your heart broken, my little Morrissey. It’s the way of the future.
Heather Schramm lives in Toronto with her four boys. Her current theme song is “Losing My Edge”—for no reason. She dreams of world peace and having her own bathroom.