Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Device-Free Christmas: Post-Holiday Musings

My husband and I didn't buy any personal digital devices for our seven and eight-year old kids for Christmas this year. Our youngest didn't ask for any, and our eldest asked for a digital reader only two weeks prior to the holiday. By then most of the shopping had been done.

I did consider giving my kids a device even thought it was not at the top of their lists. I sometimes wonder if holding off will cause them to be technologically behind their peers. I also have hopes of them mastering Chinese or long division through educational games.

In the end, I reason that occasionally sharing my laptop with my kids and having a basic Wii gaming system for the family is enough. I opted to give the girls some of the traditional toys, games and books that were on their list. So did Santa and lots of doting grandparents. We had a wonderful Christmas Day playing a little bit with each gift. My kids were truly spoiled.

So I was surprised when by 8:30 am the morning after Christmas my children were bored. And arguing with each other.  Neither wanted to play alone, but they were unable to come to terms with each other about what to play together. They remained at odds all day. And the next.

How could this be? Visions about what could have been danced in my head. Wouldn't my kids be better entertained with a digital reader, a iPod Touch, a DS? Perhaps if I had given them something - anything - computerized and new for Christmas, I could have given myself some peace in return?

Isn't that the biggest reason that we give our young kids a device? I would venture to say that it is, even more than the hope for educational benefits. Kids aren't easy. Many (including mine) have a hard time playing by themselves, get easily bored, and even start misbehaving - no fun for anyone.

Last night I studied a little boy, no more than two, playing with an iPad at a nice restaurant. He was certainly well-behaved (quiet) as long as the device was in front of him. As soon as it was taken away, he was fidgeting in his seat, and eventually started pushing his chair around the floor, bumping into other customers, until his parents carried him away. Giving him back the iPad seemed like the logical thing to do.

So here comes the argument to the contrary.

Early childhood experts do not recommend any screen time for young kids. There are a load of reasons. Screen time in this age group can interfere with normal cognitive, social, and physical development. Give a young kid a screen, and you may introduce a host of problems such as obesity, sleep problems, and issues with attention, learning and social interactions.

Freelance columnist Julia Steiny echoes this sentiment. Her article, The Jury's In, Screen Time Hurts Little Kids, explores a new report by early-childhood advocates Alliance for Childhood and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. She adds her own thoughts:
[Computers are] fabulous. But they're not for young children whose bodies and beings are hardwired to upload the realities of their immediate worlds.  Let them learn, according to their natures, not according to advertising’s genius at selling stuff.  Children need trees, friends, bikes, like that.  In time, kids will pick up basic computer skills with frightening agility, so there’s absolutely no need to start early.
OK. Good. But what about my concern that my kids may be behind the technical eight-ball? That notion may be unfounded. Ms. Steiny quotes the report:
There is no evidence to support the popular view — heavily promoted by companies that sell electronic media — that children must start early if they are to succeed in the digital age. 
I guess I need to focus on the positive. Although winter break has been long and at times frustrating, our device-free Christmas may work out in the long run. My kids have engaged in board games, reading, baseball (Santa brought a new bat, ball and glove), and playdates. (However, we have had plenty of screen time between family Wii games and managed TV programs since school is out.)

All the disagreements between my kids (and even some with their friends) could be teaching them how to compromise, deal with disappointment, and even stand up for themselves. And the ability to deal with boredom or have moments of comfortable solitude are skills that take time to learn. Sherry Turkle studies the impact of computers on society for MIT, and she says, "If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they’re only going to know how to be lonely.”

So what's the rush to buy a personal device? At very least I saved money by staying out of Best Buy this season. And in truth, I know that my kids will pick up the technology quickly once they take an interest. It might not be long before we go down that road, and hopefully we'll reap some larger benefits in the meantime.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tough Love: Taking a Stand Against Media Violence

I overheard a group of moms a few weeks ago talking about the video games that their sons want for Christmas. One mom couldn’t decide whether or not to buy a certain video game for her 10 year-old. She thought it was too violent, but her son wanted it oh-so-badly. And his friends already had the game, so he felt he was missing out on the action.

Another mother sympathized and said that she allows violent games in her home, leaving her kids with the reminder to “make good choices."

“That’s about all you can do,” she said.

Is that true? Are the only things parents can do when faced with such a dilemma is acquiesce in spite of our gut feelings, purchase the game, and cross our fingers?

I don’t have sons and my girls aren’t (at this stage in their lives) aren’t interested in many video games. So perhaps I can’t fully understand the struggle that these mothers feel. But I’d like to think that I wouldn’t allow violent games in my home. My neighbor, mother of two sons (ages 11 and 15) doesn’t allow video games in hers, and her sons seem to be just fine, happy and well-adjusted. It works for them.

The American Psychological Association says that exposing children to violence (through all kinds of media) can have an impact:
A typical child in the U.S. watches 28 hours of TV weekly, seeing as many as 8,000 murders by the time he or she finishes elementary school at age 11, and worse, the killers are depicted as getting away with the murders 75% of the time while showing no remorse or accountability. Such TV violence socialization may make children immune to brutality and aggression, while others become fearful of living in such a dangerous society.
The recent school shooting in Connecticut has renewed the debate over what causes lead to real violence, and of course the answer is not simple. But we might thoughtfully consider violent media as a factor. I’m not saying that watching a violent movie will directly cause a person to commit an act of violence. But it may be true that exposure to violent media can inspire a person’s actions, and can take away the gravity of a violent act, dehumanizing the victim and the victim’s families and friends.

I once watched a documentary about a serial killer that mimicked the serial murders he watched in a TV series. The real killer, before he was identified, found companionship with other fans of the show through online communities. The series, of course, didn’t make the killer commit the crimes. But I’m wondering how much the deranged person was inspired by the show. Did it make the act of murder seem a little closer to “normal?” Plausible? Did his online connections with fans of the show make him feel less like an outsider, and help justify his thoughts and actions?

This is an extreme example, but it came to mind because I believe that overexposure to violent media can “water down” the gravity of real crimes. We can become desensitized to it. Common Sense Media says:
[Violence is] in every TV show, movie, music video, and video game. Reality shows normalize outrageous behavior and violence among peer groups. And, yes, our kids can become numb to violence. The more they see, the more "normal" it appears. What kids see on the screen impacts how they view the world.
We as parents need to be mindful of our children’s developmental stages, emotional needs, and capabilities to digest violent media. We need to remember that what children see and hear at an early age can create an impression, and can be mixed in with other experiences to create adults that have a moral compass that can point us in the right – or wrong – direction.

Parents can talk to their kids about media violence, and help them critically assess what they see and feel. Model empathy for other people in everyday actions. And help kids learn coping strategies for when they feel angry, hurt or depressed.

There are other things we can do, too. Dr. Keith Ablow, in his article for advocates for parents to not allow violent games and movies in the home. He says:
I think we as parents have to be loving and be bold—which so often, for parents, amounts to the same thing. We have to be willing to say “no” and mean it to content we worry over. That should be enough to trigger action—the worry.

As I said, the scientific data isn’t really there yet to back up the concern. So we should do with such content what we would do if we had turned a blind eye toward alcohol being consumed by our kids—find it in the house and throw it in the garbage, and then explain it won’t be back in the house, period.

Let your kids know that you won’t even exchange the used games for credit at a store because you wouldn’t poison another family’s kids. And, you won’t peddle the junk on eBay because you’re not a drug pusher.

The same goes for movies that seem to offer little upside in the way of life lessons and mostly just play on the human fascination with bloodshed: You tell your kids those movies aren’t on the play list anymore, either in the cinema, in the house or on their computers, because there is a concern they could be “bad for them.”
Tough words for some. Dr. Ablow also says parents can lessen the draw of games and TV by encouraging their kids to get outside more. My thoughts circle back to my neighbor, whom I admire for the stand that she’s taken against video games. Her boys can be seen biking, skateboarding, and playing football in the neighborhood after school.

It might be hard to a stand against violent media in the home. But it can be done with success. Good parenting often requires tough love.

More information and tips: TV Violence: What to Do When TV Is Too Scary by Common Sense Media

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What Shall We Give the Children?

My daughter's preschool teacher shared this poem with her students' parents. It is a lovely poem for the holidays, as it reminds us to remember that quality time spent with your children is more important than buying them lots of "things." I know I could use these thoughts all through the year.

What Shall We Give The Children

What shall we give the children? Christmas is almost here.
Toys, and games, and playthings. As we do every year?

Yes, for the magic of toyland is part of the Yuletide lore
to gladden the heart of childhood, but I shall give something more.

I shall give them more patience, a more sympathetic ear,
a little more time for laughter, or to tenderly dry a tear.

I shall take time to teach them the joy of doing some task.
I'll try to find time to answer more of the questions they ask.

Time to read books together, and take long walks in the sun.
Time for a bedtime story after the day is done.

I shall give these to my children, weaving a closer tie.
Knitting our lives together with gifts money can't buy.

- Author Unknown

Monday, December 17, 2012

Words of Comfort After Connecticut Shootings

Mr. Fred Rogers
In the wake of the elementary school shootings in Connecticut, people of all faiths are looking to their religious leaders for words of comfort. I often look to Kim Lee, a director at South Mecklenburg Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC for help in understanding how to provide words of wisdom to my children regarding daily life - and in the aftermath of tragic events and disasters.

Kim says this of a character very familiar to my generation:
Of all the articles and blogs I have read, stories I have heard, and professionals I have listened to over these past few days, I have found Fred Rogers's words to be the most comforting and hopeful:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers, so many caring people in this world.
Strikingly, this suggestion is mirrored in the next verses of Psalm 63: So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life... (verses 2 and 3). So we look upon God. Where do we see God and God's power and glory? In the helpers at Sandy Hook Elementary School: the teachers, the school psychologist, the principal, the firefighters, doctors, police officers, ambulance drivers, clergy, neighbors, friends and family, everyone and anyone who offered to help.
Look for the helpers. Look for the good in people.

I remember trying to cope with the events of September 11. I was a young adult, but looking back I felt more like a child - searching, trying to understand, looking to older adults for comfort. I heard a prominent, local church leader give a radio address. I don't remember his name, but I remember his words. He, too, had been looking for words of comfort from his elders when the world looked so bleak, and his father had told him to remember that no matter what, the sun will rise tomorrow.

The sun will rise tomorrow, and we need to move forward. President Obama said in his interfaith prayer service in Newtown last night, the causes of mass violence are "complex." And they are. But rather than waste time arguing about which causes should be addressed first, let's just do something. Whether it be changes to gun control laws, mental health care, or stricter regulations on media violence, we should make an effort. It's time to take action before more children, parents and loved ones get hurt in senseless mass violence. I hope we don't waste a single day.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What to Tell the Kids About the Connecticut Shootings

We are all immensely saddened by the recent shootings at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The parents of these beautiful children must be feeling unspeakable grief.

Children across the country may be exposed to the news and to talk of the tragedy, and as parents it's important for us to meet their needs and answer their questions. Following are some articles and links that may be helpful for parents.

These sources suggest that our response to fears and questions should depend on the child's age and emotional development. Young children should be insulated from the incident as much as possible. Older children may ask more complicated questions and the conversation should be direct and supportive. For every child, it's important to balance honest conversations with an overwhelming amount of detail that can create even more fear.

I highly recommend this article:
Talking to Children About the School Shooting by Susan Stiffelman, Huffington Post

Reacting to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting and
Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of a shooting by the American Psychological Association

Video from Fox News, an interview with a psychologist speaking on practical tips for parents:

Article from that is directed toward parents with children directly affected by the shootings:

A few previous posts about talking to kids about tragedies and disasters from this blog: and

As Ms. Stiffelman recommends, parents should not forget to take care of your own emotional needs, and to reach out for support if they need it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

SmartPhone Apps Are Watching

Image: George Retseck
Source: Scientific American
Here is a / AP article regarding smart phone apps. It appears their makers may be in hot water with the FTC for quietly gathering information about kids and sharing the information with "advertisers and data brokers." Remember "Big Brother is Watching You?" Well, now Big Brother is likely watching your kids, too.

A few quotes from the article:
Of the 400 apps designed for kids examined by the FTC, most failed to inform parents about the types of data the app could gather and who could access it, the report said. Others apps contained advertising that most parents would find objectionable and included links to Facebook, Twitter and other social media services where kids post information about themselves.

The report said some mobile apps can siphon data to "invisible and unknown" third parties that could be used to develop a detailed profile of a child without a parent's knowledge or consent.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Miss Representation - Screened at Last

Gina Davis,
a Miss Representation contributor
Miss Representation, the documentary that explores sexism in the media, aired on television today. I recorded it and just finished watching it for the first time.

I was impressed, and highly recommend this film. It's thorough, examining the media's modern day omnipresence and power, and highlighting the numbers behind gender imbalances in the media. And it's compelling, sharing interviews with politicians, media executives, thought leaders, students and more.

The media - via television, movies, music videos, and video games - overwhelmingly objectifies women as sex objects and targets of violence rather than capable leaders and productive members of society. It's not just hurting women and girls, but also hurting men and boys.

The ending of the film offered words of advice on how fight back, including boycotting sexist movies and being mindful of how you criticize yourself in the presence of your daughters. One of the pieces of advice came form Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media.

Speaking your mind and criticizing media companies when you think they’re doing something that is inappropriate for your children is not just your god-given right as an American and as a parent but it’s also entirely consistent with the First Amendment.
Watch the film. And don't forget those words.