Monthly Archives: April 2010

Can we think together about kids and the internet?

I'm sorry, again, for abandoning this space for a while. I'll save you all the long-winded winging (wingeing?) about work and family and preparing to relocate to a different continent and so on. Suffice it to say that I'm a tad overwhelmed. So, in the hopes of trying to bring my work life closer to what I write in this space, so that each can inform the other and I can feel less pulled in 10,000,000 directions, I thought I'd throw out a question to all you fabulous, thoughtful parents.

A bit of background: I've been doing some very preliminary research on the social and emotional (as well as cognitive) implications of children growing up online/plugged in/tech savvy. Among other core questions, I've been asking myself the following basic question: What are the social and emotional differences between digital "natives" (those who have grown up never knowing a world without the internet) and digital "immigrants" (most of us basically, those who may have whole-heartedly adopted technology and the use of the internet, but who have NOT grown up with it)? The distinction between digital native and immigrant was made by Marc Prensky, an innovative thinker in my mind (among other things, he works on trying to figure out how "gaming" can be used for educational purposes and how students', teachers' and parents' learning goals may best be met by harnessing the characteristics and benefits of online gaming).

There is some, but precious little, research on the real hard-core questions about children's online lives. Most of the developmental research has focused on self-reports of children's time spent on Facebook and other social media outlets. I find the implications of growing up with online social media fascinating, but I'm bored by the types of self-report, questionnaire studies that simply ask kids to report what they're doing in these spaces. I'd like to think more along the lines of the potentially massive social, cognitive and emotional implications and to start designing studies that DON'T rely on self-reports. There are massive changes that are being introduced or proposed to boards of education and to parents alike — most of these recommendations or proposals will be implemented with almost no research to back up their implications. Here's just one example of reforms proposed for reading and the like in the UK. So there's no time to lose in terms of asking new questions about the online worlds of our children. Here are some of the things I'm wondering about. I'd love to hear your feedback on how important you think these questions are. Even more interesting to me would be to hear about what you wonder about when it comes to your own children's development and how they're influenced by technology and the internet.

I wonder:

- Are digital natives (our children) more comfortable with uncertainty than we are?

- Do our children have shorter attention spans? Do they have a harder time sustaining attention to one task?

- When asked to think about a problem, do our children tend to think more "actively" (pointing and clicking away in trial and error sort of way towards an answer) rather than more "contemplatively" (taking time to sit back and simply think, without pursuing information outside of the self)?

- Are our children able to remember less than we do (possibly due to the many prosthetics we use… but maybe not, we've been using calendars and notebooks for a long, long time)?

- Do our children feel more or less connected to a community than we do? How does this sense of community, if it does exist, impact on feelings of civic responsibility, political values, and so on?

- Are our children more or less lonely than we were during adolescence?

- Are friendships that were formed online any different than "real life" friendships for "natives?" Does the nature of online friendships differ for digital natives vs immigrants?

- What are the essential "literacies" of the information/online age? (e.g., critical thinking skills, self-direction, focus, communication skills, programming)? How different are these from the essential skills that digital immigrants needed to cultivate?

- What do/will our children consider "private" vs "public"? Is this different for natives vs immigrants?

- How do social hierarchies form online? Do these social hierarchies (status levels) mimic the ones in the playground/schoolyard/hallways?

I have tons more, but I'll stop now. You can see I'm all over the place in terms of my interest in this very broad field (or very narrow, depending on your perspective). What do you think? Do you think your children will think fundamentally different than you did because they will be growing up "digital?" Or do you think that the online world won't make such a huge impact on the basics of development? What do you wonder about in terms of your own children's development and their online involvement?

Some Food for Thought on Selecting Books for Your Young Child

Oy!  What a couple of weeks! Unfortunately, my son and I were hit with a nasty, nasty bout of stomach flu. We're talking about 10 days of 'round the clock misery. Poor thing missed a week of school. I apologize for the blog neglect, but am happy to say that we are all mended (I actually slept through the night last night, in my own bed, without a bucket within reach!) and now it's time to think about more stimulating things. 

Child_reading_lg.312125913_std Too weak or interested in much else, we have both been doing a lot of reading – separately, together, out loud, silently, to each other and everything in between. At some point I was thinking of how far we've come on the literacy front (he's 5.5 now) and it occurred to me that I was pretty lucky to be armed with some very useful information about children's books and reading in the early years, information that you may benefit from too.

Of course, there is a lot to be said about appropriate themes in the reading material for young children, but what you might not be as aware of is how much research has been devoted to the more basic topic of how young children think about the symbolic information in books (the letters/numbers, pictures etc.). It's part of a much bigger research enterprise on how we come to understand symbols in general (not just pics and letters/numbers and language broadly speaking, but maps, models, videos, graphs etc), so this could easily turn into a mini-series. Let's start with some basics that might help in your selection of reading materials for your very young ones and see where it leads us. 

First off, you probably already know all about how important it is to read with your child, even way, way before they are anywhere near getting ready to read. Even if they are getting little more than just a glance at a picture and some (usually) black blobs on the page (that would be the letters), the research is clear that just learning the rituals of early reading – page turning, reading and pausing as appropriate, pointing to the pictures that go with your words etc. – bode very well for future reading and for academic achievement. I started reading to my son at about 3 months of age and we've never looked back.

You should know that babies need to learn about the differences between real 3-D objects and their 2-D depictions. Even if the picture of the object is highly realistic – like the digital pic you just took and uploaded moments ago – don't assume that they appreciate it's symbolic nature. Researchers have found that even though 9 month olds perceive depth cues and can tell objects from pictures of objects, they don't seem to get the significance of those cues. In other words, they don't really get the 2-D nature of the pics. So they tend to grasp, rub and pluck at the object in the picture as though they are trying to pick it up. The more realistic the picture, the more likely the manual exploration. I remember noticing my son trying to remove trucks from his pajamas! It was good to have this knowledge tucked away back then. No cause for alarm. If we want to read a short'ish and sweet version of this, try here.

Upside down bookDid you know that at first most kids don't even care if you read a book to them upside down? Yup. Before the age of 18-24 months children who are read to from an upside down book will go along with this quite happily. After this age, they are more likely to turn the book the right way around. Try it and see what happens. Don't be alarmed if your little one is still merrily "reading" upside down. Many things about printed matter are about convention remember…they are still working it all out.

What about learning from books? This is actually a very interesting issue. So you're thinking it's time to introduce some books, get little so-and-so up to speed on the alphabet, numbers and so in, in prep for preschool. You're a busy, modern mom. Probably going to hit up Amazon or something. What you'll find is an incredible array of early books on the topic. Lots of colourful stuff, some pop up, some very stylized (hey, I like pretty things too, why wouldn't my offspring you think), some with your favourite characters from when you were little like Curious George, Noddy (yup, I'm that old), Mickey and so on. Lots of books are made to be very attractive to young children and it seems reasonable to think this might help kick start that interest in learning. But you guessed it…the research suggests that we should think again.

Recent work has shown that young children are actually more likely to learn e.g. the alphabet, from books with very simple, clear depictions compared to books with more stylized renderings. Young children were taught the alphabet using books with either plain black letters on a simple background or using the more stylized (though fun) example you can find here (you may need to click on "search inside this book" and then on the first page. You should see an alligator with an "A" artfully placed in his mouth). The researchers tested the children's knowledge of the alphabet before and after the reading sessions. They found that the group that had learned from the simple depictions learned more.

Finally, other work shows that young children learn more from books with pictures that are also highly realistic, or visually similar to the thing they represent (so e.g. books with realistic photographs or with line drawings) compared to books with more artistic, less-realistic pictures such as cartoons. In one study, 15- and 18- month olds were taught a novel word "blicket" to go with a novel object by reading them picture books that contained the target information. The reading sessions were very low key, much like the type of parent-child reading that goes on at home, where Mom (or whomever) points out new words, interesting things in the pics etc. The researchers then tested whether or not the children extended those words from the pictures to the actual objects (and vice versa). Both groups of children could extend the words in both directions (pics to obs and vice versa), but the extent to which they could do so really depended upon how much the pics and objects resembled one another. In a nutshell, there was better word learning when the pics were photographs or line drawings of the objects, compared to when the pics were cartoon versions of the objects. 

So what's the deal about the simplicity and the realism, and learning? The short story is that children can get distracted by the perceptual features of the material (the pop up, the fun artwork etc.) and this can detract from attending to the content, or the material you want them to learn. Think about this in the context of early elementary text books and you get a hint of where some of my research is heading.

I know where you're going with this. Isn't it a privilege of childhood to enjoy all those beautiful, artistically appealing, fun, imaginative books?  What about budding art
ists? It's not all about learning letters and numbers etc. The answer is yes, of course it isn't!  Am I saying that you should you stay away from the pretty books? Well, no. If your goal is entertainment – to enjoy reading, art and a fun interactive activity – then you're home free as to what you choose (on age-appropriate topics of course) . But if your goal is educational, then it's worth choosing more carefully.

I'd love to hear about our experiences with any and all of the above. If you can, and want to send in pics or direct me to books, I'm happy to take a look. 

Happy Reading!


Selling the house, visiting Mickey Mouse and other misadventures

First off, I really wanted to thank you all for such thoughtful comments on the last couple of posts. Your various ideas, hopes, worries, beliefs and so on have made me think hard this week. In a good way. I want to return to the topic of raising moral children and some research that I've uncovered that might help us think together about how to do so, with and/or without religion. Unfortunately, I'm not going to be writing about this research this week (it may actually take me a while to digest it first, before I can filter it to its most important components and make it coherent to others).

But I'm not going to be posting this week at all. Hopefully, Tracy will get some time out of her insane schedule to post a couple of times. But I won't be because I'm "COOCOOMANGA," as my dear boy says to me often. I am feeling nutty, whacko, off kilter, to say the least. You see… we're putting our house up for sale tomorrow. My first house, my dream house, the place that I've lovingly loved and cooked in and played in with my kids since they were born… We have to sell it.  (More on why when I actually accept that fact completely).

So, I'll be in California. With my kids and husband. Frequent flyer points are awesome!  Ostensibly, we're supposed to be going because of a family reunion (husband's family), but really it's about getting out of the house with its 5 bajillion planned open houses that will kill me with two 4-year olds (if I was in town for them, that is). We'll go to Disneyland. My boys' minds will be blown and that will make me deeply happy (while the ambivalent-about-Disney-characters-and-over-marketed-plastic-crap-industry part of me will be repressed completely). I cannot freaking wait to go on the Peter Pan ride again. And to show them the "real" Mickey Mouse. And to buy them those dorky ears. I SERIOUSLY cannot wait. Don't ask. Someday I will explain to you what Disneyland meant to a first-generation Romanian family who immigrated to Canada in the height of the badness that was pre-Revolution Romania — suffice it to say that one of my favourite childhood memories is my mother's INSANE glee at the thought of going through the Haunted House just ONE. MORE. TIME. 

Back soon!

More on god, religion, children, morality and no research

The conversation in the comments section of my last post has been so interesting, I couldn't help but continue the dialogue. Yes, I know I might be alienating some readers, although I really hope I'm not. I was going to write this post in the comments section also, but then realized that (a) it was getting way too long for a comment, (b) I wanted to include some links and (c) some of you might not read comments or follow them after you post, so this might get a few more people involved in sharing their views.

First and foremost I want to once again encourage those of you who do NOT share my views to pipe in with your perspectives and help this space fill up with a multitude of voices. My choices are not meant in ANY way to disparage yours, nor are they meant to be prescriptive about what will help children grow up happier or healthier. I made it clear in my last post that research is not even close to coming up with an answer to these questions.

I completely agree with those who have said that you don't need religion to teach morality or practice a moral life. I obviously think my atheist parents brought me up with some pretty reasonable morals, given I write a whole lot of posts on this blog about how we might think about raising our children as best we can. A reader mentioned this book in the comments and I have to agree that I have found reading Parenting Beyond Belief a nice way to start thinking about the issues I'm struggling with, particularly trying to incorporate rituals and moral teachings within a larger framework that has to contend with culture, family and established religious doctrines. There are some very moving essays and some great practical tips for dealing with all sorts of issues from a skeptical/atheist/agnostic standpoint.
On the other side of the fence, from a more supportive-towards-spirituality and a less science-centred perspective, I referenced Karen Armstrong's book in the last post, but I thought I'd point you to
this article which is a much more condensed version of her approach to god, religion and spirituality.
I wanted also to elaborate a little more on where I stand on religion and god, building on some of the issues that other commenters brought up. What I'd like to teach my children — like many of you have mentioned — is a deep awe, respect and reverence for the natural world and for other humans, and the relationships we form with one another. Much of the natural world is (potentially) knowable through principles of science. Science does not leave me nor my husband feeling bereft of "higher meaning." It's quite the contrary… when I think about the wonders of how everything around us self-organizes into these exquisite patterns of order (and disorder), when I learn more and more about physics, biology, ecology, evolution and so on, I am more and more humbled.
@Andrea said it better than I could: I'm humbled by the way these natural forces work and, for me, imagining a deity did it all cheapens that sense of awe for me. Just because there are questions about this natural world that have not been answered by science (and may never be), does not mean for me that I want to invoke a "higher being" to explain away the mystery. In a way, I believe that "godliness" is IN all of this but the term is so loaded and singular and patriarchal FOR ME that it no longer can mean any of these things TO ME. Also, the term god often implies a "being," one which people feel they can talk to, communicate with, ask favours from, and so on. For me, that goes beyond the "godliness" in the natural world (and in our relationships with one another) and it's not something I feel I need to teach my children to believe or practice in order for them to feel peace and comfort or to learn moral principles. 

Many people tell me that a critical reason they feel their religion is so important, or wish they had religious beliefs when they don't, is because of the comfort that these sets of beliefs provide in terms of dealing with death… and helping our children deal with death. I want my kids to experience the wonder and awe that science can provide them… even in reference to the biggest questions about death and what happens later. Science can tell them that after death, their bodies don't just go "POOF" and disappear forever; they become part of the rest of the world. Basic physics will reassure them that matter does not disappear forever. It changes form, but it doesn't just go away. That to me is a deeply reassuring message to provide children when they worry about death — ours and theirs. Their bodies become part of the whole system we call earth and universe and nature and so on. (Don't get me wrong, this is a TERRIBLE subject to talk about with your kids and I am dreading it more than any other, to tell you the truth. Any of you who have had to have the difficult talk about your death, their death, the death of a loved relative, friend, pet, etc. know better than I do that often no words can comfort completely. I'm just not sure that science can't provide the same level of comfort that religion can, even in this tough domain). I have nothing to say about a soul and I don't feel any need to invoke one for the sake of my children. I don't really think my consciousness is all that darn important in the grand scheme of things and I think teaching my children that sort of humility might actually empower them to do some pretty cool things in THIS lifetime, with THIS consciousness. BUT I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO RESEARCH TO BACK UP MY CLAIMS.

What do YOU believe but cannot prove?