In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Digital rant

Dear Annie,

And a happy new year to you, too.  Seems like a good time to talk about one of the waves of the future: electronic learning stuff.

The past almost-20 years have been such a whirlwind of adults constantly learning new technologies. The entertainment/education industry keeps morphing along to keep up. My main feeling about technology and kids is, what's the rush?  Parents still want to be the main source of values for their children, and we all want them to grow in developmentally appropriate ways.  Digital learning stuff isn't all at odds with this, but a lot of it sure is.

Let me just do my rant about the Tag reader, then I'll get back to the Bigger Picture.  We sell it in the store (as a toy, not part of the book department), but I am less than enthusiastic about it. Why would one want a machine to teach a kid to read?  Maybe the parents don't like to read?  Maybe they don't have time to teach their kid?  Maybe they want the kid to be the best reader in pre-K, and they think this is the way to push her ahead?  Maybe they want to get him accustomed to digital interface so that he can segue seamlessly into hand-held games (Leap Frog has another product that does that even better)?  Maybe she's not seeing enough commercial-laden daytime TV, so they want her to get used to the Disney marketing machine in other ways?  Okay, I'm getting very crabby here.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the book that's included with the Tag reader, is a book that customers of many ages get nostalgic about: there's lots of warmth in those memories.  The lower case letters of the alphabet climb the coconut tree, all fall out of it, get briefly comforted by the adult (upper case) letters, head home, then plan another assault on the tree.  It's an alphabet book with suspense (will there be enough room?), rhythm (chicka chicka boom boom), sense of humor, and simplicity.  It's one of those books a child can sit alone with and make up words if s/he's not reading yet.  Unless, of course, they have an electronic device that eliminates that leap of imagination and fills it in for them.  It's a book I can imagine you and Jeff having some fun hamming up as you read it out loud.  How does the Tag do with the line, "Skit skat skoodle doot/Flip flap flee/Everybody's running to the coconut tree"?

The parents I see at the store who feel powerless in the face of their children's digital obsessions are the ones who didn't think about it when the kids were younger.  As you know, Bob and I banned television from our home when our girls were growing up.  It worked well for us: the girls were close enough in age that they created a world of imagination games which kept them entertained and thinking.  Worries that they wouldn't fit in with friends who watched TV were groundless.  I also know that complete abstention isn't the only satisfactory route.  But I think parental understanding of the technology that comes in the door is essential, and the limitations on using it help to keep everyone sane.  It's not necessary for one's children to be as techno-immersed as everyone else's: the concept that one's own family does things differently is not difficult for kids to grasp.

Because of the onslaught of constantly-changing technology, it's not uncommon for some parents to say, better to get our kids into digital toys and games now so that they don't get left behind.  I would argue the opposite:  put it off until the technology is something they actually need. They'll be able to figure it out then in half the time their parents can, whatever it is.



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