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Modern Parenthood

Blogger Lisa Suhay and her son Quin created this cartoon with Bitstrips, an app that allows users to create and star in their own comic strips. (Courtesy of Lisa Suhay)

Bitstrips offer lagging writers fun setting to explore written word

By Correspondent / 10.25.13

Parents who want to help boys who are reluctant writers may want to learn more about Bitstrips, the new free interactive comic strip app sweeping the Facebook landscape.

The app called Bitstrips launched its 1.1.7 version for iPhone, iPod, and iOS users this week as well as on Google Play for Android users. According to the International Business Times, it currently has more than 10 million users.

Bitstrips is a customizable avatar-creation tool on the Web that lets users create and share comics of themselves and others with personalized messages.

As a parent I saw two opportunities in this new app: 1. Connect with my teens in the cutting edge technosphere via adding them to my playlist of avatar/characters for the strips. 2. Connect our youngest son, Quinten, age 9, to writing.

Quin is mainly an A student with the exception of writing, which is a steady C.

I can tell you firsthand that difficulties in writing can be devastating to a child's education and self-esteem. Despite all his successes, what he sees as “epic failure in writing” and communicating his ideas on paper hurts Quin’s learning.

In a meeting before the start of the school year here in Norfolk, Va., I was lucky to find we had a new principal, Dennis Fifer, who has a keen understanding of boys and writing issues.

He listened to the teacher describe my son’s inability to put his thoughts onto paper and suggested to the teacher that Quin be allowed to make his own comic strips instead.

Mr. Fifer explained that most boys lag behind girls in both handwriting and story writing. It’s sometimes called “pencil anxiety” because the coordinative lag in handwiring in boys leads to reluctance to use that pencil to write. He suggested a keyboard in place of a pencil and a comic strip in place of an essay.

Quin loved the idea of drawing his own strip in place of his regular essay for school.

However, this was not a perfect system. Quin’s first essay on the assigned theme, “Believe in yourself, dream big, inspire others,” ended up featuring him as a Minecraft character creating a portal from our world to the game world to defeat pollution and coastal flooding via the Lego League of Justice.

I realized Quin couldn’t get the hang of it by simply reading the Sunday funnies or a comic book because he is so literal in his thinking that he could not make the leap from someone else’s imagination to using his own.

Enter Bitstrips and a daily example of how mom and his favorite big brother, Zoltan, are living in an alternate comicverse on Facebook.

You can either download the free app to your mobile device or access the app on Facebook, or on Android, or on iOS via app stores or Google Play. Bitstrips for Schools offers teachers the program for classroom use.

Then create an avatar of yourself based on your appearance with customizable hair, clothes, facial features, and body type. Next, choose from numerous pre-made scenes and scenarios.

You can also create avatars for friends who haven’t already signed up for Bitstrips, which Quin did with great glee for his brothers, me, and his father to include in his adventures.

Kids can add the script by typing in his own dialogue and captions or see them randomly generated.

You could almost hear an audible “click” when Quin saw the first strip generated.

“Oh! I get it,” Quin said looking at a comic of a cartoon me and Zoltan on a see-saw. “I don’t actually get the jokes, but I get it. Can I try?”

It’s actually good that he doesn’t have his own Facebook account because it’s forcing him to think outside himself when writing stories.

It’s a relief that Quin is engaged in writing and storytelling. Perhaps it’s a greater relief to see that the avatar he made of me represented more of his ideal than my reality. Win-win.

St. Viator High School is testing students hair samples for evidence of recent drug and alcohol use, AP reports. (Courtesy San Vincent Media/You Tube)

Does random drug, alcohol testing turn school into prison?

By Contributing blogger / 10.24.13

In an effort to battle substance abuse, a suburban Chicago Catholic high school has begun randomly testing its students for evidence of drug or alcohol consumption. The Associated press reports on the testing at Saint Viator High School:

Administrators say they plan to test 10 to 20 students a week by taking about 60 strands of hair that will be tested by a California lab.

The analysis will show if a student consumed drugs or alcohol in the past 90 days and how much they ingested.

Saint Viator is not alone at instituting a testing regime – in Cincinnati, the all-boys Catholic La Salle High School will begin mandatory testing of all students in the 2014-2014 school year.

What these schools' administrators have managed to set up is something reminiscent of philosopher Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon – a prison that relies on a central tower to observe inmates. The guards would be invisible to the prisoners (thanks to one-way mirrors, or another such trick). Because anyone could (in theory) be under observation at any point in time, bad behavior should drop to zero – there's no certain way to get away with bad acts if you can never be sure whether the warden's watching.

At St. Viator the panopticon is enforced through unpredictable testing that could strike anyone (rather than the gaze of hidden cameras or guards that could see anyone), but the concept is similar: there's no safe way to misbehave.

The good part about sending your kids into an environment where they might be randomly tested for drugs and alcohol at any given moment: they're (presumably) less likely to drink or do drugs, although even that is debatable – this Global Post story suggests that there may be no gains, although there's always a fair question to be raised about whether schools that do drug testing have a slightly elevated drug use rate because the testing actually made the problem worse, or because the school had more of a problem to begin with. From the Post:

One ground-breaking study, conducted by the University of Michigan in 2003, found that schools with drug-testing policies had slightly higher rates of student drug use. At schools with drug-testing policies, the study found that 21 percent of students were using drugs, compared to 19 percent at schools without policies.

A study by the National Center for Education Evaluation confirmed those results. Another recent study, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, found that policies didn't stop male students, and drug testing only worked as a deterrent for female students in schools with positive student-teacher relationships and clear rules.

And the potentially bad part about starting a testing regime at your school: you've effectively reinforced the feeling that school is prison, stripping away another layer of privacy and presumed innocence from all pupils.

My middle school and high school didn't test me and my peers for alcohol, but it still felt like a prison with regimented activities, security guards, mandatory work, and a jailer/jailed divide, complete with stool pigeons and hard cases. That false divide between teachers, administrators, and students was one of the worst aspects of school – we should have, in theory, been working together to teach, learn, and prepare for independent life, but we spent too much time in conflict: teachers had to act like cops, and kids would (of course!) cut class, or cheat, or abuse drugs and alcohol.

The relationship between authority and good behavior is always complex: abolish the rules, and you get anarchy, but squeeze too tightly, and your students start to slip through your fingers. The conversation no doubt will continue.

The video of a young tap dancer who makes up her own routine during a recital when she forgets the choreography has collected more than 200,000 views on YouTube. (Elio Rui Silva/YouTube)

Preschooler's improv tap routine reminds parents to let kids be kids (+video)

By Correspondent / 10.24.13

Parents want their kids to succeed and “get it right” when they perform on stage, but when an adorable preschooler departed from the choreography at a Dance Factory Preschool Tap show making her own, superior, tap routine, she proved once again that resilience is a better goal than perfection.

The video from the recital has gone viral on YouTube because the footloose and fancy free little imp improvises a hilariously magnificent dance of her own.

Seeing the video reminded me of my favorite quote by Vivian Green, “Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass. It's about learning how to dance in the rain.” 

Face it, "the further off-script kids go the better the show" should be etched over every stage in America so parents like me can relax and enjoy the moment.

We don’t yet know who the child is, but I know that when she lost the thread of the choreography and let herself go with the moment her performance was perfection personified.

It’s fun watching her mug for the audience and groove to Broadway Baby in a way that creates the equivalent to a weapons-grade kid Kryptonite that would level notorious perfectionist dance teacher Abby Lee Miller and most Dance Moms.

Anyone who has ever had a child in any type of school performance knows the parental angst of watching them perform.

We want them to succeed and most times that translates to a flawless rendition of whatever they are supposed to do or say on stage. Nobody wants to hear a child scrape through a violin recital off key, forget their lines in the school play, or trip over their robes in the church pageant.

However, those things are bound to happen and when they do there can be no more successful moment than when the child ad-libs, does a little jig, or rolls their eyes to let us all know that a mistake isn’t the end of the world.

The key is that they won’t cope in the moment if we don’t provide examples of how we ourselves bounce back from errors and miscalculations during all the off-stage moments of their lives.

The secret ingredient to parenting isn’t showing the kids we’re perfect, but revealing that we’re not and showing how we deal with our own glitches and goofs.

I am a Type A, perfectionist, nervous-Nelly by nature. My analogy for how I handled errors and failures before and after kids is that I was like a shard of broken glass that was thrown into the parental sea and tumbled into a softer, frosted version of myself.

The lesson I learned is that striving for perfection is a worthy goal, but reality and chaos theory are waiting in the wings for our kids and we need to do a little rehearsal time for those events as well.

Frankly, if kids were Stepford perfect the family photo and video albums would be a bore to go back over.

While I deeply admire the parents who send me a yearly family photo of everyone neatly matched in holiday sweaters, the only story those pictures tell is that the parents are great kid wranglers who can afford nice clothes.

What I long to see is the card containing a photo snapped in a moment of typical chaos, with one kid’s sweater on backwards, another making rabbit ears over a sibling’s head or mom scolding the kid pulling a derpy face. I can see their whole year from a photo like that. That family interests me.

I hope the tiny dancer in the video never loses that ability to find her feet in a moment of uncertainty. Here performance should stand for the perfection of imperfection long after all the flawless recital footage has faded away.

Prince George's christening Oct. 23 is sparking church hopes of a revival of the tradition of baptism. Here, Prince and Catherine arrived with their son at St. James Palace in London for the rite. (John Stillwell/Reuters/Pool)

Prince George christening: Can it boost decline in baptism tradition? (+video)

By Correspondent / 10.23.13

The Archbishop of Canterbury hopes the christening of little Prince George into the Church of England today might invite imitators.  

The BBC reports: “Although christenings were already in decline, one in three infants was still baptized into the Church of England in 1980. By 2011 that had fallen to just over one in 10. The overall number of baptisms – of people of all ages – witnessed a similar decline, from 266,000 baptisms in 1980 to 140,000 in 2011.

"It's a similar story in the Catholic Church, although the major drop-off in baptisms happened between 1964 and 1977, when the number halved. There's been a far gentler downward trend over the past three decades, recently stabilizing at about 60,000 baptisms a year.” 

American churches have also seen a decline in infant baptism.

The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, reports that its affiliated churches had the lowest levels in 64 years last year.  A 2006 report by USA Today says the declines accompany a lower birthrate, growing secularism in general, increasing interfaith marriage, growing popularity of non-liturgical worship, and a waning focus on sin.

In the American Episcopal Church – which, like bonnie Prince George’s Church of England, is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion – some believe that controversial liberalization within the church hastened a sharp decline in baptism during the past decade. Today's parents tend to view baptism as more a pledge of faith than as a washing away of sin, says the report.

According to the BBC, parents in the UK are happy to bend tradition, choosing multiple godparents, not just the requisite two, and often including the non-baptized in the mix as honorary witnesses. More modern clothing may replace the traditional christening gown, and warmed-up water may replace the cold shock of yore. But that doesn’t mean that the essence of baptism has been watered down.

A 2008 Georgetown University study reports that among Catholics who attend mass weekly, it remains the most meaningful of the church’s seven sacraments – whether received or lived out yourself, or witnessed in someone close to you.

Many will see Prince George’s day as much more than a pretty picture.

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Google Chrome's 'Supervised Users' option could change the landscape of parental controls. (Google Chrome)

Chrome browser's parental controls could be a game-changer

By Contributing blogger / 10.23.13

Are new revisions to the Google Chrome browser the future of parental security options on computers?

While parental monitoring and surfing restriction software already exists (this PCMag.com rundown gives you a nice overview; this more recent techradar writeup has a program-by-program rundown), the Chrome "Supervised Users" option would bring into the mainstream the ability for parents to limit and/or monitor their kids' browsing habits to an extraordinary degree. By bundling the power to regulate kids' browsing with the browser itself, it obviates the need to research and install third-party solutions, which brings the practice of parental Internet monitoring another step away from the realm of tech-savvy activists and toward general practice.

In a nutshell, the Supervised Users option in Chrome would let parents create secondary user accounts for their kids governed by a parental administrator account. Kids would log in to their own account (which would have its own parent-tailored settings and permissions based on their age, behavior history, and the parent's parenting style) and browse. The new software allows both "whitelists" and "blacklists" of sites: the former creates a world of approved sites that the browser could go to, with everything else off-limits; the latter creates banned sites (with everything else approved for browsing by default.)

But the key to the effectiveness of the new software is, like so many things, dependent on having active and involved parents. There really is no off-the-shelf solution that instantly fixes the Internet for kids – it takes time and energy to create blacklist or whitelist sites; it takes time and energy to review those sites periodically and expand or contract your kid's online universe appropriately; and most critically in the case of the new software, it takes time to review your kids' browser history to look for patterns and get a sense of how they're using the Internet.

For some parents and some kids, it might be enough to offer general guidelines and just review the browser history every week or two; for others, a carefully curated whitelist might be the best way to ensure productive and safe use of the Web.

Handled with the light touch of an observant parent, Chrome's new parental controls could help usher in a new era of safe (OK: safer, or "semi-safe" might be a bit more accurate) surfing for young people.

Of course, this is all well and good until your kids install a secret browser. Or use an unsecured computer at their friend's house. Or penetrate your administrator account with keystroke software or old-fashioned espionage. The cloak-and-dagger dance of parenting and children's mischief waltzes onward...

Ringo Starr poses near "The Yellow Submarine", a bathyscaphe exhibited in front of oceanographic museum in Monaco, before receiving the medal of "Commander of Arts and Letters" from the France ambassador in Monaco, Hugues Moret, Sept. 24. (Lionel Cironneau/AP)

Ringo Starr's 1964 photo mystery gives idol-hunting teens hope

By Correspondent / 10.23.13

By seeking six mystery fans he snapped a photo of nearly 50 years ago, Ringo Starr is giving teens everywhere a powerful argument for being allowed to obsess over an idol, that someday they too might be able to brag about it to their grandkids.

“Starr wants to know if you were one of the fresh-faced kids who piled into a convertible and pulled up next to the Beatles’ moving car, trying to get the attention of what was the world’s most famous band,” according to the Miami Herald. “Starr snapped a photo of the teens – four males and two females; the sixth person is barely visible in the back seat of the car.”

Imagine the gift of Grandpa and Grandma cool points that is out there waiting to be given to the six mystery teens, now in their 60s, pictured in the now iconic photo. They may have told the story a thousand times about having seen the Fab Four but if they didn’t capture the moment on film as proof, their idol did.

At the time the photo was taken, the year before I was born, I imagine the parents of those teens would have had a fit over what mom and dad would surely have considered reckless driving and inappropriate behavior in chasing down “those long-hairs.”

I remember the celebrity obsession phase of my teenage years like it was yesterday because for me it never ended. I became a journalist and got to meet many of my idols, often using the same zany tactics I began developing as a teen seeking a handshake and a smile from an idol.

Maybe it’s the need to touch immortality or greatness. As teens we are still attracted to that light, rather than blinded by the envy we feel over not having become rich or famous ourselves.

Teens still have those rose-colored retinas that fade to gray as we age and toughen up. They are at the tipping point between Technicolor and black and white views of the world around them.

You can see that rosy vision in the eyes of the kids in the car in Starr’s photo. That picture captured all the enthusiasm of youth, all the promise and adventure.

I wonder if having that moment once upon a time had a positive effect on those six people? How did getting that close to the Fab Five affect the Mystery Six? Someone should ask that question when the folks are located.

As a teen in New Jersey I would sneak out to follow my idols, telling my mother I was at a friend’s house when in fact I was chasing down an author, actor, activist, or musician for a photo or handshake.

Sorry mom.

I met Arlo Guthrie, drank an illicit beer with Abbie Hoffman, got bear hugged by Luciano Pavarotti, all before age 20.

Those memories fuel my imagination today and so I let my sons go to concerts and listen eagerly as they tell me about how they met their idols.

A few days ago my son, Ian, 18, confided in me that he intends to begin his quest to meet his all-time idol and knowing my history asked my advice.

Let’s roll that back, my 18-year-old son A: confided in me and B: Asked for my advice.

It was difficult to keep from hugging him, crying, and dancing all at the same time.

“I have to meet Leonard Nimoy,” Ian said. “There are people who have to meet The Pope or Stephen Hawking or some random sports star but I HAVE to do this before he dies. Not before I die, before he dies. So I’m asking because we’re on the clock here Mom.”

Super. We’re in Norfolk, Virginia and Nimoy’s probably in California or on a space station somewhere.

But because I managed to meet all my heroes I believe Ian will find a way to beat the clock and the odds.

That’s what following your passion, even once in a lifetime, gives you: belief. The confirmation of belief and passion of capturing the moment is what Starr saw through his lens and what those mystery six are about to receive.

When was the first parachute jump? Today's interactive Google Doodle promises answers to questions like these through it's new answers engine. (Courtesy of Google)

When was the first parachute jump? Leaps of faith personified

By Correspondent / 10.22.13

One small drop for man, one giant leap for toys, amusement park rides, science experiments and imagination, today the Google doodle celebrates the 216th anniversary of the first parachute jump.

“The doodle is based on André-Jacques Garnerin's daring leap on Oct. 22, 1797 at Parc Monceau in Paris, which saw the then 28-year-old leap from a balloon using a seven-metre silk parachute that resembled an umbrella,” according to the Google doodle website.

The reason this event is important to parents is that without that first jump no little boy – or girl –  would ever have a plastic army man to toss off a balcony, no raw egg would make it safely to the ground when tossed off a building in a science class experiment, and Disneyland would be short the Parachute Drop ride which is a replica of Garnerin's basket drop.

Having four sons, I have seen more parachutes and been the victim of more airborne pranks than I can count.

My two older sons loved those little plastic army guys that come with a parachute. You could find the “air sailors” as my two older boys called them, in cereal boxes, birthday goody bags, and bubble gum machines at the supermarket.

When the two older boys were toddlers we lived aboard a sailboat down in Goodland, Fla. And we were worse than dirt poor, we were water poor.

One Christmas when we lived on the boat we had zero money and all I could afford was toys from the machine at the supermarket.

I cried and beat myself up over the worrying that I had failed them.

They opened all the handmade gifts and played happily enough until they began to unwrap the tiny packets containing the parachute men and began to whoop with total joy.

The little men who could float and catch the air currents in their little “sails” turned out to be their favorite toys for years to come, not that they lasted more than a few flights before needing repairs.

When we moved from the boat to land and an old log cabin in Medford, N.J. a few years later my sons’ greatest joy in life was launching the darn army “air sailors” off the balcony down into the living room to see who could land one in my morning coffee.

You never know where one little leap will take you. Those parachute men launched my sons’ fascination with science.

A few months ago my eldest son Zoltan, 19, informed me he intends to do a parachute jump as soon as it’s affordable.

While it scares me to pieces, I’m excited and amazed that one small toy derived from one great experiment by Garnerin's could give my kids’ imaginations so much air time.

qCraft brings the principles of quantum physics to the popular computer game Minecraft. (Mincraft Teachr/qCraft/You Tube)

How Google brought quantum physics to Minecraft (+video)

By Correspondents / 10.21.13

While Legos aren't going anywhere anytime soon, it's fair to say that the online building blocks game Minecraft is the modern-day online equivalent of Legos.

Minecraft, like Legos, is less a toy or a game than a complex system for building, playing, and learning, using hundreds (or thousands) of small units to build up complicated structures, systems, and scenarios.

And like Legos, it scales depending on what you want to do with it – a child can build a simple house; a world-class architect can build a profoundly sophisticated palace. And the former can concretely aspire to be the latter.

The beauty of Minecraft is that players can do quite a bit more than any but the best-funded Lego architect can manage.

You can create an assembly line. You can build a replica of the Taj Mahal. You can build a programmable computer. And now you can explore the world of quantum mechanics and computing thanks to an add-on by Google Quantum A.I. Lab Team.

The Team explained in a blog post:

Millions of kids are spending a whole lot of hours in Minecraft ... So how do we get these smart, creative kids excited about quantum physics?

We talked to our friends at MinecraftEdu and Caltech’s Institute for Quantum Information and Matter and came up with a fun idea: a Minecraft modpack called qCraft. It lets players experiment with quantum behaviors inside Minecraft’s world, with new blocks that exhibit quantum entanglement, superposition, and observer dependency.

And while the Google team concedes that qCraft isn’t a perfect scientific simulation, perfection is beside the point – the main thing is that it's "a fun way for players to experience a few parts of quantum mechanics outside of thought experiments or dense textbook examples."

Minecraft in general (and quantum Minecraft specifically) offers students an opportunity to experience virtual experiential learning – which is to say, the virtual chance to learn something by doing it, rather than learning by reading or listening to a description.

All of this is exciting to a dad like myself, an old-school nerd raised by a digital design engineer (i.e a truly old-school nerd). I grew up building massive houses of cards with computer punch cards, the pieces of paper that used to be how computers were programmed and operated, graduating as an older kid to playing (and re-playing, and re-playing) the classic city planning game SimCity.

And now I can look forward to having a son who eventually builds his own worlds in Minecraft - and explores the world of quantum computing within those worlds, to boot.

An astronomer observes the Orionids at an observatory near the village of Avren east of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009. (Petar Petrov/AP)

Orionid meteor shower: Miss last night's show? There's more to come

By Correspondent / 10.21.13

Every October, fragments of the famed Haley's comet dance across the sky in the much-anticipated Orionid meteor shower. This year, the light given off by the nearly full moon during the shower peak last night obscured the show for many sky watchers. But all is not lost. The night sky offers many opportunities to explore stars, meteors, and comets throughout the year, says Smithsonian astrophysicist and Harvard lecturer Sean Andrews.

In three weeks, the Leonid meteor shower will splash across the sky, though Dr. Andrews expects that the moon might once again outshine the shower. He suggests that families might have better luck catching the Gemonid meteor shower on Dec. 12 and 13. “It might be cold, but the moon is not going to be obstructive,” he says.

There is also a major comet that could potentially come into view some time in the next several weeks. “No one really knows when this will happen or if we’ll get to see it,” Andrews says. “It’s very close in the sky to the sun so you can’t see it until it gets further away.” He expects that in a few weeks astronomers might have better predictions for when to look for the comet.

However, families need not wait for an astrological event to explore the night sky, Andrews says. Local amateur astronomy organizations routinely host stargazing events and welcome young would-be astronomers. Area universities frequently open up their observatories and telescopes to the public.

Last year, we offered suggestions for families hoping to glimpse the heavens together. These are not unique to the Orionids. Stargazing and astronomical events offer kids and families a chance to venture into the quiet dark to glimpse the heavens.

Waking them up in the middle of the night in and of itself creates a tone for the event, setting the stage for a magical moment that will probably last their lifetimes.

That moment, however brief, when parent and child gaze in awe as remnants of a distant world cross over into theirs, sharing gasps, locking astonished eyes, squeezing hands in exhilaration, that is the stuff that memories are made of. 

Bridget, 3, and sister Quinlan, 9, play a game on an iPad. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

iPotty to Tech Pet: Do we really need the iParade of kiddy tech?

By Correspondent / 10.20.13

At some point during my reporting of our magazine cover story this week, Toddlers on touch screens, I stumbled across the iPotty. 

Or, to be honest, someone e-mailed me a link to the iPotty, because, well, I was writing about toddlers and touch screens, and really, what could get at the essence of this topic any more clearly? 

The iPotty – and seriously, saying this out loud only adds to the parental disintegration of verbal dignity that starts with “Preggie Pops” and continues right on through “tummy time” – is a plastic toilet training contraption with a stand to hold a toddler’s iPad while he learns how to poo like a big kid. (Don’t worry – the product description assures that the iPotty “includes a removable touchscreen cover to guard against messy hands and smudges.”) It is brightly colored, child-sized, and like many of the new child iPad and iPhone accessories, a product that brings touch screen technology into some of the most elemental places of young childhood.

Like your bathroom. 

Creepy? Brilliant?  

Your reaction probably depends on how you view the rapidly growing integration of digital technology into the lives of preschool-aged children. And going by the dozens of parents I interviewed for the piece, that probably includes some level – but a level vastly different than your neighbor, since parents are all over the map on this – of unease. With the iPotty: There’s something to be said for keeping your little one on her seat. Those of us struggling with this particular bodily effort are probably not all that inclined to be moralistic about doing whatever it takes to, um, help get things in the right place.

At the same time ... do I really need the legacy of Steve Jobs to get my daughter to poop? And what if the iPad is not available? Are we going to have one of those association problems about which the child rearing books warn? What if I create a bathroom lingerer, ala those parental figures known to escape into the bathroom with the Sunday newspaper – or, well, the iPad?

(If all of this is TMI for you, by the way, you don’t have a toddler.)

But lest one start focusing too much on this particular item, there are various other touch screen accessories to ponder. Like the Tech Pet.

Move over, Rover. Once upon a time you might have taught your preschooler values like empathy, responsibility, and consistency with the family pet. Now you can just buy a white plastic dog and put your iPhone where the face should be. A dog’s image shows up on the screen and will respond to your child’s commands. “Forward!” “Backward” The nurturing lesson comes from the ability to “feed and groom” the Tech Pet, says its description.

Except that it’s, um, plastic. And using my phone. 

But to summon the Cat in the Hat (again, you’ll get this if you have a toddler), that’s not all they can do. Oh no, that’s not all.

There’s the stuffed Fisher Price “Apptivity Monkey,” which “comes to life” when an iPhone is attached to its belly. (Again, my phone.) There is the Barbie augmented reality digital mirror app, that let’s kids try on makeup – “without the mess!” (Groan. I mean, anyone else not want their little girls to see how they look with perfectly applied lipstick and glitter eye shadow?) There’s the “guitar controller” that let’s you attach an iPad to an air guitar – furthering the distance between one’s child and actual music making. (What’s wrong with the good old fashioned Bill and Ted-style air guitar? I know, I know, my toddler will soon enough tell me how old that cultural reference makes me.) Anyhow, the list goes on.

At first glance, these items can strike those of us nondigital natives as absurd. But something happened while I was reporting my story. The more I saw of these products, the more they began to seem normal – or at least as normal as any of the primary colored toys touted to my kids from all directions. That doesn’t mean that I started to want them in my house, mind you. But it meant that they didn't loom any larger because of their technological components. 

And that, perhaps, is what might happen with the iPotty. What started as an item that made me laugh out loud will morph into just another reason for my little family to double down on our goal of avoiding Stuff We Don’t Need, and instead focusing on the Real Lives We Have. 

You know, with dogs that actually need to go for walks. And toddlers who need to learn how to use the toilet – by themselves.

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