The pseudo-science of graphology has for centuries maintained that handwriting is a window into the soul: by scrupulous observation, an expert graphologist could, in theory, divine personal qualities, truthfulness, and even the moral character of the writer emanating from the handwriting that they were studying.
And while handwriting analysis might be overambitious about what it reads into the written word, it plays on an essential truth: the way we write relates to the way we think and express ourselves. As cursive handwriting is drummed out of schools from coast to coast, there has been push back from parents and educators – initially on an emotional basis, but increasingly with some more rigorous backing.
A study (published in 2012, but hitting the newswires this month) by Professor Isabelle Montésinos-Gelet at the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Education looked into the writing habits of 718 Québec students and teachers in 54 second grade classrooms. Students were learning cursive, or learning to print letters, or both – the study suggests that students just learning cursive reaped benefits when it came to spelling and syntax.
The development of automatic motor movements, the study suggested, was key – when you can write in a smooth, no-thought-required manner, you can concentrate on expressing yourself, not on grinding out each individual word or letter. Cursive in particular forced students to develop a stroke order that resulted in no backwards letters, and it also pushed students into laying down proper word spacing.
Interestingly, the study didn't examine what might happen to students who weren't taught any handwriting whatsoever, but were instead simply drilled on expressing thoughts through keyboards (or voice recognition software) alone. That may sound like a dark future, but as more and more of human communication moves onto tablets and phones, it's entirely possible that handwriting will one day be as generally relevant as donkey taming or archery.
As a still-active participant in the potentially dying art of writing letters out by hand, I think its possible death is a bit of a shame. A hand-written thank you note or invitation, for example, still trumps even the most animated of .gif-based communiques. And on those rare occasions when I receive written communication from someone with beautiful handwriting, I have to admit to feeling a little emotional about it – it's an almost magical thing these days, only slightly less rare than a unicorn.
Like many journalists and most doctors, my own handwriting is what used to be called "chicken-scratch." That said, the dozens of little hand-written to-do list notes I write for myself each day and fling about my home office, wallet, and car, are actually key to staying focused and getting work done. I could of course keep the same list on my smartphone or desktop computer, but having the physical artifact makes a big difference to actually being motivated by the list. And when it come time for my son to write thank-you notes for presents, he'll be doing it with pen and paper, regardless of where the school system has gone with writing instruction.
The scariest thing about abandoning handwriting (print, or cursive) is the idea that by writing things out by hand, we may actually be usefully training our brain in a way that the mere interaction with computers doesn't ... and that training, much in the same way that talking changes the way we think, may help us be the people that we are.
On that front, handwriting conservatives like myself can breathe a sigh of relief that, at the very least, people are looking into the issue and finding that jettisoning cursive is not a small decision – how we write may have a real impact on who we are.
My daughter, I'll call her Samantha, is getting married very soon. She is a professional violist and she is marrying a professional opera singer. I'll call him Darrin.
They're artists, and as such, they are in perpetual search of the next gig. For them, these are both exhilarating and challenging times. They make careful decisions about how to spend money but they are also in love. When car repairs ate up their savings last year and Samantha suggested they forego a Christmas tree, Darrin agreed, then surprised her with one anyway.
Recently, Samantha mentioned to me that Darrin thought they should be frugal over the holidays and spend Thanksgiving – her favorite family holiday – in Cleveland, where they live.
"It's tough to get away," she said to me.
"But it's your favorite holiday," I said. "I'll help."
Mothers of a bride can do that.
But I am to be a mother-in-law soon. When a wedding is as close as theirs is, mothers of the bride are in training to be mothers-in-law. If you are the mother of a bride and don't think so, I can tell you, the bride and groom think so.
"No," she said, "we have to do things like this on our own."
I can go a few ways with this.
I can be Aunt Clara: clueless, clumsy at times, but a kind and loving presence; always happy to spend any time I can with Samantha and Darrin because they are also kind and loving.
Or, I can be Endora: manipulative, divisive, critical, judgmental, controlling; blowing in to sit atop the bookcase in my elegant pajamas and point out what she's giving up, even as she is trying to tell me what he has given up for her on many occasions.
I could be Endora, and overlook that Samantha is considering Darrin's needs along with her own now, the way healthy witches do when they don't wish to abuse their power.
I could be Endora, and lay on the guilt and pressure from up there on top of the bookcase, telling Samantha what she already knows: "You live in Cleveland all year round. You miss New Hampshire. You need to come home to feel connected. Give up another trip home, not this one."
And, I did say that, while she was home. And, I'm sure she went back and reported it to Darrin, who probably rolled his eyes to think of the discussions we would have like it in the future.
But, time has a way of making you hear your words again, and again, as someone else might have heard them, while you were abusing your power.
And so, I did two things. First, I channeled my inner Aunt Clara who helped me look at things anew:
As Darrin's future mother-in-law, I have his wishes to honor now as well as Samantha's. Even if from afar, Darrin will be a presence in our family as Samantha is in his, and as such, his needs must be considered with everyone else's. Those of us on top of the bookcase are not "helping" when we put our own affection for past traditions before a couple's attempt to establish future traditions that blend both their needs.
And then, I had a discussion with Samantha in which I urged her to try and forget what I'd said, and promised not to ask her to defend this or any other decision she makes with Darrin in the future.
Mothers-in-law come with power and I can do a few things with mine: I can be Aunt Clara and use it in a kind and loving and supportive way that will get me invited back. Or I can be Endora and abuse it so that poor Darrin is always checking the top of the bookcase on his way in the door.
I'm training to be the right mother-in-law. Because, I just don't want to be Endora.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.
While we discourage kids from interrupting in general, letting kids engage in discussion while we’re reading with them may be the key to raising a reader while providing more positive family experiences, according to a new study from Kansas State University.
Reading the study conducted by Bradford Wiles, an assistant professor and extension specialist in early childhood development at KSU, I came to the conclusion it may be time for librarians and parents to put away the bag of “Shhhhh!” and find ways to channel that effervescent curiosity.
The study on emergent literacy draws a distinction between reading “to” a child and reading “with” a child.
“Children start learning to read long before they can ever say words or form sentences,” says Professor Wiles. “My focus is on helping parents read with their children and extending what happens when you read with them and they become engaged in the story,” Wiles is quoted as saying on the KSU website.
Reading “to” is just simply reading the book and a whole lot of shushing from the reader, according to the university's website. However, reading “with” means having adult readers pick up these cues from children and using them to ask them questions to fuel discussion.
As a children’s book author who has read aloud “to, with, for” and sometimes “at” children in schools all over the country for the past 14 years, many a child has raised a hand, bouncing up and down with enthusiasm begging to ask a question in the middle of a tale.
Calling on the child inevitably results in one of two things: either a blank stare of terror because the question’s been forgotten, or an exuberant burble of their personal theory on mermaids, dinosaurs, or talking animals, as in one of my books.
My go-to response is to politely shush the teacher who is shushing the child and use the teachable moment to add a bit of reading comprehension or information about the topic that isn’t in the storybook.
I will often pause on a page and ask the children, “Do you see this map of where the mermaids live here in the city? Has anyone you know ever used a map to get around?”
That’s a group dynamic which is hard to wrangle, whereas at home with our four sons I let our youngest stop and start the reading in order to dash to the computer to look something up if he’s inspired.
“Although his research mainly focuses on 3-5 year olds, Wiles encourages anyone with young children to read with them as a family at any time during the day, not just before going to bed. He also believes that it is okay to read one book over and over again, because the child can learn new things every time.”
That reminded me of the famous American educator, philosopher, and author, Mortimer J. Adler who famously wrote, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”
Wiles is quoted on the KSU site saying, “There are always opportunities for you both to learn and it creates a family connection. Learning is unbelievably powerful in early childhood development.”
I believe people use the expression “introduce your child to reading” because it is meant to be an interactive experience, a meeting that can lead to making more books into “friends,” teachers, and partners in adventures yet to be written.
Thanks to technology, the difference between our lives and our maps is increasingly eroding – we not only know where we are, but the map (and the world) knows where we are, too.
Facebook and more specialized services like the popular Foursquare app provide a stream of information about what your friends are doing and where they are, but also give you the chance – or the obligation – to "check in" at a physical location and thereby broadcast where you are and what you're doing. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that "39% [of adult smartphone users] say they check into places on Facebook, 18% say they use Foursquare, and 14% say they use Google Plus, among other services."
Naturally some parents are less than thrilled with the new rise of "hey, world, track me down at this specific location" apps, but the reality for teens is more complicated than that, and such services actually offer young people a number of advantages that their parents and grandparents might have enjoyed as teens. But first, a few of the potential downsides to smartphone-based location-based services:
-- Stranger Danger
"Stranger danger" is listed here as a courtesy to public expectations, nothing more; the actual incidence rate of stranger abduction and assault is quite low, and the very nature of social media means that it's challenging to trace the movements of someone you don't actually know – you need to be virtual friends (or at least friends of friends) before you can begin following a trail of breadcrumbs toward your target.
More realistic than your teen being hunted down by some random predator is your teen being teased, hazed, or even physically bullied by a person or persons with a specific grudge against him or her. Inasmuch as social media and location-based services make it easier for us to learn more about our friends, it also gives bullies more ammunition to use against their targets, just part of the much bigger trend of bullying (particularly emotional bullying) intensifying in the digital age.
Related to bullies (but more specifically relevant to kids in their late teens) are stalkers – romantically obsessed former flames (or would-be flames) who latch to the objects of their obsessions and refuse to let go. For these folks, check ins can serve as a how-to guide to create chance encounters, keep up with potential romantic "rivals," and generally make their targets' lives miserable.
-- Mind-Numbing Conformity
Certain places don't make for rock-star level check ins: Grandma's assisted living facility, the coin and stamp store, the hobby shop, and so forth. And others may be almost required to show that you're with it: particular parties for example.
Teenage life (like life in general, come to think of it) is a precarious balancing act between being who you want to be and who you think everyone else thinks you should be, and check-in services just add one more layer of information and monitoring to the sometimes nasty little fishbowl that is middle school and high school life.
For the places that leave you less cool just for having associated with them, the obvious answer to this is simply not to check in. And as for running with the pack to the places that be ... well, it's something teens will have to grapple with regardless of their access to location-based services.
-- Create a Living Diary
The old-fashioned idea of keeping a diary may be waning in popularity (at least inasmuch a diary needs to be written with pen on paper), but having a document that we can reflect upon to see our growth and evolution will never cease to be interesting. And that's where something like Foursquare or Facebook actually becomes a new way to solve an old problem – the logs of where we've been (and who with) may have changed in form, but they're still accessible. And more and more services are springing up to convert the digital and ephemeral into something more tangible (like this neat app that turns your iPhone photos into photo albums).
-- Discover New Places
The world is a big, complicated place, particularly for kids growing up in urban areas where the number of cafes, parks, restaurants, and other hotspots is essentially without limit. Check-in services can be a way to travel vicariously and get a sense of what else is out there – and inspire travel and exploration.
-- Bond with Friends
The flip-side of bullying is friendship - the joys of having a group of close friends to share life with as a counterpoint to all the chaos and stress of growing up. Check ins tell you what your friends are up to and where they are, and that's one of the real upsides – and truly "social" aspects – of social media.
-- Spend Money More Wisely
A service like Foursquare is more than just a way to trumpet to the world where you happen to be at a give moment – it's also an opportunity to share tips or lists of tips about specific cool things to do at that place, whether it's a restaurant, a park, or a shopping mall. By allowing their users to tap into collective knowledge, check-in based services can actually enhance their users' experiences of wherever it is they happen to be going. And certain location-based applications can offer discounts or other ways to maximize fun while holding down costs ... a real plus for a teenager on a limited budget, which is to say a goodly percentage of teenagers everywhere.
Toy buying for my nine month-old has escalated beyond simple rattle and crinkle car seat toys into the wide world of smaller handheld toys that I will inevitably trip on in the the middle of the night on my way to the bathroom.
I’ve decided to upgrade his toy collection to include Little People, those pudgy, smiling plastic figures that fit like pegs into little toy tractors, buses, cars, and airplanes, and directly into my son’s mouth.
I found Little People figures modeled after DC Super Heroes and Disney Princess characters, and chose the superhero toys immediately, avoiding the princess figures altogether. These are my son’s first action figures (nevermind the fact that Little People look more fit to snuggle you into submission rather than resort to violent force), and I want to buy toys that encourage heroic, powerful characters.
Why did I automatically choose superheroes? As I watched him chew on Little Wonder Woman, I wondered – If we are careful to avoid pushing princess fantasies with fairytale endings to our daughters (protecting them from the “Disney Princess effect” discussed here), should we also watch telling our sons that they need super powers to save the world?
I don’t want to be a buzz kill. I myself love superheroes and I can’t wait to encourage my son to have an active imagination which celebrates characters bigger than reality that help save the day. I am sure we will embrace our fair share of superhero make believe too, complete with underwear on the outside of the pants and homemade masks and capes to furnish his creativity.
Plus, superheroes, more often than not, seem to be positively defined for their strength, courage, and sacrifice for the greater good. Australian blogger Damon Young, comparing the superhero make-believe of his childhood with his daughter’s princess dreams, notices the following:
"But my fantasies were all heroic: fists, feet, flying. Great powers and great responsibilities, and all that guff. This is not simply about physical violence – it is also about moral virtues, including bravery, constancy, temperance, and so on. The classic superhero – and his kindred heroes in Star Wars or Lego – has a public role, and the strength and ethical character to fulfill it."
While I agree with Young, I do want to make sure my son understands that it is the character of the superheroes and not just the fighting, flashy suits, bulging muscles, and…ahem….tights that make them powerful.
I want to reinforce that the alter egos for each of these superheroes also impact their superhuman powers for the better. It is the men and women behind the masks that make the heroes, and they have their vulnerabilities, just like us. Marvel comics addressed this issue in 2012 when it modeled a character after a boy with a hearing disability. After the boy’s mother approached the comic publisher with concerns from her son that superheroes don’t wear hearing aids, Marvel created a character named “Blue Ear” who helps save the day with the help of his own hearing aid.
For now, I think the affable Little People figures modeled after caped crusaders will be a good jumping off point for what I expect to be my son’s long relationship with superheroes. As he grows, I will do my best to help him identify his own strengths that make him powerful and able to take on the challenges of the world. I’ll teach him that you can make the world a better place through Clark Kent’s journalism, Bruce Wayne’s philanthropy, or Peter Parker’s love of science.
And I will teach him that the courage to wear your underpants on the outside builds character too.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Lane Brown blogs at Mudlatte.com.
Despite the disturbing decision to have the foul-mouthed Chef Gordon Ramsay at the forefront, the new reality kid show MasterChef Junior, airing on FOX Sept. 27, has the opportunity to do something very positive by helping kids get past the myth that women dominate as cooks at home and while men are chefs in professional kitchens.
MasterChef Junior has a pretty even gender balance of 24 contestants ages eight to 13, giving kids the chance to demonstrate their culinary talents via a series of challenges and cook-offs similar to the grown-up version MasterChef.
MasterChef is co-hosted and co-produced by Gordon Ramsay, produced by Shine America and One Potato Two Potato the company responsible for MasterChef Junior which Ramsay will also host.
This is an important moment in television for the culinary arts as it may lead to the world seeing girls in the role of aspiring professional chef on the same level with boys. It’s equally important that boys who are not interested in becoming chefs see that cooking is cooking no matter where you do it and it’s cool for them to take culinary arts in high school.
According to the FOX website, judges include Ramsay, restaurateur and winemaker Joe Bastianich (Del Posto, Eataly) and acclaimed chef Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot, Graham Elliot Bistro).
“Together, the celebrated food experts will coach and encourage the promising hopefuls to cook like pros and teach them the tricks of the trade along the way,” according to the FOX site.
Both boys and girls need to see “chef” as a gender-neutral career path.
In the realm of famous female chefs we are success starved with few popular examples such as Chef Cristeta Comerford, the first woman appointed White House head chef in 2005, and the only two woman to win Top Chef out of 10 seasons.
There is a good deal of evidence to support female chefs' claims that they are discriminated against in the culinary profession. In 2011 the website The Feminist Kitchen ran a guest blog co-authored by Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre who teach sociology at Texas State University in San Marcos. They wrote about their project exploring the work and life experiences of women in the culinary industry.
The blog post was written after interviewing 32 female culinary professionals in Texas and researching how critics and food writers help shape what it means to be a “chef” and how this can be gendered.
Professor Harris said today in an phone interview that the male domination of the professional kitchen dates back to the mid-1700s and the “kitchen brigades of the military. The industry has remained so male dominated because the profession is a holdover from the military as early is the mid-1700s and the kitchen brigade. Then [Georges Auguste] Escoffier, the French chef and culinary writer tried to make it into a profession, so he had to make a distinction between the men making it an art and the women typically cooking in the kitchen.”
“After Escoffier cooking, when done in the home was associated more with women than men, but professional, high-status cooking has remained the domain of men despite inroads women have made into other traditionally male-dominated careers,” said Harris who is now co-authoring a book on the topic with Giuffre.
The Texas study found some of the blame lies with the media, specifically food critics who refer to men as “masters,” a very male word, while down-playing the roles of their female counterparts in the industry.
“Men were given credit for the intellectual and technical work involved in producing a dish. They are masters who dominate the food they produce,” Harris and Giuffre reported in the blog. “Critics rarely mentioned technical skills of women – they are more likely to be praised for being ‘hard workers.’ ”
When it comes to this new show I like the fresh ideas which may produce more friendly professional environments for women in the future.
My kids will watch it but know that they are not to watch Ramsay online for fear his cornucopia of cussing will make their talk too salty.
We are raising our teens in complicated times, or at least it often feels that way. When we talked about "school safety" when I was growing up, we were talking about looking both ways before crossing the street. These days as parents we are required to have some difficult talks with our teens. I never dreamed I would have to discuss protocol during a school shooting with my teen.
Of course some of the tough talks parents have been giving for eons. Precautionary discussions about sex and drugs have long been on most parents’ agendas. These days texting while driving is a hot topic as well.
Taking on difficult topics with your teen is certainly part of the job description. The key perhaps is that few topics should be addressed in one single conversation. Talking with your teens should always be an interactive experience. Although at times we may have the inclination to do so-talking at them usually doesn’t end all. Lectures often result in a lack of listening. Few things are worse than trying to get your message across to ears that refuse to really hear you. Check in with your teen, he is sure to have a similar complaint about you. Remember the last time you set a firm limit despite his best attempts at reasoning with you?
Although some of today’s topics may be tough to tackle with your teens, one thing is certain; communication is the key to a caring, supportive, and satisfying relationship. Research reflects that adults who report having good communication with their parents lead healthier, more satisfying lives.
Some topics are certainly harder to approach than others. It helps to be upfront and honest about this with your teen. Nothing resounds better with a teen than pure honesty, being real. A quick, “hey this is kind of embarrassing for me to talk with you about,” or, “I am not really how to talk about this with you, so here it goes,” will break the potential tension and allow your teen to really hear what you have to say.
Tough talks are just that, tough. The more often you communicate with your teen however, the stronger your connection to her. Tough talks are difficult; the consequences of avoiding those talks however, can be devastating.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Jennifer Powell-Lunder and Barbara Greenberg blogs at Talking Teenage.
It's often said that the only permanent thing is change, and that old saw apparently applies the composition of the typical American family.
A study released today by Zhenchao Qian, a professor of sociology at The Ohio State University Ohio State University, shows a number of troubling trends: a decline in marriage (young people are delaying marriage longer than ever, and permanent singlehood is increasing), a rise in divorce and remarriage (the "marriage-go-round"), and a rise in adult children living with their parents for economic reasons.
Most troubling is a polarizing divide that means white people, the educated, and the economically secure have much more stable family situations than minorities, the uneducated, and the poor. Viewed against a background of widening gaps between the haves and have-nots in America, this is a particularly stark divide.
In a release on the study, which is based on census data and the 2008-2010 American Community Survey, Qian said that “there is no longer any such thing as a typical American family", although the study makes a caveat – immigrant families may come closest, with relatively low rates of divorce and remarriage, and low rates of cohabitation.
The key question is: if the typical American family is going the way of the passenger pigeon, does it really matter?
The answer seems to be: yes. Households headed by married couples lead to better educational, educational, and social outcomes for their children. (Whether that's causal - married parents lead to better outcomes - or correlated - stably married parents have other qualities that help their kids thrived - is open for debate.)
A New York Times story looking at the skyrocketing rate of birth outside of marriage among women under 30 (now over 50 percent of such births) pointed up one of the key differences between marriages and cohabitating couples:
Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.
The research, in aggregate, says that things are changing for the American family, and quickly. There may be ways for the government to address the trend: increased financial benefits for getting and staying married, for example, or a macro-effort to actively battle rising economic inequality, but systematic change will be a long hard fight. The research seems to suggest that such a fight is worth the effort.
In the midst of the firestorm surrounding the twerking, bare-all “Wrecking ball” ways of Miley Cyrus it’s easy to join the angry mob when perhaps we should consider whether our public outrage is fueling the marketing cycle that drives female performers to more self-destructive heights.
Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Amanda Bynes, are all in seemingly perpetual self-destruct mode, casualties of the relentless marketing of young female Disney child stars, driven from one phase of stardom to another.
The patterns seems to hold: Loveable child star goes rogue, burns out, tanks, fans turn on her and she finally gets it together for a glorious Disney ending comeback.
We loved them as children and now we cry out over what they’ve become. Television made them our children and in that everlasting role we can’t seem to stop paying attention to their exploits and rooting for the turn-around. Brittany made it, maybe they can too.
In her new video Cyrus begins in her underwear and progresses to total nudity (but for a pair of shoes) while on a wrecking ball, singing about how her lover has turned her into a wrecking ball in life and in the process destroyed her.
Viewers quickly filled the comments section her video with the majority saying they actually liked the song but the video wrecked it for them.
This backlash, however, will not likely get the video pulled, dampen sales, or deter the young star from future nudity and scandal.
In fact, given the way marketing works today it’s likely to bring more of the same because ultimately Cyrus’ name and therefore her “brand” is trending at number one on Yahoo and Google trends today.
About 20 years ago when I was a daily reporter on Long Beach Island, N.J., there was a public official named James Mancini. Mancini was a “double dipper” drawing a public salary as both mayor and county freeholder. The man would say the most outrageous things, shoot from the hip, scandalize and entrance voters and reporters alike.
One day he said something completely absurd in response to one of my questions, and I broke protocol and said, “Are you really saying this to me? You know we’re on the record. Why do you say it when you clearly know it’s untrue and damaging to you?”
Mancini smiled the smile of a grandfather about to reveal the secret of all time to a favorite grandchild. He said he gave me the quote because people forget. When they step into the booth on election day, they haven’t really been paying attention, he said. All they see is a name they recognize and the pull the lever.
I asked him if what he’d just said was on the record and he cunningly replied, that it was and asked me to do him a favor and print that.
The thing is that he was a great mayor and an even better freeholder and the people were always better off with him in office. When he died much of the people’s power went to the grave with him.
However, he could never bring himself to be himself because somewhere along the way he’d seen for himself that bad guys were winning elections. He wanted to do good things so he publicly played the role.
Miley Cyrus’ song was good. I find myself humming it even now, but would I have listened if the video hadn’t come to my attention via a trend alert on my smartphone?
The next time a young star is unwrapped and packaged like Cyrus, enraging us, perhaps viewers need to stop and consider whether expressing it in a public forum isn’t contributing to someone’s wallet and another’s downfall.
The topic of children and technology seems to be eating up more and more (often virtual) ink these days, and it's no wonder: as WiFi becomes viewed as a right equivalent to running water and kids increasingly communicate by text messages and status updates, it becomes necessary to try to understand what immersion in the digital environment does to their developing brains.
The question gets relevant fast. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against educational (or "educational," if you're the CCFC) baby apps by Fischer-Price, and Open Solutions. The complaint argues that the apps promise, without suitable scientific support, to teach babies skills before they're taking their first steps.
The apps "prey on well-intentioned parents," argues the CCFC, which is calling for increased guidance for marketing apps as "educational" and wants Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act – Unfair or Deceptive Acts or Practices enforcement against marketers of these apps for babies and very young children. The saber rattling has already begun to work – Open Solutions has withdrawn its educational claims, and CCFC has withdrawn its complaint.
The conflict is interesting on a number of levels. On one hand, screen time can replace "living in the real world" time, to the detriment of kids' social skills, particularly vis-a-vis members of older generations, i.e. the people who will be hiring them for jobs.
On the other, (and this is a point that Slate makes well in a recent opinion piece), the equation might not be simply "baby + app = nothing of value," but rather "baby + app x parental context and input = something between neglect and education." Leave a baby to pound away on an iPad, and it's unlikely that a great deal of learning will take place. Use that iPad to deploy sounds, visuals, and interactive opportunities with the guidance of an adult, and it may be a different story.
History buffs are probably enjoying this story, because it plays a familiar script: the suggestion that an entire (newly emerging) genre of communication is nothing but a corrupting distraction.
Newton Minow, the FCC chairman in 1961, famously said of television "... when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland."
When radio was on the rise in the early 20th century, Forum Magazine contributor Jack Woodford wrote in 1929: "[Listeners] sit around the radio and sip watered gin and listen to so-called music inter-spersed [sic] with long lists of the bargains to be had at Whosit’s Department Store . . . Thus dies the art of conversation. Thus rises the wonder of the century... Radio!"
And – brace yourself – when Johannes Gutenberg's mechanized printing changed the way people read in the 15th century, the church raged against the printing press and the vernacular Bibles and criticisms of the church itself that rolled into circulation by the hundreds of thousands. (The church was right to worry; the printing press helped fueled the creation and growth of Protestant sects.)
Presumably there were ancient Egyptian parents complaining to the Pharaoh's equivalent of the FTC about the damaging impact of hieroglyphic writing on young children, too.
None of this is to say that there aren't worthless apps out there that will fail to educate your infant or toddler. But it is to suggest that a medium is as good or as bad as the people creating content within it - and the community (and that means parents) who interpret and contextualize it.