The cover of Aug. 12's Time magazine was (by clever design) instantly polarizing.
Entitled "The Childfree Life," it shows two young thirty-somethings splayed out on a white sand beach, relaxing with arms intertwined, not a care in the world evident on their tan, happy faces.
These people, we're led to believe, are "having it all [by] not having children."
As important as what the image depicts is what it doesn't: parents keeping a wary eye out to ensure that the kids don't drown, leap headlong into a bonfire, or try to pick up a dead seagull; kids pestering the parents for ice cream and throwing tantrums when their demands aren't met; parents so exhausted from travel with young kids that rather than smiling angelically at the summer sun, they sleep on the sand with their mouths open, snoring audibly.
The staggering statistic upon which the story hangs is as follows: "The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there's data, the fertility rate declined 9%."
Not surprisingly, the cover has touched a lot of raw nerves. Without reading a word of the story (which explores new paths to fulfillment and acceptance trodden by childless women ... men are somewhat of a sideshow, as per usual), you are swept up in a tidal wave of emotion.
You’re reminded of the love for your own children and defensive over your choice to procreate, perhaps, or of the love for your adventure-filled, childfree life and defensive over the people who keep insisting that "you'll change your mind, and it'll be great when you have kids, you'll see."
A sort of complement to the story ran on BBC this week – the piece was entitled "Your post-pregnancy tales: Stretch marks, scars, and 'breasts like zeppelins,'" but it may as well have been called "when you have kids, you turn big and stripey and then it's sort of up to you to make the best of it or forever bemoan your choice."
Like the Time magazine story, it put the onus (or credit) for childbearing on women (not men), and it stirred up strong emotions by acknowledging the universally known and historically not-commented-upon downsides of childbirth, traditionally downplayed "for the good of society."
This is probably the part of the post where, as a new parent, I should proudly defend me and my wife's decision to have a baby and explain that, while we're tired, we're throbbingly certain that we've made a wonderful decision, and we can't understand why everybody else of child-bearing age wouldn't follow in our footsteps.
I won't do that.
Instead, I'll just say the following: We love our son very much, and we are very, very tired. Anybody who chooses to skip the expense, the health risks, the sleep deprivation, the work-life-child balance discussions and the general anxiety of having a child strikes me as eminently rational. I'm feeling a lot of things right now: joy, love, stressed, tired, exhausted, proud, spent, knackered, and fatigued – but "rational" is not one of them.
But of course, on some level, reason did play a role. Back when we decided to have a kid, we made the (arguably) rational choice that we'd like to have kids grow up and explore the world so that when we're older, we have family around us and connections to younger generations. Naturally, having kids isn't the only way to accomplish these things, but it's a classic option.
We have chosen to live our lives with the difficulty setting changed from "Novice" to "Expert," and now even simple things are complicated – having breakfast, or mowing the lawn, for example. The flip side is that when something goes right – and sometimes it does – it feels amazing. An efficient trip to the grocery store with everyone in good spirits is exhilarating – really, it is – and watching our son smile and coo is, thankfully, inexhaustibly rewarding.
And something else: watching a wife become a mother or a husband become a father is kind of amazing. It's hard to put a dollar value on it (I'd personally skew high to account for the damage this experience has done to our personal finances) but it's something just as good – but very different – from lounging on a beach in childfree splendor.
At least I think it is.
It has been a while since I've done the carefree beach-lounging thing, and it'll probably be a while longer before I do it again.
When a 13-year-old boy was being brutally beaten on a school bus in Gulfport, Fla., the driver, John Moody, 67, had to make a desperate choice – fight, flight, or phone for help. He chose the final option.
"You gotta get somebody here quick, quick, quick, quick," Mr. Moody could be heard saying into a phone on a video recording of the fight. "They're about to beat this boy to death over here."
The driver followed the district’s rules by not physically intervening and instead calling for help. Per district rules, he's not required to break up a fight unless he feels it's safe to do so, ABC Action News reported.
Moody retired six days after the July 9 fight in Pinellas County, Fla.
Follow the rules or follow your instinct to defend the victims – those involved in education face this kind of choice daily.
This morning I was on the phone with a friend, Warren Stewart, a former Virginia teacher who once headed his school’s discipline program.
Today, however, he’s at his vacation home in Sunrise, Fla., where he says he’s surrounded by people debating this story.
“This is all anyone here is talking about and having been in that kind of situation many, many times, I’ve been doing a lot of the talking,” Mr. Stewart says. “The driver absolutely did the right thing. He did what he was taught to do. He did what was legally correct to prevent a lawsuit.”
Stewart added, “I personally would not have been able to avoid stepping in physically to stop that fight.”
However, Stewart, who is the same age as Moody, is also a black belt in taekwondo with the moral compass of Captain America.
Stewart is the exception and not the rule.
“That driver did what was right for that situation because without being able to physically handle it he could have made matters far worse for everyone,” Stewart says. “But it makes you think doesn’t it? What if the driver had some martial arts training?”
I know two other Captain America types: Ultimate Fighting Championship founder Rorion Gracie and his son Rener Gracie, both of Torrance, Ca.
Their family started the Gracie BullyProof program to alleviate student fears of bullying in school. I emailed both Gracies this morning for advice on the issue.
“I agree that we can't expect an untrained person to intervene in this situation,” Rorion says. “He (Moody) did what he could. If he had reached for a baseball bat and hit the perpetrators he would have faced criminal charges! Not to mention that 15 year olds can often be stronger than people in their 60's.”
Rener, who teaches families, educators, and law enforcement how to cope with this kind of situation says that for Moody to go into that situation without the proper training “… would be like seeing someone drowning, knowing that you yourself can’t swim and diving into the ocean to save someone in a rip current.”
I was a teacher at a high school for only one year, but I encountered more than my share of fights.
I acted on impulse and instinct to physically intervene when a bully attacked a smaller boy in the hallway. This was irretrievably stupid.
A senior, trained in martial arts, stopped the fight and a student called 911, not me.
The kids all thought I was cool/heroic, but the fact is that I was completely wrong and darn lucky.
I started Gracie BullyProof training shortly after that with my own sons. The first lesson we learned was the mantra, “Avoid the fight at all costs.”
A study reported in the September print edition of Pediatrics reveals something that can't be an enormous surprise to most parents: when preschoolers routinely consume sugary drinks (including fruit juice), the extra calories tend to turn into extra pounds. Researchers found that among 2-5 year olds, those who downed sugary beverages on a regular basis were 43 percent more like to be obese than their peers. The study took into account family income and TV viewing, but didn't look at overall diet, making it persuasive but not necessarily conclusive.
Other studies (including a much-discussed one in the British health journal Lancet) point in a similar direction, and it's not a hard premise to buy: water or protein-rich milk will do less damage to the waistline than a beverage that is essentially an injection of sugar.
In one sense, it's obvious, and parallel to advice that we're given at every age as we try to lose weight or maintain a healthy lifestyle: some variation of "don't drink your calories" is near the core of many diet programs, and is one of those "well, duh" healthy lifestyle moves that would be a massive lifesaver if only it was easier to abide by.
But temptations are everywhere. For parents, there is the constant exposure (via marketing and advertising) to the idea that fruit is natural and healthy – not such a bad message, except that "fruit" so easily migrates over into "fruit roll-ups," and "fruit candy" and "fruit juice" and "fruit-flavored beverage with some real fruit juice in it." "Fruit" becomes a compromise – a way for kids to satisfy sugar-cravings while parents can feel OK about themselves for dispensing "healthy" choices.
This of course is just one of the first of many conflicts in any parent's life, between what your kids want (a brownie sundae for dessert every night, fireworks, a sports car) and what they probably actually need (a sensible dessert choice, not fireworks, a safe, reliable vehicle with lots of airbags). It's a conflict that takes place on such a subtle level that unless you're thinking about it due to a study like the one in Pediatrics, you may not be aware that it even exists.
The health issues raised by being seriously overweight, or obese, are enough of a reason to conscientiously work to be aware of this stuff, of course. If you can set your kids on a healthy path when they're young, they'll have a fighting chance when they float through the junkyard of high-sugar, high-fat garbage that makes up most fast food and much of the pre-prepared and junk food that fills up the shelves at stores in modern-day America.
Nature is cold, hard, and ruthless, and only the most aggressive - and selfish - survive and pass along their genes. So would suggest one standing school of thought about the nature of the world, a philosophy that plays itself out in the writings of authors like Ayn Rand, who elevated selfishness to high ideal, the most powerful force of creativity and industry possessed by humankind.
As it turns out, this isn't merely an oversimplification of the natural order of things - it's probably mostly wrong. A team from Michigan State University used a logic model to demonstrate that exhibiting only selfish traits would have spelled the end of the human race a long time ago, and that cooperation and mutual benefit are, in fact, core to our success.
This makes sense, when you look at nature for even a moment - families of animals (and insects, and other organisms) take care of one another, communities defend themselves, and even entire species join forces with one another in displays of symbiotic mutualism that work to the advantage of all those involved. Communication and memory mean that short-term boons gained by trickery and selfishness tend to poison the community to the detriment of all - and disrupt potentially positive cooperation.
Examples abound in the natural world - everything from the remarkable teamwork of ants and their helper species (such as aphids) to the co-evolution of flowers and pollinators such as bees (which have their own fantastically cooperative hive structures) to human interactions with livestock and pets.
Something is given, something is taken, and (generally) everyone's better off for it. (Ask a factory-farmed pig or chicken about this, and you may get a more negative spin on what "cooperation" means in this context, of course.)
And in a family, too, there's a dual challenge at hand: to teach cooperation among family members (including convincing siblings to stop whaling on one another long enough to enjoy each other's company or help one another with chores), and also to teach good citizenship - which is to say putting aside selfish impulses in order to better the community as a whole.
Weave strong enough webs of community and it pays off in more ways than a deserved sense of self-satisfaction - people who live in so-called "blue zones" of longevity are seen as greatly benefiting from high levels of social engagement and rich relationships with nearby friends and family.
Parenting is largely about hauling around massive piles of gear in a timely fashion and making sure that your kids don't run off of a cliff, or fall into a lake. But on a more profound level, it's about giving a fresh and unformed mind a worldview and moral perspective that will serve him or her for a lifetime.
In that respect, literature (broadly including movies, TV, and games) is key, and a profound challenge for every parent.
The BBC recently ran a beautifully written think piece about the legacy of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, those folk tale anthologizers who collected stories that include serious adult themes: violence, betrayal, incest, and murder, among others.
The question is: How does reading about the existence and practice of evil affect children?
Studies have been inconclusive, probably because trying to measure the impact of any given type of art is about as precise as trying to quantify the nature of the human soul or trying to provide a scientifically sound definition of true love.
As a young child I grew up reading – and being profoundly influenced by – books including short World War II histories (including a book about the Holocaust for young readers), the unabridged Grimm's Fairy Tales, and D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, wherein Loki tricks the gods into murdering the good-hearted Baldur and eventually precipitates the end of the world through his traitorous actions. I thought this stuff was amazing – shocking, engaging, confusing, and the first step on a lifetime of avid reading. It was a safe, vicarious way to wrestle with the existence of evil in the world (something that any serious student of the Bible thinks about, as well.)
And despite a literature diet that had a serious dark side, I turned out OK: No criminal convictions (or even charges!), a steady job as a writer, a happy marriage, and an author credit on a number of books – including a short history of the Holocaust for young readers.
Context is the key, of course. I also read a lot of Doctor Seuss and Curious George and light-hearted, modern fairytales. And the rough stuff – World War II, and the Norse myths, for example – always came with a grander "good and evil" context. What the Nazis did was profoundly bad, and good people came together to stop it. What Loki did was bad – really bad, what with the world ending and all – but a new, hopeful world was reborn in the ashes.
This is in contrast to some of the open-world style video games (the now venerable Grand Theft Auto series comes to mind) that not only depict evil, but allow players to embody it without consequence (and, in fact, with in-game rewards.) But whether even that contextually amoral approach to depicting evil has a negative impact is in dispute – some experts have maintained that the rise in video games and drop in the overall crime rate are actually linked, and not merely a coincidence.
Not surprisingly, the X-factor may be talking to your children about what they read, rather than aggressively limiting their diet of literature. As parents, we can help them find topics that they find engaging, and then help them pick out lessons and see a larger context. That's parenting at its most soul-stirring level, and it doesn't even require a minivan full of softball equipment.
Our rescue dog Albie has been with us a little more than a year now.
The shy, tentative creature who’d been found wandering alone in central Louisiana, and who was just days away from being euthanized in a kill shelter, is now very much at home.
The dog that didn’t bark for weeks now uses his “outdoor voice” to engage other dogs we meet on our walks. The dog who wouldn’t even venture upstairs now makes himself at home in our bed. The dog that waited for attention now comes into the office as I type, looks up expectantly with ball in mouth and, if I don’t respond immediately, begins pawing my leg to let me know it’s time for a game.
You learn a lot about a dog in a year. You also learn a lot about yourself. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.
First, my tolerance for dog hair on the carpets and sofas, and mud on the leather seats in my car, is much higher than I thought possible. I still prefer things clean and neat, but there are some things you just have to let go. When you are over the moon for your dog you can overlook a lot.
Second, my capacity for loving an animal is far greater than I knew. When I look into those deep brown pools he has for eyes, when he cocks his head to one side as if to say “don’t go” when I leave the house, when he rolls over completely onto his back and rests his head in my lap – one way he says “belly rub, please” – I’m all his.
Third, all those cutesy pictures and videos people post on Facebook and YouTube of their dogs, the ones I always thought were for people with too much free time and not enough human contact? Some of them really are worth watching. I saw one the other day of a black lab puppy who goes downstairs by sliding on his belly. Boy, was that ever worth ten seconds of my time. Just adorable.
Fourth, having a dog lick your face isn’t as gross as it sounds.
Fifth, never mind the US Postal Service: neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays a dog from his appointed rounds, though they aren’t always swiftly completed and you have to go with him. There’s just no hiding from the weather when you have a dog.
Sixth, dogs, even wet dogs, smell better than I thought.
Seventh, dogs are great stress reducers. They don’t care that the car needs a new oxygen sensor, that the upstairs sink needs a $400 repair or that you have 26 errands to run in the next hour. If they have a stick or a tennis ball, life is good. A dog helps put things in perspective. I think that explains why my mother-in-law, who was in disbelief when we told her we were adopting a dog, wondering why we’d want to take on that responsibility, now asks if Albie can come with us when we visit.
Finally, I’ve learned that those lyrics from the theme song from “Toy Story” apply in spades when it comes to a loving dog: You’ve got a friend in me. Isn’t that right, Albie?
[Editor's note: This is the second installment of Laurie Toupin's road trip series. See her first article here.]
During our family’s first road trip stop in Hershey, Pa., my son Jacob shouted as he passed through an industrial cocoa bean-drying oven.
"Wow...I'm baking like a real coco bean!" he rang aloud excitedly as we all passed through the drying oven, a pretend one of course, on the Hershey Chocolate Factory tour.
"I'm hungry for chocolate!" Colie added. And so was I.
Hershey Park, the first stop on our cross country tour, began with a fun, educational tour of how Milton Hershey manufactures his world famous Hershey's Kisses, chocolate bars, peanut butter cups, and other confectionary delights.
The tour is housed in Chocolate World, where the kids can also make their own chocolate bars, help solve a mystery in the chocolate factory while watching a 4D movie, or sip a frozen Hershey chocolate frappe.
We hadn’t even entered the main part of the park yet.
What you want to know if you’re planning a trip
Hershey Park is huge – 110 acres, the size of Vatican City. Kiddie rides are interspersed with "big" kid rides, so several age groups can ride at the same time without the adult ever having to move. The park boasts five large, very fast roller coasters and a huge water park where you can even try body surfing.
If you ever decide to visit, plan on coming the day the before.
Hershey allows most ticketed guests a “preview.” This means that we can go in the night before at 6:30 p.m. and stay until the park closes at 10 p.m. on the same ticket that we use the next day. What a perk! We got to ride attractions when the park was less crowded and decide what we wanted to hit the next day.
Also, it is worth staying in one of the Hershey Park lodging facilities. We stayed in the campground resort. Resort may be a bit strong of a word for this campground, but it is a wonderful way to see Hershey. A shuttle bus runs continuously from 8:30 in the morning until 11:15 at night. I do not have to pay for parking or move the RV the whole time we are here. We can leave the park during the day, come back to the campsite to swim, eat, and decompress before returning later for a second round of rides.
Another benefit of staying in the campground is that we are allowed into the park an hour before other guests.
Be ready for chocolate overload
Whether at the park or campground, we were reminded of chocolate constantly. We saw candy bars walking around everywhere! Peppermint Patty and Chocolate Moose visited us at the campground pool. Jacob had his picture taken with the Hershey chocolate bar. Colie high-fived the Hershey's Kiss and Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
I found a T-shirt store that sold an orange Reeses peanut butter cup warning, “Stop Global Warming … or all the Reese's will melt.”
Even the rides are rated by chocolate type. Jacob is a Reese's (my favorite), Colie is a Hershey bar (her favorite), and Maria is a Twizzler. I am a Jolly Rancher…though not by much! A brochure indicates what rides are appropriate for what candy. That allows us to choose rides that are perfect for Jacob without him knowing that he is “too little” for some.
The only downside of the park is that everything and everyone looks so delicious that my children and I were craving chocolate constantly!
Oh well, every one needs some sweets for a road trip...even if we do eat them all in the first five minutes.
While technology adds to a senior’s quality of life by connecting them with family and friends, too many can’t afford or understand it, according to a new survey of the perspectives of the aging in America.
The survey, conducted by the National Council on Aging (NCOA), UnitedHealthcare, and USA TODAY, reached out to 4,000 US seniors age 60 and older to examine how the country can better prepare for a booming senior population.
“When asked what’s most important to maintaining a high quality of life in their senior years, staying connected to friends and family was the top choice of 4 in 10 seniors, ahead of having financial means (30%),” according to the NCOA.
My mother, age 82, who is reading this online, is going to agree with that assessment right after she checks Facebook to watch the video of her grandson Ian, 18, rescuing our cat from a tree at midnight last night.
A raccoon attacked her, she jetted upwards and could not get down – the cat, not my mom. My mom would have gotten online to look up raccoon repellants.
While the survey found that seniors today are comfortable using technology, they do say “a lack of understanding and cost” are obstacles for them to widely adopt technology.
Hence, I am my mom’s IT person on call 24/7.
“I’m taking a writing class but everyone’s complaining at me about the formatting of my stories,” my mom said in the umpteenth call about formatting this month. “Why don’t all computers just have the same word processor? It would make life so much easier!”
While my mind reeled at the prospect of explaining tech wars to mom, it was better to have her healthy and aggravated than isolated, weepy, and depressed because the technology wasn’t in her life at all.
I wish her N.J. town had volunteers at the library who gave basic IT sessions like we have here in Norfolk, Va. You can really improve someone’s quality of life by taking some time to volunteer and help them learn the basics of email, social media, and a word processing program.
Offline, the survey showed that seniors focused on taking care of their health are more optimistic about aging: “nearly two-thirds (64%) of optimistic seniors have set one or more specific goals to manage their health in the past 12 months, compared with 47% of the overall senior population.”
My mom has always been a health nut, often to my complete insanity. It started with skiing the Swiss and Italian Alps long before I was born and pressed on through Jane Fonda workouts, Dr. Fill-in-the-blank’s Diet Plan, and now? Now my mom is taking Salsa and Zumba classes. Did I mention she’s 82?
The woman has always put me to shame in the PhysEd department. She swims 50 laps in an Olympic-size pool.
Finally, the survey revealed: “Most seniors (71%) feel the community they live in is responsive to their needs, but less than half (49%) believe their community is doing enough to prepare for the future needs of the growing senior population.”
I tend to pay more attention to that 49 percent. We need to engage our seniors and keep them active in the community because one day we will be the ones taking the survey and not analyzing it.
I would be worried about the study from the journal Pediatrics, which states that boys with autism or ADHD have a higher risk of developing an addiction to video games, if I hadn’t witnessed a very positive side-effect of gaming in my own Asperger’s child – he taps his creative side to make arts and crafts inspired by the video games he plays.
The study posed questions to 141 parents of boys about the child's video game usage. The children included 56 boys with autism, 44 with ADHD, and 41 with no such conditions. The study found:
- Autistic boys played video games twice as long as non-autistic boys, 2.1 hours a day compared with 1.2 hours a day.
- Boys with ADHD were also more likely to spend more time playing video games than other kids.
- Boys with autism were also more likely to play role-playing games.
So that's "addiction?"
This isn’t 'Breaking Bad' – it’s a chubby little Italian plumber riding a little dragon, or an ongoing series of building block problems that force your child to think, often at speed, through numerous situations.
Doing that sort of critical thinking for two hours per day isn’t what I would feel comfortable calling an “addiction.” On Wednesdays and Saturdays, I call that chess, since that’s how long I sit kids down to “game” in our community as a chess club volunteer.
Good can come from video games. Take my son who has Asperger's, for example.
“Mom, I found these videos by a guy called Goomzilla on how to make your own plushies of stuff in my games,” said Quin, 9. He loves Mario and Minecraft games. “Will you help me sew them?”
The only thing I am worse at than gaming is sewing, but I pounced on his idea. I felt it would allow him to radiate some creativity from within that orderly, regimented mind of his.
Over the last 19 years as a mom with four boys, I have learned to ask which game we’re talking about before judging it as a bad thing. I don’t like games with bloodshed, but games where the player builds things, problem solves, or role-plays have benefits. We need to understand the differences in game genres and not assume that what our kids are playing is automatically harmful to them.
“OK mom, I have a plan,” Quin said. He had lists of materials, colors, and an attack plan laying out the order in which we’d tackle our new summer project list. “I think the star is going to be our best choice to start and if we really push, we can make a Yoshi, which is quite complicated.”
We raided Walmart for measuring and cutting devices, felt and plush fabrics, needles, pins with pearly heads, and a “tomato” for sticking the pins in. I don’t know who Goomzilla is, but every single video-taught design worked. An army of freaky little homemade stuffed creatures from Quinny’s favorite video games now surrounds us.
I am not alone in seeing the benefits some games can provide.
The United Nations began using Minecraft, one of Quin's favorite games, last September, according to CSM Blogger Ann Collier “U.N.-Habitat agency teamed up with Mojang to launch a program called Block by Block. It will use Minecraft to digitally reimagine 300 run-down public spaces in the next three years, giving people who live near them the chance to chime in on how they might be improved. First up: a dilapidated park in Nairobi’s business district and parts of its Kibera slum.”
While studies can shed light on things that should concern us as parents the best studies are the ones we do ourselves. Watch your kids and try doing the game they’re doing before you judge it or them.
Readers, this post (like a few others, recently) is inspired by my participation on the Aspen Institute Task Force on Learning and the Internet that got started last month. The task force would love to have you join us in what we hope will become a nationwide conversation about safe, successful and connected learning. Please sign up to join the conversation here, and you’ll get more information shortly. [Thanks to Renee Hobbs for inspiring this particular post.]
It probably comes as no surprise that, where the Internet’s concerned, parents are more protectionist than they are empowering or skill-oriented. The latest confirmation comes from research by University of Rhode Island student Kelly Mendoza for her PhD dissertation. The subjects of her research don’t necessarily represent all parents – “it was a non-representative sample of relatively affluent and well-educated mothers (with a few exceptions),” reports media professor Renee Hobbs in URI’s Media Education Lab blog – but there are lots of insights to mine from that sample, including a better picture of what “over-parenting” might look like (see also the 3rd study I link to here in the University of California, Davis, Law Review).
“Although a majority of parents use a combination of protectionist and empowerment strategies,” Dr. Hobbs writes, “most rely on protectionist Internet mediation overall. Even though parents report having confidence in empowerment strategies, they are less likely to use them. Parents rated protectionist strategies as simply more effective than empowerment strategies.”
To control, or to engage & explore?
Take a look at Hobbs’s examples of (bulleted) protectionist and empowerment approaches, but the former category might be summed up as controlling (rules, restrictions, parental control tools, etc.) and the latter one as engaging with our kids in digital spaces – basically, controlling vs. exploring. As we put it in our 2009 “Online Safety 3.0″ doc, one can approach it as safety from negative stuff or as safety for enriching, effective participation.
Hobbs reflects on why parents lean to the protectionist approach. If they have confidence in empowerment, as Mendoza found, what are the downsides – why don’t they adopt an enabling approach? She offers two possible reasons: the considerable time that productive engagement requires when parents are trying to reduce, not increase, their children’s “screen time” and the perception that increased Net use can increase risk (of “spam, malware, and porn”).
My own observations since the late ’90s have turned up other reasons, including this underlying one: the nearly 20-year development of a public discourse that has long associated children’s use of technology with negative, often worst-case, outcomes shaping the policy agenda (e.g., see this confused press release), news coverage, and to some extent the research agenda (see this from EU Kids Online about the public policy agenda). Through the years a number of studies – the headline-grabbing kind, not the academic kind – have even polled parents about their concerns, creating concerns about concerns (see this). Then there’s sociologist David Finkelhor’s very plausible hypothesis about the cause of what I’d call this digital siege mentality (see this about a possible antidote for parents). It could be argued that fear has hijacked the national discourse about children in digital media and 21st-century learning.
So I have a hypothesis…
Parents’ continuous exposure, over a decade and a half, to negative political messaging and news reporting and lack of exposure to social media research (exposing the positive and neutral impacts of digital media) has biased them toward controlling rather than exploring new media with their children. Whether or not you agree, shouldn’t we at least be asking about the effects of overexposure to fear on parenting and education as much as we’ve been asking about the effects of overexposure to digital screens on growing up? (See these posts referencing moral panics.)
Several years ago, researchers exploring digital ethics at the Harvard School of Education talked with a lot of young people who felt a lack of efficacy online and a lack of any consequence to their media use. Not a big surprise with social media being consistently represented as, at best, a waste of time and young people as time-wasters, media addicts, and potential victims of pornographers, predators, and cyberbullies. In my own experience asking a group of 7th-graders what they thought the No. 1 Internet risk was, they reflexively answered “predators,” but then not one could think of any brush they’d had with a predator, nor did they know anybody who had. So how effective is it to spread misinformation and instill in our children exaggerated fears, powerlessness, and a reflexive deprecation of the very media they need to master?
It’s not a binary
Hobbs suggests that maybe it doesn’t have to be an either/or, protectionist vs. empowering binary. She writes that both are needed. I agree, but what I also yearn to see in the public discussion about youth safety is more signs of a growing understanding that empowerment itself is protective.
In the area of inappropriate content, for example, Ofsted, Britain’s education regulatory body, published a study of 37 schools’ Internet safety practices in 2010. It found that what characterized the best schools for Net safety was that they didn’t take a “locked down” approach to the Internet but rather a “managed” one. They helped students take responsibility for safe use themselves. In the area of safe social media use, learning the emotion detection and management skills of social-emotional literacy (SEL) reduces bullying and increases safety, academic performance, and social efficacy.
So certainly it’s not that we need less protection; it’s that we need a clearer understanding of how essential empowerment is to young users’ protection in user-driven media and participatory culture. Can you have mastery in anything without some trial and error in/with it? Even the online-risk research shows that young people can’t have opportunity – or develop the internal protection of resilience – without exposure to risk online. That’s true of life too, isn’t it? Trial-and-error develops life literacy. This is not new to parenting.
So as Kelly Mendoza found in her research, “parents rated protectionist strategies as simply more effective than empowerment strategies,” Hobbs wrote. More effective for what? For keeping kids offline as much as possible, rather than for helping them develop the skills and literacies of safe, successful participation in today’s networked world.