The Electronics Question

By Kristin Sanderson

Last Tuesday, our 17 and 16 year old both stayed in bed for another blissful three hours and woke with rare weekday energy, commenting on the beauty and glory of a surprise snow day.  As soon as he was dressed (and had checked Facebook and IM on the laptop), our son grabbed the car keys to meet up with friends for sledding.  I watched him expertly back the car down our narrow driveway and reverse up the incline of our unplowed street so as not to lose traction.  I breathed deeply, trusting him to be sensible, and willed myself to let him go out and play even though it was still snowing heavily.  Our 16 year old, whose birthday had been the day before, grabbed her new video game, and announced she would be gaming all day…

As I plugged in to check work email, I heard from a colleague that her one-year-old had been up a lot during the night and she was trying hard to find something other than electronic indoor entertainment for her older one, despite her own exhaustion.  The difference in our situations couldn’t have been more stark, but she reminded me of the painful parenting bind in which I regularly found myself when my image of what should be clashes with what is.

When my children were younger,  I had idealized visions of snow days with hot chocolate (and homemade whipped cream), cheerful, snow-kissed children, delicious smells wafting from the oven, a fire in the fireplace and a board game or two.  I viewed electronics and television as a cop-out, the guilty babysitter, teaching the wrong values and lessons to my children.  Worst of all, these forms of entertainment opened the door to battles of will over how much playing time, which games and when they would be allowed.  Admittedly, though, I was too tired in the moment and often gave in.

I imagine many parents face this same dilemma.  Acknowledging this, I suggest identifying your family’s values around electronics use and create rules and habits that are consistent with your longer term priorities.

And, it is critical to make decisions that are developmentally-based.  From an educational standpoint, there are no benefits of TV or video games that would not be better supplied in a conversation or during play.  A longitudinal study done of Baby Einstein videos demonstrated that they actually cause language delays.  Because young children flourish with the cues and feedback of relationships and do their best learning within those relationships– not with a screen– we need to be skeptical when games are marketed with educational claims. But helping your child  learn to play independently is also a vital skill and one that needs repeated practice in a conducive environment from a young age.

Watching a video or playing an electronic game with your child is important to do no matter their age.  So I always recommend that adults are nearby (with one eye on the screen) and can engage either during or afterwards and incorporate the learning or the activity into other play or conversation.  The whole Nursery and Kindergarten teaching team has been talking recently about dramatic play and the “scripts” children use.

When members of the Miquon staff and I were all at the Play Conference this past September, we were particularly struck by the idea that when children see videos over and over of their favorite characters, their imaginations dis-engage and their play becomes less creative and improvisational.  They develop very rigid ideas of what Cinderella looks like, for instance, becoming mimics instead of creators.

Parents can step into the pretend play also (in character of course!) and steer the action into more imaginative territory and creative problem solving to see what might develop. By turning off the video and limiting that repeated visually powerfully story line, parents can help develop more imaginative play — which, of course, leads to all sorts of benefits later on.

If you are looking for a no-tech past time (besides dramatic play), reading stories with your child is always a rich and fun source of connection.  Read alouds — even with 6th Graders
— are a wonderful activity.  Stop occasionally to ask open-ended questions.  Make personal connections to the story or to other stories and spark unexpected discussions that are more lasting than the cocoa I spent too much time stirring on the stove.  Slowing down and letting the moment unfold, keeping the goal of being together as the focus, giving children your unbroken attention and modeling patience for the sometimes slow pace of evolving understanding are rare jewels in our electronics-saturated culture.

When electronic games are a part of the picture, there are some that are better than others.  We recommend parents look at Common Sense Media website for ratings and reviews.  This site lets you know which ones have been vetted by an independent non-profit group that includes educators and social policy experts — not just advertisers.

When we give our children technology, we need to educate ourselves about it, make sure it is safe to operate, control their access to it, and supervise its use — and one day, during a snowstorm, they may want to drive off in it to play with friends.  If we plan carefully now for that moment, we will be able to let them go…as long as they use their cell phone to call home when they get there.


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