Tag: parenting (page 1 of 2)

The dangers of distracted parenting

I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents’ screentime.

Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.

As parents, and in society in general, we’re super-hot on limiting kids’ screentime, but we don’t necessarily apply that to ourselves:

[S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents… who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

‘Continuous partial attention’ is the term people tend to use these days instead of ‘multitasking’. To my mind it’s a better term, as it references the fact that you’re not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you’re trying to pay attention to them.

I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren’t.

Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.

Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.

Amen to that.

Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)

Finding friends and family without smartphones, maps, or GPS

When I was four years old we moved to the North East of England. Soon after, my parents took my grandmother, younger sister (still in a pushchair) and me to the Quayside market in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

There’s still some disagreement as to how exactly it happened, but after buying a toy monkey that wrapped around my neck using velcro, I got lost. It’s a long time ago, but I can vaguely remember my decision that, if I couldn’t find my parents or grandmother, I’d probably better head back to the car. So I did.

45 minutes later, and after the police had been called, my parents found me and my monkey sitting on the bonnet of our family car. I can still remember the registration number of that orange Ford Escort: MAT 474 V.

Now, 33 years later, we’re still not great at ensuring children don’t get lost. Yes, we have more of a culture of ensuring children don’t go out of our sight, and give kids smartphones at increasingly-young ages, but we can do much better.

That’s why I thought this Lynq tracker, currently being crowdfunded via Indiegogo was such a great idea. You can get the gist by watching the promo video:

Our family is off for two weeks around Europe this summer. While we’ve been a couple of times before, both involved taking our car and camping. This time, we’re interrailing and Airbnbing our way around, which increases the risk that one of our children gets lost.

Lync looks really simple and effective to use, but isn’t going to be shipping until November, — otherwise I would have backed this in an instant.

Source: The Verge

Alexa for Kids as babysitter?

I’m just on my way out if the house to head for Scotland to climb some mountains with my wife.

But while she does (what I call) her ‘last minute faffing’ I read Dan Hon’s newsletter. I’ll just quite the relevant section without any attempt at comment or analysis.

He includes references in his newsletter, but you’ll just have to click through for those.

Mat Honan reminded me that Amazon have made an Alexa for Kids (during the course of which Tom Simonite had a great story about Alexa diligently and non-plussedly educating a group of preschoolers about the history of FARC after misunderstanding their requests for farts) and Honan has a great article about it. There are now enough Alexa (plural?) out there that the phenomenon of “the funny things kids say to Alexa” is pretty well documented as well as the earlier “Alexa is teaching my kid to be rude” observation. This isn’t to say that Amazon haven’t done *any* work thinking about how Alexa works in a kid context (Honan’s article shows that they’ve demonstrably thought about how Alexa might work and that they’ve made changes to the product to accommodate children as a specific class of user) but the overwhelming impression I had after reading Honan’s piece was that, as a parent, I still don’t think Amazon haven’t gone far enough in making Alexa kid-friendly.

They’ve made some executive decisions like coming down hard on curation versus algorithmic selection of content (see James Bridle’s excellent earlier essay on YouTube, that something is wrong on the internet and recent coverage of YouTube Kids’ content selection method still finding ways to recommend, shall we say, videos espousing extreme views). And Amazon have addressed one of the core reported issues of having an Alexa in the house (the rudeness) by designing in support for a “magic word” Easter Egg that will reward kids for saying “please”. But that seems rather tactical and dealing with a specific issue and not, well, foundational. I think that the foundational issue is something more like this: parenting is a *very* personal subject. As I have become a parent, I have discovered (and validated through experimental data) that parents have very specific views about how to do things! Many parents do not agree with each other! Parents who agree with each other on some things do not agree on other things! In families where there are two parents there is much scope for disagreement on both desired outcome and method!

All of which is to say is that the current design, architecture and strategy of Alexa for Kids indicates one sort of one-size-fits-all method and that there’s not much room for parental customization. This isn’t to say that Amazon are actively preventing it and might not add it down the line – it’s just that it doesn’t really exist right now. Honan’s got a great point that:

“[For example,] take the magic word we mentioned earlier. There is no universal norm when it comes to what’s polite or rude. Manners vary by family, culture, and even region. While “yes, sir” may be de rigueur in Alabama, for example, it might be viewed as an element of the patriarchy in parts of California.”

Some parents may have very specific views on how they want to teach their kids to be polite. This kind of thinking leads me down the path of: well, are we imagining a world where Alexa or something like it is a sort of universal basic babysitter, with default norms and those who can get, well, customization? Or what someone else might call: attentive, individualized parenting?

When Alexa for Kids came out, I did about 10 seconds’ worth of thinking and, based on how Alexa gets used in our house (two parents, a five year old and a 19 month old) and how our preschooler is behaving, I was pretty convinced that I’m in no way ready or willing to leave him alone with an Alexa for Kids in his room. My family is, in what some might see as that tedious middle class way, pretty strict about the amount of screen time our kids get (unsupervised and supervised) and suffice it to say that there’s considerable difference of opinion between my wife and myself on what we’re both comfortable with and at what point what level of exposure or usage might be appropriate.

And here’s where I reinforce that point again: are you okay with leaving your kids with a default babysitter, or are you the kind of person who has opinions about how you want your babysitter to act with your kids? (Yes, I imagine people reading this and clutching their pearls at the mere *thought* of an Alexa “babysitting” a kid but need I remind you that books are a technological object too and the issue here is in the degree of interactivity and access). At least with a babysitter I can set some parameters and I’ve got an idea of how the babysitter might interact with the kids because, well, that’s part of the babysitter screening process.

Source: Things That Have Caught My Attention s5e11

The benefits of reading aloud to children

This article in the New York Times by Perri Klass, M.D. focuses on studies that show a link between parents reading to their children and a reduction in problematic behaviour.

This study involved 675 families with children from birth to 5; it was a randomized trial in which 225 families received the intervention, called the Video Interaction Project, and the other families served as controls. The V.I.P. model was originally developed in 1998, and has been studied extensively by this research group.

Participating families received books and toys when they visited the pediatric clinic. They met briefly with a parenting coach working with the program to talk about their child’s development, what the parents had noticed, and what they might expect developmentally, and then they were videotaped playing and reading with their child for about five minutes (or a little longer in the part of the study which continued into the preschool years). Immediately after, they watched the videotape with the study interventionist, who helped point out the child’s responses.

I really like the way that they focus on the positives and point out how much the child loves the interaction with their parent through the text.

The Video Interaction Project started as an infant-toddler program, working with low-income urban families in New York during clinic visits from birth to 3 years of age. Previously published data from a randomized controlled trial funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development showed that the 3-year-olds who had received the intervention had improved behavior — that is, they were significantly less likely to be aggressive or hyperactive than the 3-year-olds in the control group.

I don’t know enough about the causes of ADHD to be able to comment, but as a teacher and parent, I do know there’s a link between the attention you give and the attention you receive.

“The reduction in hyperactivity is a reduction in meeting clinical levels of hyperactivity,” Dr. Mendelsohn said. “We may be helping some children so they don’t need to have certain kinds of evaluations.” Children who grow up in poverty are at much higher risk of behavior problems in school, so reducing the risk of those attention and behavior problems is one important strategy for reducing educational disparities — as is improving children’s language skills, another source of school problems for poor children.

It is a bit sad when we have to encourage parents to play with children between the ages of birth and three, but I guess in the age of smartphone addiction, we kind of have to.

Source: The New York Times

Image CC BY Jason Lander

In praise of ordinary lives

This richly-illustrated post uses as a touchstone the revolution in art that took place in the 17th century with Johannes Vermeer’s The Little Street. The painting (which can be seen above) moves away from epic and religious symbolism, and towards the everyday.

Unfortunately, and particularly with celebrity lifestyles on display everywhere, we seem to be moving back to pre-17th century approaches:

Today – in modern versions of epic, aristocratic, or divine art – adverts and movies continually explain to us the appeal of things like sports cars, tropical island holidays, fame, first-class air travel and expansive limestone kitchens. The attractions are often perfectly real. But the cumulative effect is to instill in us the idea that a good life is built around elements that almost no one can afford. The conclusion we too easily draw is that our lives are close to worthless.

A good life isn’t one where you get everything you want; that would, in fact, that would be form of torture. Just ask King Midas. Instead, it’s made up of lots of little things, as this post outlines:

There is immense skill and true nobility involved in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; keeping a home in reasonable order; getting an early night; doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; listening properly to another person and, in general, not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive.

As ever, a treasure trove of wisdom and I encourage you to explore further the work of the School of Life.

Source: The Book of Life

Derek Sivers has quit Facebook (hint: you should, too)

I have huge respect for Derek Sivers, and really enjoyed his book Anything You WantHis book reviews are also worth trawling through.

In this post, which made its way to the Hacker News front page, Sivers talks about his relationship with Facebook, and why he’s finally decided to quit the platform:

When people would do their “DELETE FACEBOOK!” campaigns, I didn’t bother because I wasn’t using it anyway. It was causing me no harm. I think it’s net-negative for the world, and causing many people harm, but not me, so why bother deleting it?

But today I had a new thought:

Maybe the fact that I use it to share my blog posts is a tiny tiny reason why others are still using it. It’s like I’m still visiting friends in the smoking area, even though I don’t smoke. Maybe if I quit going entirely, it will help my friends quit, too.

Last year, I wrote a post entitled Friends don’t let friends use Facebook. The problem is, it’s difficult. Despite efforts to suggest alternatives, most of the clubs our children are part of (for activities such as swimming and karate) use Facebook. I don’t have an account, but my wife has to if we’re to keep up-to-date. It’s a vicious circle.

Like Sivers, I’ve considered just being on Facebook to promote my blog posts. But I don’t want to be part of the problem:

I had a selfish business reason to keep it. I’m going to be publishing three different books over the next year, and plan to launch a new business, too. But I’m willing to take that small loss in promotion, because it’s the right thing to do. It always feels good to get rid of things I’m not using.

So if you’ve got a Facebook account and reading the Cambridge Analytica revelations concerns you, then try to wean yourself of Facebook. It’s literally for the good of democracy.

Ultimately, as Sivers notes, Facebook will go away because of the adoption lifecycle of platforms and products. It’s difficult to think of that, but I’ll leave the last word to the late, great Ursula Le Guin:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.

Source: Sivers.org

Decision fatigue and parenting

Our 11 year-old still asks plenty of questions, but also looks things up for himself online. Our seven year-old fires off barrages of questions when she wakes up, to and from school, during dinner, before bed — basically anytime she can get a word in edgeways.

I have sympathy, therefore, for Emma Marris, who decided to show those who aren’t parents of young children (or perhaps those who have forgotten) what it’s like.

I decided to write down every question that required a decision that my my two kids asked me during a single day. This doesn’t include simple requests for information like “how do you spell ‘secret club’?” or “what is the oldest animal in the world?” or the perennial favorite, “why do people have to die?” Recording ALL the questions two kids ask in a day would be completely intractable. So, limiting myself to just those queries that required a decision, here are the results.

Some of my favourites from her long list:

  • Can I play on your phone until you wake up?
  • Can we listen to bouncy music instead of this podcast about the Mueller investigation while we make breakfast?
  • Will you pre-chew my gumball since it is too large to fit in my mouth?
  • Will you tell us who you are texting?
  • Do you want to eat the meat out the tail of this shrimp?

Marris says in the comments that her kids are eight and five years old, respectively. You can kind of tell that from the questions.

I’m not saying we’re amazing parents, but one thing we try and do is to not just tell our children the answer to their questions, but tell them how we worked it out. That’s particularly important if we used some kind of device to help us find the answer. Recently, I’ve been using the Google Assistant which feels to an adult almost interface-free. However, there’s a definite knack to it that you forget once you’re used to using it.

Over and above that, a lot of questions that children ask are permission and equality-related. In other words, they’re asking if they’re allowed to do something, or if you’ll intervene because the other child is doing something they shouldn’t / gaining an advantage. Both my wife and I have been teachers, and the same is true in the classroom.

There’s a couple of things I’ve learned here:

  1. If children are asking a lot of permission-related questions, then it’s worth your while to help them understand what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. Allow them to help themselves more than they do currently.
  2. If children are complaining about equality and they’re different ages, explain to both of them that you treat them equitably but not eqully. When they complain that’s not fair, send the older one to bed at the same time as the younger one (and perhaps give them the same amount of pocket money), and get the younger one to help more around the house. They don’t stop complaining, but they certainly do it less…

Why is all of this important? Making decisions makes you tired. To quote Marris’ first paragraph as the last one in this one:

Decision fatigue is real. Decision fatigue is the mental exhaustion and reduced willpower that comes from making many, many micro-calls every day. My modern American lifestyle, with its endless variety of choices, from a hundred kinds of yogurt at the grocery store to the more than 4,000 movies available on Netflix, breeds decision fatigue. But it is my kids that really fry my brain. At last I understand that my own mother’s penchant for saying “ask your father” wasn’t deference to her then husband but the most desperate sort of buck-passing–especially since my father dealt with decision fatigue by saying yes to pretty much everything, which is how my brothers and I ended up taking turns rolling down the steep hill we grew up on inside an aluminum trash can.

Source: The Last Word on Nothing

On playing video games with your kids

I play ‘video games’ (a curiously old-fashioned term) with my kids all the time. Current favourites are FIFA 18 and Star Wars Battlefront II. We also enjoy Party Golf as a whole family (hilarious!)

My children play different games with each other than they play with me. They’re more likely to play Lego Worlds or Minecraft (the latter always on their tablets). And when I’m away we play word games such as Words With Friends 2 or Wordbase.

The author of this article, David Cole, points out that playing games with his son is a different experience than he was expecting it to be:

So when I imagined playing video games with my son — now 6 — I pictured myself as being the Player 2 that I’d never had in my own childhood. I wouldn’t mind which games he wanted to play, or how many turns he’d take. I would comfort him through frustrating losses and be a good sport when we competed head-to-head. What I hadn’t anticipated in these fantasies was how much a new breed of video game would end up deeply altering the way we relate. Games of challenge and reflex are still popular of course, but among children my son’s age they’ve been drastically overtaken by a class of games defined by open-ended, expressive play. The hallmark title of this sort is, undeniably, Minecraft.

My son is 11 years old and my daughter seven, so what Cole describes resonates:

My son and I do still play those competitive games, and I hope that he’s learning about practice and perseverance when we do. But those games are about stretching and challenging him to fit the mold of the game’s demands. When we play Minecraft together, the direction of his development, and thus our relationship, is reversed: He converts the world into expressions of his own fantasies and dreams. And by letting me enter and explore those dream worlds with him, I come to understand him in a way that the games from my childhood do not.

The paragraph that particularly resonated with me was this one, as it not only describes my relationship with my children when playing video games, but also parenting as being vastly different (for better and worse) than I thought it would be:

The working rhythms of our shared play allow for stretches of silent collaboration. It’s in these contemplative moments that I notice how distinct this feeling is from my own childhood, as well as the childhood I had predicted for my son. I thought I would be his Player 2, an ideal peer that would make his childhood awesome in ways that mine was not. In retrospect, that was always just a picture of me, not of him and not of us.

A lovely article that reminded me of the heartwarming Player 2 video short based on a true story from a YouTube comments section…

Source: The Cut

Teaching kids about computers and coding

Not only is Hacker News a great place to find the latest news about tech-related stuff, it’s also got some interesting ‘Ask HN’ threads sourcing recommendations from the community.

This particular one starts with a user posing the question:

Ask HN: How do you teach you kids about computers and coding?

Please share what tools & approaches you use – it may Scratch, Python, any kids specific like Linux distros, Raspberry Pi or recent products like Lego Boost… Or your experiences with them.. thanks.

Like sites such as Reddit and Stack Overflow, responses are voted up based on their usefulness. The most-upvoted response was this one:

My daughter is almost 5 and she picked up Scratch Jr in ten minutes. I am writing my suggestions mostly from the context of a younger child.

I approached it this way, I bought a book on Scratch Jr so I could get up to speed on it. I walked her through a few of the basics, and then I just let her take over after that.

One other programming related activity we have done is the Learning Resources Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity. She has a lot of fun with this as you have a small mouse you program with simple directions to navigate a maze to find the cheese. It uses a set of cards to help then grasp the steps needed. I switch to not using the cards after a while. We now just step the mouse through the maze manually adding steps as we go.

One other activity to consider is the robot turtles board game. This teaches some basic logic concepts needed in programming.

For an older child, I did help my nephew to learn programming in Python when he was a freshman in high school. I took the approach of having him type in games from the free Python book. I have always though this was a good approach for older kids to get the familiar with the syntax.

Something else I would consider would be a robot that can be programmer with Scratch. While I have not done this yet, I think for kid seeing the physical results of programming via a robot is a powerful way to capture interest.

But I think my favourite response is this one:

What age range are we talking about? For most kids aged 6-12 writing code is too abstract to start with. For my kids, I started making really simple projects with a Makey Makey. After that, I taught them the basics with Scratch, since there are tons of fun tutorials for kids. Right now, I’m building a Raspberry Pi-powered robot with my 10yo (basically it’s a poor man’s Lego Mindstorm).

The key is fun. The focus is much more on ‘building something together’ than ‘I’ll learn you how to code’. I’m pretty sure that if I were to press them into learning how to code it will only put them off. Sometimes we go for weeks without building on the robot, and all of the sudden she will ask me to work on it with her again.

My son is sailing through his Computer Science classes at school because of some webmaking and ‘coding’ stuff we did when he was younger. He’s seldom interested, however, if I want to break out the Raspberry Pi and have a play.

At the end of the day, it’s meeting them where they’re at. If they show an interest, run with it!

Source: Hacker News

Why good parents have naughty children

This made me smile, then it made me think. Our children are offspring of a current teacher and a former teacher. What difference does our structure and rules make to their happiness?

This article from the ongoing Book of Life compares and contrasts two families. The first is what would generally be regarded as a ‘good’ family, where the children are well-behaved and interactions pleasant. However:

In Family One the so-called good child has inside them a whole range of emotions that they keep out of sight not because they want to but because they don’t feel they have the option to be tolerated as they really are. They feel they can’t let their parents see if they are angry or fed up or bored because it seems as if the parents have no inner resources to cope with their reality; they must repress their bodily, coarser, more volatile selves. Any criticism of a grown up is (they imagine) so wounding and devastating that it can’t be uttered.

The second family is the opposite, but:

In Family Two the so-called bad child knows that things are robust. They feel they can tell their mother she’s a useless idiot because they know in their hearts that she loves them and that they love her and that a bout of irritated rudeness won’t destroy that. They know their father won’t fall apart or take revenge for being mocked. The environment is warm and strong enough to absorb the child’s aggression, anger, dirtiness or disappointment.

As a parent, I’m torn between, on the one hand wanting my children to be a bit rebellious. But, on the other hand, it’s just really inconvenient when they are…

We should learn to see naughty children, a few chaotic scenes and occasional raised voices as belonging to health rather than delinquency – and conversely learn to fear small people who cause no trouble whatsoever. And, if we have occasional moments of happiness and well-being, we should feel especially grateful that there was almost certainly someone out there in the distant past who opted to look through the eyes of love at some deeply unreasonable and patently unpleasant behaviour from us.

Source: The Book of Life