Archive for the ‘play’ Category

Bringing Up the iKid Generation

September 21, 2012

Chicago Tribune ran this story by Heidi Stevens that’s helpful for parents who are trying to sort out how to use technologies for education and family bonding. Cites me & Michael Levine of the Joan Cooney Ganz Center, and gives a positive mention to CommonSenseMedia.org!

Question to Tiger (and all) Mothers: Why is leisure bad?

January 24, 2011

Everyone knows that achievement takes hard work and discipline.  You’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,ooo hours of focused attention on an activity separates experts from the rest of us, right?  But if there are 8,765 hours in a year, and children spend on average 3,800 or so sleeping (9 hrs/night) and 1,000 in school (6 hrs/day x 180 days), and even if they spend an average of 3 hours a day on homework (3 x 180 school days = 540) and another 3 hours developing expertise in the arts and/or sports throughout the year (about another 1,000 hours) and a couple of hours each day getting ready for school, getting transported to and from school, doing chores, and getting ready for bed (730 hours), then they still would have about 1,695 hours a year that they can spend in free time.  1,695 hours: more time than they spend in school!!  More time than they spend in extracurricular activities!  Isn’t that terrible?!!  It seems that recently, the parenting mantra has been in favor of zero free hours: no free time is seen as a good thing.

And thus it’s no surprise that some parents have celebrated Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (excerpted in the Wall Street Journal on January 8 2011), which pits the Eastern emphasis on discipline against the Western focus on self-esteem.  Much of the review of this book has focused on the issue of discipline, and of parental means of controlling both children and their time.  Hannah Rosin in the Wall Street Journal agrees with Chua, noting that in the U.S. “we believe that our children are special and entitled, but we do not have the guts or the tools to make that reality true for them.” In other words, we’re not doing enough to get them into the special activities that would help to cultivate their unique gifts. Sociologist Annette Lareau has a term for that approach.  It’s “concerted cultivation:” the approach that tends to be accepted among middle and upper middle class families, and that tends to see children as a project to be disciplined through time.

One of Chua’s enthusiastic supporters put the issue more baldly by focusing on the specifically aggressive and insulting “tools” of controlling children that’s associated with the Tiger Mother approach, lamenting, “American parents have no courage to put welts on the backs of their children.”  Given the fact that Chua’s article and book tend to trigger this kind of response, it’s no surprise that many other parents have taken Chua and her supporters to task for her over-the-top efforts that have occasionally crossed over into child cruelty.  The Times’ Lisa Belkin calls Chua’s book a stinging tribute to discipline with what Belkin suggests borders on Mommy Dearest tendencies.

The debate over Chua’s parenting styles illustrates, once again, the conflicted feelings we have about parenting and about such issues as child-centered versus parent-directed activities.  As the Boston Globe’s Joanna Weiss wonders, we might ask:  should we browbeat our kids into practicing so that they learn the benefits of discipline ?  And if we do so, are we doing it because we see them as weak and in need of our help (the Helicopter Parent approach), or strong and able to handle pressure and challenge (which is what Chua argues)?  Either way, we want to see ourselves as in charge, and our children as benefiting from our parenting labors.

But what if we’re not fully in charge?

What if we’re living through a seismic economic shift that is leaving fewer and fewer routes to what middle class parents have been conditioned to think of as middle class success?  It may be that this lack of our ability to control our children’s environment is what drives parents to anxiously want to schedule up all that “wasted” free time.  Perhaps, as Laurie Essig writes in The Chronicle, the real issue motivating Tiger Mothers is a fear that their children won’t enter the upper or upper middle classes of their stressed-out parents.

It’s easy to take credit for discipline gone well.  It’s not so easy to acknowledge the fact that kids with fewer privileges need not only disciplining parents, but also a lot of luck, to make the odds work in their favor.

Maybe part of the problem, then, is that across the economic spectrum, we’ve been conditioned to see our children through the prism of our own financial insecurities: as future workers who need to be prepared for the precarious workforce that they’ll inhabit someday.  In David Brooks’ critique of Chua’s book, he takes exactly this position (He thinks it’s fine that Chua prefers to prepare her kids to excel, but he thinks that homework and the arts are easier than preparing kids for their eventual role in team-oriented workplace environments.  For that, he says, things like playdates and sleepovers teach important skills, and Chua’s shortchanging her daughters by forbidding them).

But what if the workplace wasn’t the only model for what it meant to be a successful person?

What if our goals as parents included not only helping children to manage their time according to the dictates of an increasingly time-demanding workforce that asks adults to mold their free time activities so as to fit into their work schedules?  What if we valued music and the arts because they make us appreciate our humanity, and because they help us to value our own voices, expressions, and experiences, and in turn make us more capable of viewing ourselves as participants in democratic action?

As we as a society continue to move more toward embracing the dictates of the workplace in ever-more places in our lives, we can lose sight of the fact that there is an alternative to seeing ourselves, and our children, as workers destined to serve the interests of those who pay us for our labor.  We are more than our economic utility.  Contemplating that simple yet profound idea is an important outcome of leisure, and one that can help our children to envision other ways of valuing lives and gifts beyond the place that such efforts might garner them in the economic realm.

So maybe leisure or a lack of personal discipline isn’t the enemy after all, just as building self-esteem isn’t the only solution.

Everything I Learned About Parenting I Learned in the Classroom

February 14, 2010

I’ve been teaching college students for more than 15 years now, and in that time, I’ve learned a lot about parenting. Here are some of the main things I’ve learned:

1. If you trust young people and give them a challenge, they’ll surprise you with how well they can rise to the challenge. When you’re hoping they can do it but you or they are in doubt, act like you believe that of course they can do it and they’ll trust themselves enough to figure it out – especially if what they’re doing is fun.

Photo from Juniata College


2. If you remind them to trust their instincts, be conscious of their choices, and always be respectful of themselves and of others, then if something doesn’t feel right, they’ll know that they can choose not to do it or they can remove themselves from a situation and pursue a better option.
3. If you help them to see that they are responsible for the choices they make, and you’re clear about your expectations so they know what’s expected of them, then they’ll take responsibility for what they choose.
4. When they don’t meet expectations, if you let them figure it out by suffering the consequences (whether it’s a bad grade or a playdate that needs to be rescheduled because a room didn’t get clean), then you can help them to focus on what their choices are from this point forward.
5. And the biggest learning: always put the focus on them, not you. It’s what they’re learning, not what you’re teaching, that’s important.

Parents at SUNY New Paltz

I think the last point is especially relevant. As teachers and as parents, we think a lot about who we are and what we should do in those roles. It’s easier to focus on what we’re doing than on the more elusive, less measurable question of what they’re getting out of it.

But the key is to not just to focus on them, but to focus on where they’re headed and who they’re becoming. The question of what they’re learning is a dynamic one. As parents and teachers, when we focus on what they’re learning, we’re oriented to look for and to expect positive change and growth. We can love and enjoy them just as they are while also recognizing that life brings about changes for all of us — and both we and they need to recognize that as they get older they’ll have more and more responsibility for how they will respond to those changes.

As a teacher, I’ve noticed that this orientation to dynamism is what seems to separate the young people who are curious and willing to take responsibility for themselves from those who are narcissistic and think the world should either serve them or tell them exactly what to do.

Future college student

Young people who expect that there will be challenges and who trust that they can respond to them responsibly are very well-suited for the challenges they’ll face as a young adult and beyond.

I’m thinking about this because I’m having the most rewarding teaching experience of my career right now, and a lot of it is the result not of what I’m doing, but of what they’re doing and learning. All I did, I think, was create an environment in which they’re challenged to meet high expectations – and I was able to use digital media to create that environment.

The story about what I did and what they did is recounted in this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I challenged my students to work collaboratively to produce a video essay on their own experiences of technology use in the classroom, although I think the specific topic was less important than the process of working collaboratively to produce something they all felt was worth putting up on YouTube.

With the help of my university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, the process got started when I provided them with some survey results that told them how students and faculty on their campus were experiencing frustrations related to technology in the classroom. Then, I asked them to talk about what they thought, and I asked a few of them to come up with some ideas they could “pitch” to the rest of us as possible story ideas for our video. I’m fortunate to work in a university where there are some terrifically talented, smart, funny, and collegial young people. So, by the third class session, we were hearing pitches, brainstorming possible directions, and then deciding on the “container” that would hold our ideas, while also reflecting on some readings about how technology is changing everyday life and why some might be more comfortable with these changes than others. Then in the fourth and fifth sessions, after they had a chance to think about how today’s technological changes were like and not like those of earlier time periods (e.g., the printing press), they wrote a script and then did a “dress rehearsal” and recorded the video. A few of the students took on the task of editing the video, so that by the fourth week of classes, they were premiering the video.

Once expert in education and technology Mike Wesch recommended the video on his blog, things really started to get moving, and the video went viral. As of Valentine’s Day 2010, we’ve had more than 22,000 views.

This has been an amazing experience for the students, because I think they feel as if people have heard something they wanted to say in the way they wanted to say it. They’ve been invited to speak to faculty about their experiences. They’ve talked about what they want out of their educations. And they’ve also found that by rising to the challenge of working together to produce something funny and meaningful that speaks out of their own experiences, doors are starting to open for them. In an economic environment in which they’ve had to be very reserved about their expectations, this is a really empowering thing.

And in the meantime, what’s happened is that we’ve all become more open to learning than I think any of us would have thought possible. We’re having meaningful conversations in class. They’re writing deeply and thoughtfully, capably relating fairly traditional course content to their own experiences. They’re making connections. They’re trusting each other. And we are all really enjoying the experience. I love going to class every day because I look forward to learning from them.

It’s made me look at my home life differently, too. I’ve always liked to play with my kids, but now I really see the connection. When we can have fun together, and when I trust them to do interesting things and to share them with me, they are really participating in fostering a home environment of learning, love, and mutual respect.

Maybe I should’ve titled this, Guitar Hero’s Made Me a Better Teacher and Parent. But I guess that’s what I’ve learned from parenting that I’ve taken back into the classroom, so maybe I’ll save that for a future post.

Parenting & Play

January 25, 2010

Author Alfie Kohn suggests that to practice unconditional love, parents should try to let go of control and see the world from the child’s point of view.

Too bad so few people seem interested in this advice when it comes to leisure and play.

Kohn’s article, titled, When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say,’ was the most widely emailed article for a while at the New York Times.

Kohn reviewed research that asked 100 college students whether they believed the love they’d received from their parents was dependent on their successes (at academics, sports, or even at supressing negative emotions like anger or fear). Those who believed that their parents’ love was more conditional were more likely to resent their parents. Another study of mothers of grown children found that the women who sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations felt themselves to be less worthy as adults. But sadly, these same mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

In his article, Kohn concluded that the age-old advice about “positive reinforcement” for childhood behaviors well-enacted has a shadow side: kids learn that a parents’ love is conditioned upon a child’s “good behavior.” In other words, children learn that they’re not loved unconditionally, despite what a parent might say or even what she thinks she’s communicating. The problem with praise isn’t that it’s given too indiscriminately, as social conservatives might say. Rather, he says, even praise can become a form of control.

When author Stuart Brown advocated free play for children, he (somewhat ironically) received all manner of suggestions as to how parents could better control their children’s play time. Here’s my favorite from the comments section:

“How about throwing out the video games at home and requiring the kids to stay outdoors for at least an hour or two…the next step should be part time jobs to teach them responsibility and the work ethic…”

The problem with this suggestion is that requiring kids to do anything – in this case, “playing” in a parent-approved way of throwing out the video games and being forced to be “outdoors” – is the equivalent of taking away their autonomy. They can come to resent ‘forced play’ just as much as they’ll resent a forced march through soul-eating part-time jobs that are supposed to teach them “the work ethic.” What they’re likely to learn instead is that they can’t trust adults to allow them to grow on their own – or worse, they’ll learn that they can’t trust themselves. That’s the sad outcome of a society in which adults continue to believe that we can, and should, control our kids’ choices.

This isn’t to say that we can’t guide our children. But the issue is that many parents let themselves get overly troubled by the choices young people make, especially when it comes to the electronic media that are so much a part of their everyday lives and so different from adult experiences. And the solution isn’t going to lie in imposing some parent-approved notion of ‘play’ on our young people.

In a recently published book titled, Hanging Out, Messing Around, & Geeking Out, Mimi Ito and her colleagues take this argument even further. They argue that engagement with digital media can have some positive outcomes for young people. Ito and her colleagues note that in a society that’s increasingly worried about too much unproductive hanging out that doesn’t involve the hazily nostalgic notions of the healthy outdoors of yesteryear, we’re very tempted to try to control our kids’ leisure. But she and her team of 26 researchers found that when young people were allowed to explore and experiment on their own, they developed unique approaches to the online realm that resulted in informal learning. In fact, it could be that young people who have the greatest access to autonomy have the greatest opportunities to develop into happy, creative, and expressive individuals, they argue.

So here’s my suggestion: let’s try to encourage our young people to exercise their creative spirits on their own time and in their own ways. This may involve doing things online that seem to us silly, inane, superficial, or even downright dangerous. But when I remember how my best friend and I used to like to swing from tree branches to the roof of her house during our own halcyon “free play,” I take comfort in the fact that at least my own kids might develop some informal learning skills without breaking an arm or leg.

The point is this: learning to see the electronic media from the perspective of our kids is a first step toward letting go of our temptation to control. And more than that: trusting them and encouraging them to use the digital realm to express themselves can even end up helping them to discover who they are and maybe even who they want to be. To me, that sounds like a terrific way of telling our kids, “I love you unconditionally.”


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