MORE BOOKS, less playing on the phone..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The new school year is about to begin, and it won’t be long before we complain, once again, about our children favoring YouTube, Pokémon Go or a new trending App over quality time with us. We will declare, once again, that they got sucked in to a world of screens, but many of us will fail to point the finger right back in our direction. Ask yourself this: when was the last time you truly logged out? It’s easy to blame smartphones, computer games and social media for the time our kids seem inaccessible to us, mesmerized by technology. But let’s be honest. It is we, their parents, who are tuning out of the real world.
So often, I see parents texting or reading on iPhones while they wheel their toddlers in strollers or while their children are climbing on a jungle gym. In libraries, I see parents with their eyes glued to their phones while their children peruse books, tugging on a parent’s sleeve for attention.
Admittedly, being with a small, pattering child can get boring sometimes, as can reading the same book to a child over and over again – and so we tune out, escape to our own world of technology. And therein begins a cycle. We tune out our child and our child sees this and turns to a phone or an iPad – then we complain that they are the ones tuning us out.
This is a dangerous cycle, experts say. It is resulting in less communication, less human conversation. We expect more and more from technology and less and less from human beings. As MIT technology-human interface expert Sherry Turkle explains, e-mail, texting and posting allow us to present edited versions of ourselves, and to control when we interact with people and how much. Human conversations, by contrast, are less controlled, messier, and are key to the process of self-discovery.
For kids growing up, conversation is a bedrock for development. According to Turkle, the conversational attention of parents enables children to acquire a sense of enduring connectedness and a habit of talking about their feelings, rather than simply acting on them.
“When you speak to people in person, you’re forced to recognize their full human reality, which is where empathy begins,” she says.
One of the best ways to spark meaningful conversations with young children is through books. The intimacy of snuggling up and reading together, looking and discussing the pictures, what the characters are doing, what they may be feeling and why can lead us to discover much about our child and allow our child to learn about the world from our experience and knowledge.
Talking about a book creates genuine connection and pure pleasure. It is important to our child’s emotional and intellectual development and to our relationship with our child. The State of Israel, recognizing the benefits of early shared parent-child reading, is doing what it can by providing free books to 85 percent of preschool children and their families in government schools through programs such as Sifriyat Pijama and Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library in Arabic). The books in these programs are chosen with an eye to sparking conversations on values and heritage.
But parents are critical to the effort. In a world surrounded by technology it is important to reclaim space for conversation, free of the distraction of technology where we incessantly “share” online yet remain essentially isolated and alone. Religious families create this through observing Shabbat, but it is important to create space for technology-free conversation in our lives every day of the week, for ourselves and with our children.
I have never met a child who turned down the opportunity to snuggle up to read a book with Mom or Dad before going to bed. I have met a lot of parents who are tired at the end of the day or want to get back to their computer, so they rush their child to go to sleep without a story.
As we embark on a new (school) year, perhaps it is time to resolve to reclaim space for human interaction and to stop blaming technology. Make dinner time and children’s bedtime a technology-free time. Turn off phones, ipads and the TV. Take the time to read books together, talk about them, engage with each other. Don’t shortchange your children – or yourself – on real conversation.
You and they will be healthier and happier for it.
The author is the executive director of Keren Grinspoon Israel and director of Sifriyat Pijama and Maktabat Al-Fanoos, book gifting programs operated in conjunction with the Education Ministry and other partners which distribute close to three million books a year to preschool children in Israel. For more information, see www.pjisrael.org and www.al-fanoos.org.