What brings me great happiness is to write and talk with you. But I was busy with my minuteman last week. “I’ve been hit!” He gave us some hearty acting.
First bite into food. Mmmmmm. Life is good.
How many odd numbers are there? Are there more odd than even?
Mom, how many people are there in the world?
Mom, how old is Count Dooku? Yoda? Darth Vader?
What is three minus four? What is 13-15? What is negative zero?
Mommy, I know what 1000 minus 300 is. 700.
“HOW did you figure that out??”
By thinking. I thought hard.
“Tennyson, you’re talking back to Mom.”
No, I’m not.
*30 minutes later*
“Tennyson, you’re talking back to Mom.”
No, I’m not. OH — Yes, I am.
It was one of those days. He was just one bottomless appetite. I told him not to eat the boiled egg we were experimenting with for science.
The egg vanished.
He came over and whispered in my ear: Mom, I ate my homework.
Umma, how much is 100%?
“All of it. No leftovers.”
How much is 300%?
*How to explain??*
Vocalizing his pleasure over the meal at the restaurant (yums and groans and all): Umma, I’m an expert at eating.
Umma, What makes God laugh?
Mom, is anything bigger than God? How many suns fit inside Him?
Aug 4, A barrage of questions ~
What colors do you mix to get white?
What color is make-believe?
Is there make-believe in outerspace?
Daddy: “Yeah, it’s called Star Wars.”
Boy: When you walked away [after yelling at me] my face got red as raspberries and I wanted to scare you [when you came back out of the room].
Mom: Oh, you wanted to startle me when I’ve asked you not to do that.
Boy: (Nod) Uh huh. I wanted to put my white sheet over my head and scare you like a ghost.
So if you can like help me figure out about when and where this linguistic virus like grew, I’d really appreciate it. People use this curious filler like all the time, even on news radio. I worry hearing moms talk like this; they depend on the word like every five syllables like oh my god. Their children start like picking up the like off the floor and mopping like every breath with it and the saddest part is like I’m not exaggerating.
So like is this originally like an American phenomenon? I really don’t mean to like offend anyone but like didn’t this start as a caricature of the blonde American Valley Girl*? I know East Coasters are also fond of their like. Did it sweep in from the West, fly over and spare the Midwest? Hit mostly like the major cities? Can older readers tell us if you like remember Americans talking this way like in the 50s or 60s? Hey readers like in the other parts of the world, have people like forgotten how to talk over there too? If the like virus does run amok there, is it like an airborne disease from the States or has it like grown from native soil?
As a linguist, I’ve been trying like hard to uncover the subconscious role of this filler. There must be like a rhyme and reason to the madness. Seems it like began with the strange substitute for the verb to say.
So he said, “I’m freezing!” —-> So he’s like, “I’m freezing!”
How in the world did this like happen? Words take root, like have a purpose. This one’s got me. The filler doesn’t like seem to discriminate the part of speech that it wants to like introduce. We’ve like allowed a linguistic aberration, an unnecessity, to make its home in our speech like a five-headed monster that we’ve like taken in for a pet. Language takes the path of least resistance, will like look to save spit. It’s not supposed to grow weeds. Why is it that people like depend on this word? What is it they feel that they can’t quite like express without it? Why are we like wasting b r ea th?
This is like one of the serious posts on class and language like coming out of the Race Around the World.
*Wikipedia: Valley girl is a stereotype depicting a socio-economic class of white women characterized by the colloquial California English dialect Valleyspeak and vapid materialism. The term originally referred to an ever-increasing swell of semi-affluent and affluent middle-class and upper-middle class girls living in the early 1980s Los Angeles bedroom communities of the San Fernando Valley.
I couldn’t resist this post. Five-year-olds memorized facts in seven subject areas along with 1) the names of all the U.S. presidents 2) 24 verses of a chapter from the book of Ephesians and 3) enjoyed hands-on explorations in science, art, and music. Middle and high schoolers also wrote papers, redrew the map of the world from memory, analyzed text, and debated. These activities have kept the kids in our local homeschool community busy since the fall. I had to give you a glimpse of what some of this work looked like. My first grader loved every minute with our weekly small group. I have played the audios of songs and recitations almost every day the last eight months to drive them in nice and deep, and never has he tired of them.
Classical Conversations is a Christian version of the approach to education that draws its roots from the ancient Classical world. The Classical model takes its cue from the developing mind. We take advantage of the tremendous capacity for information the early years offer. We then encourage kids to draw relationships among the facts they’ve retained. Older teens integrate principles and articulate their reasoning. The students work hard. They even get a bit overwhelmed in transitioning between the levels as public schoolers moving on to high school do. But our students rise to the challenge and don’t see the memorization as such. It is doable, palatably apportioned week to week. As you can see, it’s fun.
The clips are from the cumulative memory work of 24 weeks that the students presented before family and friends two weeks ago. Turn up the volume for the indefinite pronouns rap:
The kids closed the event with the 204-point timeline of human history; here are the first 40 seconds. The hand motions include American Sign Language for tactile learners. Yes, the kids recited every word of the timeline you see listed. I think the best part is their enthusiasm in the learning.
These thoughts emerged as a personal response to the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Law professor Amy Chua who pushed her daughters to excel in ways that earned her praise and censure. She writes: I do believe that we in America can ask more of children than we typically do, and they will not only respond to the challenge, but thrive. I think we should assume strength in our children, not weakness. My grapplings found their way into a magazine article that studies the Biblical roots Christians might do well to lay down in their quest for achievement. The question that I realized has been little discussed in the Church applies not just to parents or homeschoolers but to all Christians seeking excellence in their calling.
Before the Homeschooling
Homeschooling opens a family to freedom in style and pace not viable in schools. Free rein in hand, I watched my boy full of joie de vivre opine at three-and-a-half years, “obla dee, obla da, life goes o-o-o-n, la la life goes o-o-on,” and wrestled with the unsophisticated question I had trouble answering. So how much do I push this little guy?
Hard work is a practice and philosophy I still struggle to keep in the balance. As a workaholic who has let work tip my life even to the compromise of my health, I found myself picking through what were defining cultural, educational, professional, even physical experiences to sort out a theology of achievement as both parent and home educator.
A walking paradox, I am a product of Asian culture and the academic zeitgeist of the East Coast, a former teacher of the gifted and talented program, and an eventual coast-to-coast transplant converted happily to the gentler lifestyle of California. I’m also a Christian. These thumbprints converged on the table where I set out to homeschool Tennyson and pulled me in conflicting directions. Discipleship would define our schooling but the West Coast Hippy whose educational goals for her son were relaxed and unhurried caught the Tiger Mom from New York encroaching on her plans.
There is a cost to anything worth achieving. The building blocks of accomplishment are sacrifice. How much of that was I willing to exact from my son? My parents immigrated, and raising me here by the sweat of their brow, bequeathed to me the firstfruits of something American culture offers so wonderfully: the assumption of choice. The freedom to pursue my passion with no obligation beyond itself. I say firstfruits because while I did not have to study and work to stay alive at the level my parents did, my drive to excel academically and professionally was not entirely free of constraints. There was an element of spurn against the prejudice my parents faced and a mission to redeem their suffering.
My child, however, remains at liberty – even at leisure – to dream and indulge his gifts. In short, to enjoy his work when he’s grown and to explore the options along the way. Will this freedom weaken him or his character in any way? The fact that he is under no compulsion to be or do something? That he is, well, comfortable? After all, comfort does not soldiers make. We build muscle by defying resistance. And the higher we set the bar, the more we gain in the reach. We gain by the stretch up as well as the one down into the resources of the spirit where character is forged. All to say some measure of trial is good for the soul. So what should we be straining for in our studies, and why?
A Portrait of a Pupil
Working these questions through, I was reminded of a sermon I heard in college. Dr. James Boice in Pennsylvania pointed out that Jesus will not commend, “Well done, good and successful servant.” Our Lord looks forward to declaring, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And in Genesis 39.3 I see “the Lord was with Joseph and he prospered…his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did…” Joseph concerned himself to keep faithful. Success was something God saw to grant.
As we are to pursue faithfulness rather than idolize success, excellence should mark our endeavors. The imprint of this distinction ought to be evident in the work of Christians to bring God honor as His image-bearers, showing forth the beauty of His excellence. Achievement ends up the sweet fruit of labor. Consider the Scriptures:
Ecclesiastes 9.10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.
Colossians 3.23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…It is the Lord Christ you are serving.
Proverbs 22.29 Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men.
My graduate degree in education says I mastered learning in 1997. It was only in the the baby steps toward homeschooling, however, that I really got it. Sure, I had worked to foster critical and creative thinking in my public and private students. But here I was with a budding life entrusted entirely to my nurture. The stakes couldn’t be higher. What were my hopes for this mind of his? His soul? Yes, we’ve got our road map for strong SATs. But while a reputable college is an admitted temptation of a goal in the schooling, is this really what skillful writing, creativity in the arts, becoming a well-rounded adult should be about? I am assuming the glory of God that should predispose the studies and am seeking to trace the functional role of formal learning. Days he doesn’t feel like it, why should Tennyson tackle the books?
My hope is that he grows to enjoy the challenge of learning to learn. Not memorize for grades. And what he is required to retain, that he takes up as the opportunity to understand more of his Father’s world. That he will become a self-directed learner so he can be motivated to develop whatever new skills all those opportunities beyond school will call for. That he will appreciate the freedom to discover the person that God is making him. For education begins and ends with Him, the source of all that is true. I want Tennyson to think for himself in keeping with God’s truth, independent even of pundits. I want him to learn how to live, to know he is a glorious creature made in the very image of God. Talk about self-esteem! In other words, education is more than academics.
A Success Story
As a parent, I now am taken with the Daniel of chapter one even more so than the hero of the subsequent stories I learned of in Sunday School. Daniel was about 14 when he was kidnapped to Babylon, uprooted from his family and the rich life of the worship of Yahweh. What if my son were wrested from me like this? What if the worship at church last Sunday were the last such fellowship he would enjoy, songs sung in the English he’d taken for granted? What will enable him not only to persevere but flourish and impact his captor country with the gospel?
In what we today would call very stressful circumstances in a foreign land, Daniel remained unmoved in his convictions. How deep the reservoir of the knowledge of his God, how intimate his fellowship with his Creator, how reverent and fearful of the Lord was he. He knew whose he was and which King to fear. His roots not only ran deep, he grew fruitful with “aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed….God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning…At the end of the time set by the king…he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king’s service.”
In mastering the writings of this pagan culture during his three years of study, Daniel came to understand its psyche as conveyed by the literature. He clearly discerned truth at critical junctures in the years that followed, but engaged the language and the art of writing that were part of God’s creative enterprise. Outperforming his peers, he so excelled in his secular education that he ended high up in government employment. Daniel was not charmed by the fruit of his labor: grades, status, three-chariot garage. He worshiped God alone. All his accomplishments brought him to speak into the lives of kings and help order the affairs of an empire in the strategic outworking of redemptive history. Note his honorable friends, like-minded men who helped one another stay the path. And we have 19-year-olds in America who blow time and money on campus, even Christians without the discipline and integrity to get up for morning class.
So let us be faithful like Daniel.
Is this exhortation our final word, the way to urge our children to excellence? The Scriptures Daniel had absorbed in youth were replete with God’s injunction to remember His faithfulness to Israel. This Daniel did. What his memory served him from the last 10 years before his exile were the lessons of spiritual posterity. When the Lord saved Daniel from the threat of execution by revealing to him the king’s dream, Daniel prayed, “I thank and praise you, O God of my fathers…” The unchanging God Who had been true to Abraham had come through for him. In his regular prayer life, he also was accustomed to the disclosures of his God.
If ten years were all I had left with Tennyson, what should remain central in our home instruction, the discipleship? A whole lot of preaching that he stay true to God, to keep doing better? This well-meaning moralism would be one great way to raise a spiritual drop-out. William Butler Yeats said, “Educating is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Many who decide down the road that Jesus never was for them began with knowledge. But they had not been kindled by the gospel of grace, by the truth that with His blood Jesus purchased for them the abiding, unremitting favor of the Lord. Apart from the assurance and taste of this immovable love, our resolve of allegiance will — to borrow from the wife of CS Lewis – fall like a house of cards.
It is in the irreversible work of the Cross that I want to teach my son to rest. In the gospel truth that no one and nothing can pry nail-scarred Hands loose of that grip on him. I pray his journey will be no toilsome climb up the ladder of achievement but a pursuit of excellence marked by joy and freedom that flow from gratitude.
My launching pad is an enlightening New York Magazine article that explains how praising kids for being smart often backfires, straitjacketing them to fear of failure. It spoke to me not only as a parent of a boy fairly fresh on the path of formal education, but as the studious girl whose achievements were marked by a curious mix of confidence and anxiety. The ten-year string of studies on the effects of praise spearheaded by psychologist Carol Dweck at Columbia (now at Stanford) University shed light on the aspects of overachieving we have been exploring in this series: persistence, assurance, motivation, talent. She offers insights on the inverse power of praise:
A sizable portion of gifted students, the very ones who grew up hearing they are smart, lack confidence and will keep to the safer road of doable tasks rather than set out for the hill that promises challenges.
According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it’s important to tell their kids that they’re smart…The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short. But recent landmark studies make the case that labeling kids just this way might actually cause them to underperform.
In one of her ground-breaking experiments with 400 New York fifth graders, Dweck took the students out of the classroom one at a time for an IQ test in the form of puzzles that pretty much guaranteed success. The students were divided into two random groups, one praised at the end for the kids’ intelligence, the other for effort. The children then chose a test for the second round. They were told that they’d learn a lot from the one that was more difficult. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The ‘smart’ kids copped out. Why did this happen? When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. And that’s what the fifth graders had done. They’d chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.
In a following round, students were offered no choice. The test actually designed for kids two grades higher set them up for failure. The groups exhibited a marked difference in response. The ones who were initially praised for their effort assumed they had not worked hard enough and went on to tackle the puzzles vigorously. Many actually commented that it was their favorite test. The kids who had been praised for their smarts deflated, taking their failure to mean they really were not bright after all.
“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control…Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls – the very brightest girls especially.
One of the greatest gifts my parents gave me is their unflagging confidence and trust in my abilities. It was in my working years that I saw just how deep their affirmation had rooted me in the self-assurance people sensed of me even when I was growing up. While I was praised for being smart even in diapers, I also suffered migraines for taking elementary school so seriously. My mother not only vouched for my intellect, but urged me to work as hard as I could. I remember crying, asking for her forgiveness, in the face of her withering disappointment over the 98% on a test I’d brought home. It was decades later that she remorsefully revealed she’d feigned dissatisfaction to push me to my utmost.
Dweck slowly began to make sense of my confusing dance with ambition. Through all the praise from family, friends, and teachers, fear of failure – the devil on my shoulder – goaded me to double-check all homework instructions with my friend who really was smart. I distrusted myself. Just before every piano recital in the junior high orchestra, my fingers would freeze, turning cold and stiff. I didn’t answer a call-back on the first audition for the sophomore musical in high school, rejecting the role before anyone could reject me. When my Latin and Linguistics professors later encouraged me to pursue a PhD, I rued having fooled them into thinking I was so capable. My mother wondered in exasperation why I volleyed every career suggestion with “it’s too hard.” I had set my standards so high that I couldn’t meet them. Deep inside, I feared being exposed as a fraud, of not meeting the expectations I wore.
To describe my metamorphosis in thinking is another post. But briefly: at 27, I visited Harvard for a possible PhD track in language, literacy, and culture. I enjoyed meeting with a professor and sitting in on her class, although in the end, I left the the east coast for the California sun. It’s doubtful I would’ve been admitted to the storied institution, but the life-changing shift in confidence that had come about largely at the encouragement of a principal I’d worked with was an unlocking inside. Slim chance, but why not dream — and try? When trepidation gives way, amazing things can happen. Because this release came so late for me, I am fascinated by people who dream bigger than the life they’ve known. What had locked me in the first place was not low self-esteem but the praise over my innate ability that had followed me in my youth. Besides, that great emperor of modern psychology, the credence of self-esteem, has been found to have no clothes on.
From 1970 to 2000, there were over 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem and its relationship to everything – from sex to career advancement…results often contradictory or inconclusive. So in 2003 The Association for Psychological Science asked Dr. Roy Baumeister, then a leading proponent of self-esteem, to review this literature…Only 200 of those 15,000 studies met their rigorous standard…Baumeister concluded that having high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement. It didn’t even reduce alcohol usage. And it especially did not lower violence of any sort. (Highly aggressive, violent people happen to think very highly of themselves)…Baumeister said his findings were ‘the biggest disappointment of [his] career.’
I had little patience for the touchy-feely you’re-so-wonderful-what-do-you-feel-today approbation I was told in graduate school to shower my students. How can a society, let alone marriages, expect to survive the sacred right of every person to nurse his, her individuality and feelings above all else? (The sun does not orbit the earth.) We all should know our inherent worth, and no child should feel unloved or unworthy because there is no higher glory than that we bear the very image of God. Self-esteem champions who haven’t quit this page by now may see it differently, but wherever we draw our security from, to keep on point: giving kids credit for smarts they did not earn is to build their sense of worth on sand. Once they find themselves struggling in a more demanding setting, they “surmise they’ve been dumb all along. Their grades never recover because the likely key to their recovery – increasing effort – they view as just further proof of their failure.”
The ability to respond to repeat failure by exerting more effort – instead of simply giving up – is a trait well studied in psychology…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain…While putting people through MRI scans…this switch [lit] up regularly in some. On others, barely at all…The key is intermittent reinforcement…The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear. We could be priming our kids for a biochemical addiction to constant reward with bribes or effusive praise that’s misdirected, hijacking their capacity to work toward goals. The greats whose accomplishments we’ve been discussing apparently have a different brain. But the beauty of intelligence is its organic adaptability. I love how Dweck’s researchers improved math scores in low-achieving students: the adults simply taught the kids that the brain works like a muscle and exercising it makes us smarter.
Within eight weeks, my six-year-old has memorized over 350 facts in science, history, Latin and English grammar, math, and geography – some, long sentences. At this pace, he will go on to grow his knowledge base through the years ahead. I worried on Day 1 that I was overloading him. “What are the seven types of biomes? Grasslands, deserts, scrublands, tundra, deciduous forests, coniferous forests, tropical rainforests.” Aye yaya. Since then, I’ve discovered that the brain of children expands like Mary Poppin’s bag. The more you require it to hold, the more it gladly will. With a modest estimate of 100,000 students worldwide on this Classical curriculum, my son is no exception and smarts can’t really take the credit. It’s work. And we make it fun. But there’s no getting around daily application. How do I encourage his success? The article describes the kinds of praise that provides effective encouragement : sincere, specific feedback with repeatable strategies that moves the child forward. But I find it takes some conscious reprogramming on my end to keep from juicing my son with an easy shot of dopamine that’ll make him feel like Superboy rather than remind him that he’s not dependent on a bank of brain cells that’s predetermined what he can accomplish. “Oh, you’re so sm –, “ I choke back some days.
“Now see what happens when you don’t give up?”
We all love commendation, and exchange plenty of it as bloggers. I’ve said that with more talent, I could afford to work less hard on this blog. It’s taken me 40 years to lay down my thoughts with a deep satisfaction that I have communicated my purpose. It is the pains and time I take to get it down just so that keep me on sure course. Faith in my aptitude? No. And it’s no timorous dissent. My work may not make the ranks of the literary pantheon. But with joy, great care, and dreams I answer my calling as a writer, standards higher than ever.
I got to do the fun stuff with my students when I taught the Gifted and Talented in the 90s. The elementary school kids in the program left their classroom and came to me bright-eyed, bushy-taled. Grounded in the basics, they were ready for a session of poetry or creative writing. Here are some activities the second graders got a kick out of one year. They were reading fairy tales in class so we played with a number of enrichment exercises around the subject of gnomes. We brainstormed the things these creatures might eat and need. See what the kids came up with:
1. Chocolate Mushroom cake
2. Chocolate-covered leaf
3. Jellyfish tuna sandwich
4. Buttercup cake
5. Smashed Grass and Fish Salad
6. Nectar shake
Tap the list on the right to zoom. The word that’s hard to read in no. 5 is cockroach.
Ad for Gnome Furniture
for the Gnome News by Jackie
New. Acorn fillings sofa bed with cotton flower pillow. The pedals help you fall asleep and in the morning they help you wake up rested. And in the night you have no bad dreams. Yours, for only 10 pinecones. Pillows free.
Oh, where are those pinecones?
Gnome Illnesses by Julian
1. Nox Shadis Feveris (Nightshade Fever)
Carrot infusion and agave minted green
Drink 1/2 cup every morning.
2. Lox Gnomigus (Lou Gnomig’s Disease)
Black tea with Meridian grapes
Take 1/4 cup a day after lunch.
3. Gnomhizerus (Gnomheizer’s Disease)
Cyprus fruit with citrus.
Take 1/2 cup five times a day.
Several years later a private student of mine came up with a Narnian menu Mr. Tumnus the Faun presented Lucy in his cave. Daniel was in third grade.
Cookies n Cream Reindeer Pie with boba nose and cinnamon antlers
Rocky Road Unicone with roasted pink marshmallow shreds
Wildberry Cheesecake topped with sliced acorn and nutmeg
McCherry Sundae with toasted TumFlower seeds
Rainberry muffins with vanilla icing
Strawberry Upside-Down Cake (for birthdays. Please call in advance.)
Rainbow punch with banana-flavored straws
Morning dew shake topped with moon peach slices
Green apple cider with star sugar
Fire Diamond milk
Dawn Wind mango boba with dessert dream sprinkles
Hear the poetry in some of these lines? Young writers at work, frolicking in a field of ideas. What a delicious world they created. Where imagination took these children is the runway of the Shel Silversteins, J.K. Rowlings, Alice Walkers. An old friend reminded me yesterday that English was my second language. I wonder where I’d be now if in the formative years I’d been given the permission and direction away from the glory of grades to dream, just dream.
Of course we don’t feel drugged when cruising in cyberspace or playing a video game. Nor am I saying schools are not teaching history or providing solid language arts. I’m speaking of the proverbial frog in the water that’s getting unnoticeably hot. When kids go full throttle in all things virtual, it fosters a habit of the mind, affects how hospitable their brain grows to the rigors of reasoning that enables ease of articulation. Inhospitality in this case makes for inefficient learning, academic ill ease. Because you just can’t get the results in some things but through the old-fashioned road of exertion. How do you build muscle? Strength? There is no shortcut for the consistency of an hour’s sweat, four times a week. The sweat is proof of progress. The body can’t fool itself, so why do we think any differently of the developing mind? It is one thing to welcome structural and organizational timesavers in teaching and even in methodology. The features of Gmail alone can help streamline teaching beautifully. I would love to learn more ways to harness both wired and wireless power to facilitate instruction. It is a different story, though, when it comes to content and the discipline of the mind, what we expose eyes and brains to on a regular basis. Machines can’t think for us, at least in all the shades and emotional context the human brain functions. Quality books challenge the mind to hold something deep and expansive, along with sophisticated syntax and diction. We let Johnny off the hook in some tasks that require straightforward verbal and auditory attention. But I’ve always wondered to what extent we ourselves have been creating visual learners hooked on pictures that speak the 1000 words they’re becoming less capable of producing. Have we written off trained hypersensitivity to visual stimulation as a matter of learning style?
I am quite happy with my electricity and computer. And I don’t have muscle enough to survive on the prairie. For sure, technology has enhanced how broadly we communicate, relate, and learn. But I fear, at a price. The practice of waiting characterized life on the prairie. Season into season, the kids grew up hoping, anticipating, predicting things about the crop they had helped sow that was to be their very survival and nourishment. What is it that today’s youth have to wait for? Given over to machines in play and study, kids could end up paying for the efficiency we buy into with a laziness of the mind. We underestimate what our children are capable of, both the responsibilities they should bear and the skills they can apply themselves to. It is the Tiger Mom’s question I circle back to, the line I at times can’t easily make out between pushing too hard and encouraging too little.
Will kids accustomed to virtual magic tricks readily invite self-discipline, the handmaid of hard work? We express ourself through the click of likes and flurry of fingers on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (not saying I object to your liking this post). The breeziness with which kids are talking online from a progressively younger age will wear on their ability to articulate themselves on important matters. To frame an opinion, analysis, insight on literature, politics, faith. Navigating gizmos well does not mean they will be unable to communicate effectively. But obviously, times have changed.
Life is far different today from the Prairie Days when, sun-up to sun-down, physical exertion and problem-solving called upon both young and old. Though limited schooling often gave way to marriage or a trade in the pioneer days, when children did study they did not read and write clipped thoughts. Those able to pursue an education learned proper grammar and speech, were taught to recite the history of their nation so they could understand their place in the world, joined the Great Conversation of literature. That is, students took in and engaged written works that were a complete thought. Edith Schaeffer has said, “They need to love books, for books are the basis of literature, composition, history, world events, vocabulary, and everything else.” There was an organic wholeness to the process of formal learning, of building the stamina called for in the training of the mind. Students did not have the option of flipping channels, websites, or even their own book pages every 30 seconds, dissatisfied with pictures or content that did not titillate. Rather than take the time to sit and drink in great works, more and more postmodern kids are looking to quench their thirst for visual excitement. The next hit. We don’t read LOTR and indulge our imagination anymore. We watch the epic and let the screen tell us what Middle-earth looked like. With each generation becoming literally more restless from the luxurious feast of options, how will it develop the patience needed to examine, ponder, question, argue, reason?
In his keen social commentary Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman teases out the effects of television viewing on the mind. In the briefest window of time, you can go from a news segment to a commercial to a soap opera, each presentation itself spliced by dizzying action, noise, and change of scenes. The watching brain gets a string of disjointed messages that remain incoherent together. Postman asserts that the problem of television is not what we watch but that we do. I suggest that with the infinite number of channels procurable on YouTube alone now, not to mention the 3-D magnetism of so-called kids’ movies, what the mind experiences is like the discrete, disconnected, visual provocation of the TV, on amphetamines.
In my lifetime, global tech advancement turned a corner, and a sharp one at that. For all their benefits, the microwave, internet, multipurpose cell phone have accelerated the pace of living. When I was in elementary school, a digital Hello Kitty watch was hot stuff. Today, I sight at least 3 kids out of 5 with an iSomething in their hand. Only, they’re not the ones really holding the machine. It is the kids who are held captive by their tablet, their iPOD. As technology serves our demand for instant amusement and excitement, our dependency grows. With the computer literally shrinking, more compact and portable every year, our minimachines ironically are not an accessory but a necessity. Left unchecked, the reliance has the potential of tailspinning into an addiction. The South Korean government is scrambling toward yet another law to constrain the number of hours kids under 16 can play virtual games within a 24-hour period. The nation whose youth has been known for its academic ambitions is buckling under the weight of her children’s virtual obsessions. I can only imagine how the typical gaming brain of the Korean student has rewired. It has become a product of clicking for instant gratification, not of laboring to produce something deep, meaningful, or imaginative.
As a former teacher in the public schools, I know enjoyment enables and enhances learning. But the world of video gaming has redefined fun. Our young ones are not inherently different from kids two hundred years ago. Our physical apparatus has not changed. The parenting, the environmental influences we watchdog or don’t, condition our children’s preferences. So, at least from observing my own son, it seems to me kids still can get quite a kick out of the incarnations they can summon out of a cardboard box – were it not for the etoys readily put in front of them.
Preoccupation in the virtual sphere can redefine not only amusement but reality. How many of us believe it’s healthy to keep lost in a world of fantasy? The transfixed gamer not only loses time and opportunity to engage the real world and people, but becomes enamored with a place that does not exist in nature and with powers he in fact does not have. The gamer enjoys the delusionary high of being able to make cool things happen quickly and easily – whenever he wants. It is the omnipotence of the Hero who’s simply changed costume every decade, the Lone Ranger, Superman, Ninja Turtles, the Incredibles: we love being able to manipulate boundaries, play God. Where we are not careful, we could be nurturing impatience and restlessness of character and thought in our children.