Technology: The Dark Side of Efficiency, Part 1

littlehouseontheprairieWe have in The Little House on the Prairie series a rich American heritage of hard work, an ethos of industry and endurance. I am concerned that the abuse of technology today threatens to cut our kids loose from such a work ethic and is hampering their learning and productive capacity.

First, the merits of mechanized living. To say technology is indispensable is to say it is terrific. You will hear no complaints from me about my washing machine. I often counter my own grumblings against the loads to run with the reminder that what I’m doing isn’t laundry. What my grandmother did by the winter river was laundry. I’m sure the Wilders on the prairie would not have minded running water – especially when it was not chlorinated tap. Technology has freed us to create things we could not imagine in times past and has changed how we invent across the spectrum of life. In the arts, sciences, reconstruction of history.  Case in point, this dialogue on an international platform with readers across the world. America remains the trademark of free enterprise and I love it.  If you’re willing to apply yourself, the sky’s the limit. There is opportunity, there is help, there is scholarship, there is room on the showcase for unique talent. I just fear that each new generation is growing less and less willing to apply itself. Consumerism was nowhere near a household word in the prairie days. Survival meant production, problem-solving, resourcefulness. “Hard” work was a given for both adult and child, the very fabric of life and of growing up, not an extra 30 minutes of exercise they congratulated themselves for. By nature of the wonderful beast, technology will only augment our comfort and efficiency of living as it increasingly bests itself.

Architecting Numbers – at the Lower Grades

Here’s a glimpse of the wonderful ways you can use Cuisenaire Rods to enhance comprehension of number concepts while fostering creativity.

There is just no end to what you can do with the rods across the grade levels (up to the age kids are no longer enthralled by colorful miniblocks). Sorting, counting, crunching all the operations, geometry, odds and evens conception, patterning, money reinforcement. Today Tennyson rehearsed (precise) counting past 35, while exercising visuospatial skills and creativity. After exploring linear designs with the rods when he first got them (say, with different rods lined up like a train), he started going multidimensional.  So we “built the number 36” in all directions (horizontally, vertically and up).

Note: If you’re viewing from your phone, the photos may reformat.

1. After establishing that a yellow stick equals five ones (the white center cube being a unit of one as you can see in the first photo), we first practiced counting by 5s.  Rather than take the time to write out 5, 10, 15, 20 to help him keep track of the sequence, I grabbed some clothespins already marked so (from other math activities) right off the table. P1030493

2. Counting the cube in the center, we get 21.

3.  Add a cube to each yellow, for a picture of 21 + 4 = 25


4. My little student saw the green rod = 3 ones.  So he laid it down, counting 28.  Add two white cubes to the green, and you get 30 (see next photo).


5. He inserted another green rod running north and south between the top two cubes (the next photo below).  The last green rod that roofs the structure gives us 36 (last large photo). So today’s math was a multisensory play with numbers (which he saw, touched, talked through) that normally might extend beyond a kindergartener’s understanding.  Yes, plenty of kinders can

P1030500count well beyond 40, but a firm concrete grasp of what things beyond 20 can look can come alive this way. I procured the rods from

The company provides great customer service and some of the best prices online. I made my first purchase after comparing RR with about ten other merchants.  The company beats Amazon’s prices on a lot of products.



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On another day, Tennyson arranged the rods systematically.  We discussed symmetry and examined number sequence.  It all started from free play and experimentation with size and color (as with the last photo from a different day). Kids will also understand odd vs. even with the help of the red that represents two units (that is, fits two white cubes).

My Son in a Child Study [Thoughts on the Effect of the Spirit on the Mind]

Tennyson and I participated in a child study at the University of CA Riverside Developmental Psychology Lab last week. We’ve done at least five of these the last few years, a chance to contribute to research in a range of child development inquiries, from the effects of media on learning to how children apprehend what they read. The last study happened to be on the question of how children understand prayer. It was a very interesting opportunity to lend perspective on our prayer practices and for me to give voice to my perspective on the role of prayer in parenting.

This time, after completing a questionnaire while Tennyson was busy with questions from a researcher, I was taped in interview.  The interviewer asked me some things I had never given thought to, and I in turn offered answers she had never gotten.

Do I believe spiritual development affects cognitive growth?  If so, how?

Yes, the nurture of the inner life is very much a work in abstractions. Children are taught to pray to a God who is invisible, learn of a man who lived an infinity and many cultures away.  In the field of education, the ability to grasp abstractions is said to be a function of higher order thinking. That is, to conceptualize the unseen requires more brain voltage than to regurgitate facts.  (Ah, I thought: hence Tennyson’s attempt back in February to wrap his brain around how God watches him, cast in familiar concrete things.) So maturity in spiritual sensitivity and understanding will challenge and encourage cognitive faculty.

Not surprising because obedience to God always bear rewards, often unimagined.  What’s more, smarts are a favorable part of spiritual development by simple virtue of our design.  We are mind, body, spirit, heart and what each aspect processes affects the rest.

Tennyson pocketed the $20 he earned and put it in his bank when we got home. I wondered why in the world I had thought I could bribe him with a quarter a few months back when the boy has more cash than I do.

Local parents interested in future studies can write me for information.

Worship Hymn of a Tiger Mother [Thoughts on Achievement, Culture, Faith]

An article of mine, The Biblical Perspective of Achievement, due out this summer in Home School Enrichment magazine, was originally a a very personal response to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. The author’s psychotic ambitions for her daughters resonated with my academic and professional enterprises, and her confessions happened upon my homeschool goals at a time when they were crystallizing.

A walking paradox, I am a product of Asian rearing and intense east coast academic milieu, a former teacher of the gifted and talented program, an eventual coast-to-coast transplant converted happily to the gentler lifestyle of California, and a Christian. These thumbprints converged on the table where I set out to homeschool my son and pulled at me in different directions.  he new hippy mom disapproved of Amy’s coercions upon her kids while the dormant tiger from NY found herself assenting to her convictions.

Amy did not homeschool.  My struggle to place the issue of achievement correctly in the context of my faith happens to apply in the home.  Here’s a glimpse of the article:

Homeschooling opens a family to freedom in style and pace not viable in schools. Free reign 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 the unsophisticated question I had trouble answering. So how much do I push this little guy? For the way I had let it tip my life even to the compromise of my health, hard work is a practice and philosophy I still struggle to keep in the balance. The answer well may easily present itself to other Christian parents but as a workaholic I found myself picking through what were defining cultural, educational, professional, even physical experiences to sort out a lay theology of achievement as both parent and home educator.

There is a cost to anything worth achieving.  he building blocks of accomplishment are sacrifice. How much of it then, 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 crude level my parents struggled, 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. You build muscle by defying resistance.  And the higher you set the bar, the more you get out of the reach. 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 if survival in an unfamiliar country would remains exigency, what should we be straining for in our studies and why?


Dad got him on checkers last month, planning to hold off on the chess he was eager to teach.  Checkers would lay the foundation.  But, enchanted by the glass knight, Tennyson started asking and asking to learn chess.

“Mom, let’s play chess,” he’s asked numerous times, hooked.

I managed to provide plausible reasons why it wasn’t the best time.  Or offer Daddy up in my stead.  One particular morning last week, I came clean.

“I don’t know how, love.”

I always have freely admitted to him things I don’t know (let’s look it up) or am not good at (now DADDY’s talented at that).  But curiously, embarrassment the size of a micron weighed on my ego in the confession.

So I asked my son to teach me.  Not only so he could feel that Mom was connecting, entering his world; but so he would internalize the rules and strategizing in the coaching.  Of course I sound the braggart mom:  I was surprised at how good a teacher he was.  After explaining who’s who and how each piece moves, Tennyson encouraged me to try each out.

“The Bishop moves diagonally like this.”
“The Knight moves 1, 2 Boom.  The Queen can go anywhere.”

The enacting helped him remember the rules.  Father and Son stuck each other with the sword after each conquest: “King takes Knight.  ChArge!”

Earlier that morning I had been eyeing the chance to hunker down and get to the workbooks in math, sight words, and reading so I could in happy conscience have my student color in the little attendance box that attests we did “school” that day.  It’s a well-worn tune.  Home educators know learning is so much more than those books or the completed checklist, but what is so darn comforting about these things?

The morning instead detoured to the Barney in Spanish that’s been partly responsible for the recent stream of Latin American songs and numbers out of the little guy’s mouth.  Then came the chess.

He at one point changed his mind and decided not to eat my Pawn – to keep his King from being taken by mine.  “Let me THINK.  Let me THINK…” he determined, poised over the board.

Yeah, Mom.  Let him think.

“You’re doing so great with him, honey,” I commended Daddy yesterday.
“You mean I wasn’t doing so great before?”


A recent match: Daddy realized it was Checkmate.  He had no moves left.  His son had won.


Last week, I was trying to fit in a few minutes of the math we hadn’t gotten to that day.  I normally don’t let lessons run into the evening, wanting Tennyson to rest his mind with the rhythm of the closing day.  “Pay attention.  Show me two other groups you can make from these 5 cubes.”  He was fidgety, half-occupied with some giant legos he found more interesting that moment than the cuisenaire rods.  Mildly frustrated but not wanting to force it, I freed him to play.  A short while later, he called me to see what he had built.

Oh, my.

It was a section of a neighborhood.  Lego steps rose against a wall.  In front of them stood two bipolar arrows.  Much like the street signs that confused the hec out of me when I moved to CA, where the same street has one name if you turn left and becomes another when you turn right. Tennyson explained this way to the sunflower fields, that way to the houses.  I told him you call that residential.  A black sedan faced the arrows, waiting for a gate bar to lift.

I had pushed him, tried to get him thinking.  Turns out, he had been.  Plenty.  I knew of the power of play and that yes, to kids that is work.  But to see it played out was a lesson for the teacher.  The distraction in his eyes at the math table had been the possibilities he was entertaining for the building blocks.  He ended up designing, arranging, organizing a piece of a town, imagining someone behind the wheel in the car.  We impose curriculum on young kids when, given the chance, they can suppose, experiment, piece life apart and back together.

This post calls for pictures, but I was too tired to make another trip downstairs for the camera.  The next morning, I was bummed to learn Daddy had taken it for his Samba class.  Of course my son’s model suburban clearing was soon to be swept away in the ever-busy playroom, and with it, my chance to capture a xerox for the blog and family keepsake.  My requests for a reconstruction of the car-signs scene seemed to fall on deaf ears.  When I wondered why our boy wouldn’t rebuild it for me, Dad joked, “Pay him.”

We have shied from bribing – and its similitude, rewarding – in our parenting.

Desperate, I made my pitch.  “Tennyson, Mommy will give you TWENTY-FIVE cents if you recreate the signs and the gate in front of the car for her.”  Whether his was an otherworldly detachment from Mammon, an immature grasp of the value of twenty-five whole cents, or a dismissal of Mom’s stingy bargaining, it was no dice.  He had moved on to his next undertaking, one of his beloved assembly projects, a lego duplo ATM.

Had the quaint display been nothing more than the object of a mother’s pride?  Or bona fide architectural craftsmanship?  Without the photos, it remains to be seen but the point is the value I saw in the cogs and spokes that turned my boy’s head during “play”.  And I could do worse than a child who manufactures ATMs.


The past year I have allowed myself less guilt leaving Tennyson to play alone while I’m in the kitchen.  And I have seen played out what homeschoolers say: he is enjoying the space and time for his imagination to breathe, to create.  He has had limited experience with digital games, and watches DVDs on a TV with no functional channels.  I have wanted him neither dazzled nor dazed by the dizzy Screen.  I try to provide quiet opportunity for him to think, dream, to wonder. “What might this become?  What else can it be?”  Our boy was not particularly inventive when younger.  It was after four that he came into his own and began designing neat things with secondhand toys, stuff that’s caught Mom and Dad off guard sometimes in its humor, simplicity, utility, creativity.

Every handiwork of God unique, every blossom in its own time.

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Some of my favorite constructions of his redeemed, last December, car tracks he had inherited without the remote-run cars.   One, “a suspension bridge,”  he declared.  The other, a chocolate factory.  He said he had a surprise for me, not to look ‘til he said ok.   Unveiling his enterprise, Tennyson recited the beginning of Curious George and the Chocolate Factory:  “This is George.  He is always very curious…..”  This particular episode runs like the famous I Love Lucy where L frantically shoves the pieces into her mouth as they shoot out from the conveyor tunnel on steroid speed.  Tennyson was going to add blackstrap molasses to the chocolate.  I’ll have to post his response when he takes his first bite of chocolate someday.