We usually think that we and other people are raising our kids. We make up our lists of those entrusted with this task—ourselves, our partners, our families and friends, our baby sitters, and our child care people. But what about the non-people that should be on the list? And what are our kids learning? (BTW, The Sunday Parade Insert from Oct. 9, 2011, p.9+ has a great article about changes in kids’ brains when using computers.)
The first caretaker is television. We use the TV as a baby sitter, an entertainer, and an instructor. The shows kids watch are part of the message; the TV set is the other. We can choose the shows (at least for a while, until the kid can bypass the controls or go to someone else’s house.) But we don’t know how the child “processes” what s/he sees and then internalizes that understanding. And, especially when they are young, children may not have the words and ability to tell us.
Watching TV is a message in itself. It means that Mom or Dad or someone else is too busy to be with the child or that there’s something that the child is supposed to learn or enjoy. Both messages can be true, but which one is the child learning and which one did you want the child to learn?
As we know from earlier research, watching TV causes a person to be in a different mental wave state. It dulls some senses and makes the child immobile, which can lead to flabbiness and obesity. Some kids can learn to multi-task, such as ones with ADD or ADHD—but not all.
Next comes another non-human actor–computers. Lots of companies have made money selling the promise that kids can become a genius or gifted artist. Computers can do many good things in terms of teaching, but kids also need human interaction as well. Computer games focus children into a buffeted universe, interacting in filtered ways. They can be addictive as well. They allow the child to connect through the machine, but they don’t encourage connection in “meat” space. “Meat space,” the world of the flesh, is more complex and challenging than the computer world—and it needs to be mastered.
Social media, cell phones, texting, all fall into non-human interactions because the machine is the message, as Marshall McLuhan would say. Again, your daughter or son finds her or himself in a world that’s filtered. It’s still not safe, as we see from cyber bullying and cyber porn. And it’s still not the challenge of “meat space.”
So, as parents and caregivers, we need to look at all the messages we’re giving kids in terms of non-humans taking care of them—and shaping what we can.