Three recent stories in the news reflect changes taking place in the way children are developing. They reflect not only children’s exposure to technology but also the influence of a current emphasis on brain development and early academic achievement.
First is a report that book publishers are producing board books for babies that are miniature works of literary art, classics such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Les Miserables.” The idea is to expose babies to fine art and literature in order to stimulate their minds.
Next is a study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that examines children’s use of technology, reporting a major shift in the number of children under 2 using mobile devices like iPhones, tablets or Kindles. While young children seem so tech-savvy, the fact is that technology has gotten much easier to use.
Moving up the developmental ladder comes a report that colleges are worried about fading interest in the humanities on the part of college students. The recession and student debt, have helped turn the view of college into that of a tool for job preparation. The feeling is that interest in the humanities does not lead in that direction, and that power is in the sciences.
What is the connection – if any – between these different stories? We don’t know enough about brain development to conclude that becoming tech-savvy before age 2 has some relationship to ability in science and technology in college. But what about the development of “literary” board books, which seems to point in another direction?
Actually, these new board books are simply using the images drawn from the classics to promote the same kind of basic learning about objects, colors, and numbers that were always part of first books. The commercial motivation behind the new look is the same as that of the earlier “Baby Einstein” videos: supposedly promoting infant “genius.”
Neil Postman, the late author, educator and cultural critic, wrote a book called “The Disappearance of Childhood.” n it he described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the development of literacy. In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.
Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. Information was controlled by adults and made available to children in stages, according to their developmental level. The visual media – television, at the time of his writing – erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible. Unlike print, it requires no instruction, does not make complex demands on the mind, and does not segregate its audience. Electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.
Most parents would agree with the difficulty – almost impossibility – of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process. New developments in technology have eroded the distinction of children from adults even further. Postman believed that in Western civilization, the growth in empathy and sensibility – in humaneness – has followed the path of the growth of childhood.
These qualities have distinguished us as a society. Our values have derived from the humanities. It will be unfortunate if a total focus on technology, and the promotion of only one aspect of early development, lead us to ignore those aspects of education that in the past spoke of, and to those values.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.