In Other News,

Zoe continues to be awesome.

1. She and her dad like to squirt water guns at each other pre-shower.  The other night, Zoe took her water gun into the shower, closed the glass door most of the way, then squirted her gun out of the narrow slot she’d created – in other words, she came up with one of the classic defenses in war.  Awesome.

2. Today she was mitchering me to do something with her and I said, “Zoe, I’m going to make cookies now.”  She goes, “Cookies?  Oh, cookies!” and turns me around and starts pushing me towards the kitchen.  “Go!  Make cookies!”

3. She also danced to the a capella version of Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way on The Sing-Off.  It was pretty cute.

4. I haven’t mentioned her Smish game.  “Smishing” is when I kiss her and nuzzle her all over, very quickly.  But what she does for the game is, she screams out, “Smish, Mommehhhhh!” and then runs away and I have to chase her all around the house for a long time.  I rarely get to actually smish her during this game, but it’s still fun watching her floppy run and her sly smiles and hearing her shrieks and giggles.

5. When she does something I don’t like, she immediately hugs and kisses me and says, “I love you, Mommy,” and it’s clear that this is an active effort to get me off her case.

6. We saw Tangled together, and then the next day my grandfather asked her about the horse in the movie, Max, and if he was green with yellow polka dots.  So now the main thing she’ll say about seeing Tangled is “Max is a WHITE horse.”

7. Last night I played Whiz-Bong* with my Hebrew school kids, and Zoe was CRACKING UP through the whole thing.

8. When I told her someone was coming over to play today, she said, “Daddy?”

9. She asks me to pretend to sleep, with the snore sound accompanied with a high-pitched “Mememememeh,” and then she shouts at me, “Wake up!”

10.  When you ask for a kiss, she puckers up really big, and then comes over to you, so she’s walking across the entire room with the big puffed up lips.

11.  She has gotten even more affectionate, very generous with the kisses and hugs, and doesn’t even need to be asked sometimes.  Today during snack at preschool, the teacher was lighting the candles (for Shabbat, which I know is tomorrow, but they don’t have class tomorrow, so they do Shabbat today) and singing about the Ima lighting the candles, and Zoe pulled my face to hers and gave me her crinkled up smile (her I’m-smiling-at-you smile, rather than her I’m-happy smile, if you understand what I mean) and kissed my cheek.  It was pretty awesome.

12. She quotes Disney movies and songs an awful lot.  When she’s trying to coax you to do something, she goes, “C’mon.  C’mon, little fella.  I’m not going to hurt you,” as Aladdin says to the magic carpet when they discover it in the Cave of Wonders.  Also from Aladdin, she’s fond of saying, “Not right now, I don’t think so,” which the genie says at some point.  And lately, she takes a hand towel, throws it over her head, and sings, “No, sir.  Not me.  I guarantee it,” a la Belle, singing about how she will not be marrying Gaston.

13. I don’t even know how to write about the amazing cuteness of her facial expressions and movements, of the way she concentrates so hard sometimes, on the way her lips look when she says, “Lady Gaga,” or her floppy run, or the confidence in her voice when she tells you things or asks for things.  She’s just too much.

Update: I forgot a couple of things.

14. She calls many things “special” or “very special,” but it’s her delivery that says it.  She says it really slow, in a stage whisper, with accompanying hand motions and facial expressions that suggest that she is a magician about to perform a great trick.

15. She has taken to telling people, “Here.  Help yourself,” before basically forcefeeding them.  I got that treatment last night with grapes.

16. When we went to the Botanic Gardens for the Winter Wonderland stuff, she kept going, “Mommy!  Look at this place/all this stuff!  I never seen!”

*If you don’t know what Whiz-Bong is, and you care, ask me about it sometime.

Advertisements

Plugged In!*

This post is both a response to a specific article, and a dueling post with my friend (who is the mother of the four-year-old I regretted being unable to drive to the grocery store) over at gluesky.com.  We have different (but respectful!) positions on our kids’ media consumption.  And away we go!

So first, the article.  I have to say, whether one believes in allowing one’s kids unfettered access to TV, video games, computers, and iGadgets, or one believes in moving with said children to Amish country, or if one occupies some place in the middle, this article is kind of annoying.  I think there are two assumptions that annoy me about it:

  1. All tech is the same, and the same kind of bad for you.
  2. If you let your kids use tech, the only thing your kids do is use that tech, ever.

On the first point, there’s even a researcher they quote who says they’re basically conflating cell phones and TV.  Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe (now there is a name!), a pediatriacian who is on the American Academy of Pediatrics’s communications and media board says, “We always try to throw in the latest technology [when assessing their guidelines on screen time], but the cellphone industry is becoming so complex that we always come back to the table and wonder should we have a specific guideline for cellphones. . .  At the moment, we seem to feel it’s the same as TV.”  That strikes me as a serious vacuum in the research.  Cell phones are not TV.  Whether the effects of letting your kid play with a cell phone are bad or not, they cannot be the same kind of bad as TV, since they are two separate things.

Cell phones are also not the same as iPhones, and iPads, and iPod Touches.  I’m not saying this to be an Apple booster.  I love Apple products, my husband has a serious obsession with them, but I’m not just saying, “Rah rah!  iPhones are SO MUCH COOLER!”  I’m saying they’re different.  Give a kid a regular cell phone, and s/he might accidentally call your sister* or send a text or maybe access your ring tones, which s/he would probably find very enjoyable.  But there are a lot more things to do with an iPhone, for good or ill, some even designed for children, again, for good or ill.

Given the difference, I think “cell phones” are only temporarily amusing and therefore pretty harmless (unless your toddler places a call to the co-worker you’re bad-mouthing at that moment, which, frankly, will probably happen). iGadgets and other app-centric phones are the things I think that (ought to) produce the most debate.  It strikes me as very telling that this is a difference that the American Academy of Pediatrics’s council of communications and media isn’t really addressing when they make their guidelines, as it makes me feel that the guidelines are therefore kind of meaningless.

The second point I think is the more significant one, though.  This quote from Jane M. Healy, an educational psychologist in Vail, CO, particularly bothered me:

“Any parent who thinks a spelling program is educational for that age is missing the whole idea of how the preschool brain grows.  What children need at that age is whole body movement, the manipulation of lots of objects and not some opaque technology.  You’re not learning to read by lining up the letters in the word ‘cat.’  You’re learning to read by understanding language, by listening.  Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device. Where is the language? There is none.”

She’s responding to (or at least the article makes it seem as if she’s responding to) a story about a mom who thinks her three-year-old has a better vocabulary than her eight-year-old did at the same age because of the programs she’s using on the iPhone and/or iPad.  And there’s so much wrong with her statement.  First of all, apparently, the spelling program IS educational, because the kid is learning to spell.  One might argue that spelling is not the most crucial thing for a three-year-old to learn, but first of all, I’m willing to bet that that mom doesn’t think it is; I think she just downloaded some apps that she thought would engage her children’s minds, and that particular one (Montessori   Crossword, if you’re curious.  I’ve never seen it so I don’t know anything about it) did, and second of all, I doubt very highly if spelling is the ONLY thing that mother is trying to teach her three-year-old.  Dr. Healy seems to assume that, because there is an iPad in the house that the children can use, they never get “whole body movement” or “the manipulation of lots of objects.”  I have to tell you something.  I have a toddler.  I cannot imagine a method that would effectively prevent Zoe from experiencing “whole body movement” or “the manipulation of lots of objects” short of actually tying her to a chair.  She also plays with an iPad.  I suppose there might be a problem with some parents thinking of certain things as educational and therefore trying to get their kids to do them at the expense of doing other things that are actually good for their children – like making them sit with the iPad doing a spelling program and preventing them from going outside and running around – but I have to assume that’s a very small minority of parents, especially parents of three-year-olds, and even if it’s not, in this quote, and in this article, the distinction is not addressed.  It seems to be mostly “Either tech is fine or it’s the devil!”  And you know, it is the New York Times.  Some nuance is not uncalled for.  Finally, what makes Dr. Healy call the technology “opaque”?  To whom is it “opaque”?  What does it mean that the technology is “opaque”?  If it were “transparent,” or even “translucent,” would it be okay?

It’s the last part of the quote that really gets me.  Let’s go back.  “Here’s the parent busily doing something and the kid is playing with the electronic device.  Where is the language?  There is none.”  That’s awfully judgmental.  First of all, there are a number of legitimate things a parent could be busy doing.  Making dinner.  Folding laundry.  Working, so as to better the world, or working for their company’s interests and therefore making money to put food on the table for their kids.  Relaxing so as to have the emotional strength to be a good parent and a happy person.  It doesn’t necessarily follow that a parent is ALWAYS preoccupied and NEVER interacting with his/her child.  That’s kind of ridiculous.  And nasty.

I think there’s a tone in the article, which is not surprising to find in a lifestyle article in the New York Times, frankly, that is a little hand-wring-y.  Oh, my goodness, the young people, they have stuff we didn’t!  What to do?  And the truth is, there is very little predicting what effects all this new stuff will have in the long run.  You want to know my favorite thing I heard?  Video games may help you become a surgeon. Something about the organization of the brain and the hand-eye coordination.  But it took the kids who first started having home gaming systems growing up and going to medical school to show that it would have this effect.  My point is not that it’s going to turn out that iPads are awesome for children.  My point is that for all the talking heads we’ve amassed, on any topic, from the economy to parenting, most of the time, we don’t know shit.  So I think it continues to be best to go with your instincts, to parent like the person that you are, and to know your kid.

And, as always with parenting articles, apparently only moms raise children, because they’re the only ones ever quoted.

So much for the article.  Why do I let Zoe watch so much TV?  And play with so much tech?

First, I really think they are two very separate questions.  And I’d like to tackle the second one first, because I feel no guilt whatsoever about it.  I think the things she does with the iPad and iPhone (well, not the iPhone anymore, because Jason wants to protect our iPhone 4s from her now that she has the iPad) are either cute and harmless or actually kind of good for her or at least interesting.  I call her the postmodern baby because, with the Videos function on the iPad, Zoe can (and does) choose a non-linear mode of storytelling in which she is an active participant in the order in which she watches movies or even scenes from movies; she is not even bound by a single title but can mix at will.  It’s fascinating.  And, I think, fine, and cute, although for a while there we were in the habit of trying to put her to sleep by turning off the lights and letting her watch the iPad, which backfired precisely because she’s such an active participant in the “watching” activity and also takes after me sleepwise and would never fall asleep if there was something more interesting to do or unless she could literally not keep her eyes open anymore.  And then there are programs that I think are great.  There’s this memory game she likes, and an object-, shape-, and color-identification program that I think has been educational.  I even love that she loves to flip through photos on either iGadget and exclaim over pictures of her family (and herself).  So I think the iPad, et al., are good.  Not a replacement for other forms of education and play, not good if they are used to the point where parents don’t interact with kids ever, but good.

The TV is more complicated.  Because yes, I think I let Zoe watch too much of it.  And yes, I think it’s at very best a neutral activity and that’s being very optimistic.  On the other hand, I don’t think all TV is bad.  I know we like to bemoan the loss of reading in favor of the screen but they used to bemoan the novel as silly frippery that will make women amoral and men stupid.  Before that there was a problem with writing stuff down – we’d destroy our capacity for memory if we didn’t memorize and tell stories orally, like the entire Odyssey.  And some TV is very good, artistically speaking, especially nowadays.

Furthermore, I watch Zoe watching TV.  She is not a passive absorber (of anything, including TV).  She interacts with the characters on screen.  She comments and makes observations, both factual (“She hit the guy!”) and moral (“That’s bad.  Stop it!  Stop hitting, Buffy!”).  She remembers things.  She sings the songs she hears.  She repeats things in certain contexts, like today she kept putting mine and Jason’s hands together just as Quasimodo does to Esmeralda and Phoebus at the end of Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Even when she was a very young baby (I know!  I let her watch TV before she was 2!  I am a very bad mommy!) she would respond really enthusiastically to Rachel Maddow’s facial expressions.  And when the TV is on, she’s also playing with blocks or scribbling on her Aqua Doodle or running away as is her wont.  She’s not glued to the set, and I like to think that maybe it’s because she doesn’t consider it to be that big a deal.  Of course, it could just be that she’s an active person.  Sometimes (most of the time) I think as parents you think your actions are having a specific effect and the truth is you have no idea what effect they are having in the long run.

And I think a big part of us letting Zoe watch movies is that we want to share with her the things we loved as kids, and we loved these movies.  Or in some cases our siblings did.  This comes back to parenting like the person you are.  Jason and I like TV and movies, so naturally, we show Zoe TV and movies.  Jason is a major tech geek, so naturally he wants to share his love of gadgets with Zoe.  I think in the end, whether it does some harm or some good, the overall good is sharing things with your children.  And the thing is, if you are the type of parent who sees nothing wrong with handing your kid a gadget and then “busily doing something” all the time, and NEVER interacting with your kid, then, first of all, I think you probably make up a very tiny minority of actual parents, and second of all, you’re kind of a shitty parent, and you would be whether you were handing them an iPad or a rag doll.  So I think for me, letting her watch TV and movies is just an extension of who I am as a person, and allowing me to be that way, and her to be that way, is a way of letting myself relax a little bit as a parent.

*I mean this title metaphorically, of course.  We are quickly approaching wirelessness around here.

**Cute story.  Zoe did this once.  She was maybe eight or nine months old and I was cleaning up our breakfast and she had taken my iPhone off the charger.  I look over and she’s leaning over the iPhone and from the iPhone I hear, “Hello?  Hello?”  Zoe is babbling happily.  She had called her Aunt Kate.  I don’t know how she did it.  I almost never use the cell phone as a phone; I don’t think Aunt Kate was in the Recent Calls, and she’s not on my Favorites list.  (No offense meant, Kate.  My Favorites is more “People I might need to call from the car,” not “My Actual Favorite people.”  If it were the latter, you’d be Number One with a bullet!  :-))

Outliers

I just finished reading Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell.  I really liked it.  It’s not the type of thing I normally read – well, it isn’t sold as the type of thing I normally read.  It’s sold as a business-y book, which makes sense, but it is about the stuff I normally like – general, big-picture sociology-type stuff.  And I really liked the central message of the book, which was, we (Americans) like to think that the really big success stories come from really uniquely gifted people using their gifts to make it on their own in a big bad world, but really, in addition to having awesome gifts, most of these so-called “outliers” have a very specific set of circumstances and opportunities that are enormously helpful in getting them to where they go.  I think that’s great; I think that, in general, in this country, when we discuss problems, we discuss them from a very personal, individualistic standpoint, and we hate acknowledging that we all live in a community (or, in fact, several communites) and that those communities affect what we do.  I have had this standpoint when it comes to “Mommy Wars” type stuff – like, what’s the point of discussing whether any individual mom is “wrong” to hire a nanny, or stay at home, or send a kid to preschool, when it’s more important to examine the conditions under which she makes that decision and whether those conditions are helpful or not.  (They’re not.)

Gladwell is basically saying, “What’s the point of discussing Bill Gates’s inherent brilliance when it’s more important to realize what conditions gave him the kind of practice on a computer that allowed him to be a whiz kid at a time when being a whiz kid could make you serious money?”  A big part of his premise (backed by numerous studies, he says) is that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to master anything, from violin to baseball to computer programming, and that nobody masters anything without 10,000 hours of practice, and nobody who puts in 10,000 hours of practice fails to master that thing.  Of course one must keep in mind that 10,000 hours is an ENORMOUS amount of practice and that, chances are, if you are willing to put in that kind of time, you must have a little natural ability, or you just wouldn’t bother.

But then at the end of the book I had a little problem.  At the end of the book, he starts talking about this program called KIPP, which is a school program which takes kids mostly in underserved areas and provides them with the kind of education they just aren’t getting elsewhere.  Some aspects of that education seemed really great to me (a person who has never lived outside the upper middle class, so I know how I feel doesn’t count for a lot) – longer class periods, the time to really delve into subjects and teach an understanding of, for instance, math, a strong sense of community within the school – and some sounded horrifying – seriously long hours, no summer vacation, plenty of homework on top of the seriously long hours.  And the point of the school is to get these kids out of poverty, basically.  Which is fantastic and I in no way mean to demean the work KIPP is doing.  I used to substitute teach in underserved public schools and I have a little understanding of what programs like this can do.

My problem is this sentence.  “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success . . . . with a society that provides opportunities for all.”  But he’s talking about the opportunities to, basically, get in your 10,000 hours.  Not a society that will definitely have enormous success and rewards waiting for you if you do.  In this same paragraph, he refers back to the series of lucky coincidences that gave Bill Gates a good chunk of his 10,000 hours on a computer before he graduated high school (with the acknowledgement that one piece of luck was that Bill Gates, as a teenager, wanted to spend 10,000 hours learning to program computers).   He says, “If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today?”  How about none?  How about maybe two or three?  The world can offer all the opportunities to get your 10,000 hours in it wants, but the market doesn’t have room for that many Microsofts.  Not acknowledging that is a problem.  In this paragraph, he also refers to his first chapter on outliers, and what happens when sports stars are chosen starting at a very young age and teams have a once-a-year cut-off, as happens in Canadian hockey.  Basically, the oldest four- and five-year-old hockey players – the ones born immediately after the cut-off date of January 1st – are also the best four- and five-year-old hockey players, because they’re bigger, more coordinated, and more mature, so they get selected for the special teams, get more practice, and thus, those born in the first half of the year are vastly overrepresented in the professional leagues.  In this paragraph, he says, “If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have twice as many adult hockey stars.”  No, it wouldn’t.  It would have the same number of hockey stars; they would just come from January and June in roughly equal numbers.  There isn’t really room for more hockey stars.  KIPP says on its web page that it is currently serving 26,000 students.  That’s not including the number of graduates out there in the world.  But the market doesn’t have room for simply 26,000 more supersuccessful people.  In this country, it feels more and more like there is less and less room at the top, not more.  Now, maybe some of these kids will go on to be successful and squeeze out the people you’d expect to occupy those top positions – kids whose dads played golf with their potential future bosses, etc.  But some will not.  And if you’re going to acknowledge all of these other factors that affect success, you also have to acknowledge that modern industrial capitalism and the free market DO NOT and CANNOT make everyone who is willing to work hard a success.

It’s also interesting to me that, in spite of the examples he gives, in the end he thinks it’s even possible to give recommendations for how to make more “outliers.”  One of the most striking (to me) examples of the pure randomness of success is the story of Jewish lawyers like Joe Flom who were born in or around 1930.  These guys graduated law school in the mid-1950s and then, despite their brilliance, couldn’t get jobs at so-called “white-shoe” law firms because they were Jewish.  These “white-shoe” law firms were composed of the children of the very wealthy, who were basically in corporate law to lend a hand to their golf buddies, who needed someone to deal with the paperwork that comes out of doing business.  But these guys were rich, old-guard “gentlemen” first, and there was certain kinds of work – like hostile takeovers – that they just wouldn’t do.  So guys like Joe Flom did them, and got really good at them, and then, in the 1970s, when these guys were hitting middle age (and had gotten in their roughly 10,000 hours of practice at hostile takeovers and the like), the corporate world shifted, that skill became THE skill to have as a corporate lawyer, and these Jewish lawyers who couldn’t get jobs at the best firms became massively wealthy.  Now, how can you recommend anything if the circumstances of success can be that random?  How could Joe Flom have known, when he went into law school, that twenty years from now, the skills he’d have to develop because he couldn’t get the kind of job he wanted would make him wealthy?  How could his parents have known?  Might they not just as easily have said, “No, don’t go to law school, you’ll never get a job with a good firm because you’re Jewish”?  They would have been right at the time.  And wrong in hindsight.  Furthermore, let’s say those “white-shoe” law firms had taken Malcolm Gladwell’s advice (with the aid of the time machine they keep in a back closet somewhere) to give Jewish lawyers opportunity?  Then Joe Flom and his ilk would have spent their 20 years of practice doing law that eventually became kind of useless, or at least not as prestigious and wealth-generating as the stuff they were in fact doing.  Joe Flom succeeded BECAUSE he lived in a world that didn’t necessarily hand out certain kinds of opportunity to kids like him.

I’m not advocating living in a world like that.  I’m saying, if you’re Malcolm Gladwell, and you’ve just written a book about how random the conditions of success might be, how can you advocate anything at all?