Has the Bread Become Our Master?

15 Aug

An old Iranian proverb says: “Eat your bread in such a way that the bread does not become your master.”  In modern times, we’d be wise to say the same thing about our relationship with technology.

If you were born between the 1940’s and the 1970’s, you’ve experienced first-hand how important technology is for getting ahead in the workforce.  Those in our generation who obtained the necessary technology training to keep up with industry trends have been able to move ahead in the workforce, while others who were stumped by computers have been left behind.  We stand in awe of tech wizards who do with computers what most of us could only dream of (I should know, my husband is one of those brainiacs), and society rewards them handsomely for their abilities.

Not surprisingly, we believe that the secret to our children’s success lies in early exposure to technology.  After all, if we’d been born with a laptop in our hands, we wouldn’t have had to undergo the scary technology learning curve most of us experienced in high school, college, or worse: on the job!  I still remember being in my first year of college (1994) and opening a web browser for the first time.  I had no idea what to do or what to type after arriving at mtv.com (the only website I could think of!).  I also remember working in the corporate world with people only a few years older than me who had no clue how to use basic office technology.  “I’m about to get fired” was written all over their angst-ridden faces as they cringed before the monitor.  Relate those experiences to the current day, when four-year-olds are giving their parents lessons on how to use an iPhone, and it becomes clear why parents are so eager to encourage their pre-schoolers’ impressive computer skills!

However, we are doing young children a terrible disservice by exposing them to computers at an early age (even those computers with so-called educational software).  We are stealing from our children the short window of opportunity for developing CRUCIAL neurological and intellectual skills that ONLY come through real-world experiences.

Am I afraid of technology?  That’s like asking if I’m afraid of tools.  Both are marvelous inventions when used correctly!  Computers are a tool, and like every tool, they should be handled responsibly and used for the right purposes.  An electric drill is a very useful tool for hanging a painting, but it can have dire consequences if used incorrectly.  So can computers.

Here are (a few of) the facts:

  • Computers rob children of outdoor playtime.  Playing outdoors greatly benefits their physical health, encourages socialization, and develops problem-solving skills (read on to find out why computer software fails to provide truly useful problem-solving opportunities).  Physical activity also increases oxygen supply and balances chemical secretions in the brain.  Children with balanced brain chemistry are more capable of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression, and show an increased ability to learn and retain information.
  • Computers take time away from experiences with real-world items (be it toys, art supplies, or a basket full of laundry).  These physical experiences provide the child with important clues about how the world REALLY works (i.e. gravity, cause & effect, self-control), drive him to find out more, and allow him to control of his environment.  Computer programs decide what the child is going to learn; they don’t provide useful multi-sensory feedback (e.g. banging your finger with a hammer in real life is a lot more educational than the same experience in the virtual world); and they breed a passive learner who is dependent on machines to provide experiences and solutions.  Additionally, if a child is stumped on a computer problem, he can shut down the machine and walk away with no consequences.  Not so when he has to figure out how to load the dishwasher so all the plates will fit and the door will close!
  • Computers rob children of valuable child-adult interactions.  In a very large study, researchers found that interactions between children and adults were the primary determinants of children’s intelligence, academic success, and emotional stability. What did these interactions look like?  They were “relaxed explorations guided primarily by the child and supported by helpful and emotionally responsive but not overly intrusive adults.” (Healy, Failure to Connect)  Can computers be “helpful and emotionally responsive”?  No, but you sure can!
  • Computers discourage the type of problem-solving scenarios that create lasting intellectual growth.  When a child is stuck on a problem in real life, a subtle suggestion or question from an adult can be just what he needs to solve the problem himself.  Even the most sophisticated computer programs cannot do this, so children who work with computers learn that the only way to find out the right answer is by waiting for the computer to show them (if they’re patient and interested enough to wait that long).  Gone are the feelings of satisfaction and triumph that come from solving a problem, and gone too is the embodiment of that new knowledge through the experience of figuring it out.
  • Computers don’t provide clear “if-then” experiences, thereby impairing a child’s ability to judge situations.  Psychologists now know that children need physical experiences that they themselves can control (e.g. if I do x this way, then y will happen – What happens if I do x differently?).  This phenomenon is especially important between the ages of three and four, when the brain takes a giant leap in causal reasoning.  And this is exactly when many parents choose to introduce computers to their children – computers that are ripe with software that provides confusing and unnatural cause-effect relationships.  Not surprisingly, elementary and junior high school teachers report a growing number of older students who struggle with applying “if-then” concepts to math, science, and social relations.  Even my husband, who teaches at the college level, has noticed this growing trend among his undergraduate students.
  • Computers confuse children about what is fact and what is fiction.  While young children have a hard time telling the difference between fantasy and reality, by age seven most can tell the two concepts apart.  However, studies have shown that the more screen time children are exposed to when they’re young, the more they struggle with correctly identifying something as fact or fiction as they get older.

In summary: The tech geniuses and titans of industry of today did not achieve their success by sitting in front of a computer at age four.  Their impressive creative and entrepreneurial abilities come from the real-life experiences they had as young children.

Let a pile of laundry be your children’s software and the sandbox be their Silicon Valley.  Allow them to care for a real mouse and “byte” into carrots and radishes straight from the garden.  Invite them to connect with the world and behold the true genius that’s just waiting to burst out.


For a fascinating look at how computers affect our children, as well as a more in-depth explanation of the specific points discussed here, refer to the wonderful book “Failure To Connect” by Dr. Jane Healy.  If you don’t have time to read the entire book, at least check out Chapter Seven – Cybertots: Technology and the Preschool Child.  Get a free preview through Google Books!


9 Responses to “Has the Bread Become Our Master?”

  1. Linda Cameron August 15, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Great post! I may ask to borrow it for my parent blog! I love the last bit about the laundry being the software and taking bytes from carrots! Thank you!

    • montessorimatters August 15, 2010 at 9:24 pm #

      Linda, please feel free to re-post anything on this blog. I just ask that you include my name and a link to the post. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  2. Brandi (Real Life Montessori) August 16, 2010 at 1:46 am #

    I think people have a really outdated view of technology when they think it needs to be “taught” to kids at a young age in order for them to understand it. It’s not like when we were kids and people didn’t have computers and cell phones and the like, today kids are surrounded by computers from the day they were born. It’s just part of life that they will pick up as easy as any other life skill, and like real life skills they will pick it up *when they need it.*

  3. Marcy August 17, 2010 at 2:17 am #

    The irony of feeling like we need to teach kids NOW all about computers, is that at the pace of technology by the time they’re our age everything will probably be completely different. So it’s not like what they learned at age 4 would really help them anyway.

    Thank you for writing this. I firmly believe it all as well… (though I definitely need to work on my modeling in this area… D sees me spend WAY too much time at my computer…).

  4. Evelyn August 24, 2010 at 3:23 am #

    Its so great to know other people feel the same way about computers, TV and technology in general. I’m constantly monitoring TV, computer and electronic games with my kids. I do what ever it takes to minimize their exposure to any of these. But the pressure we get from family members and neighbors is huge. Thank you for sharing such an informative and inspiring post.
    Big hugs from PR,

  5. melissa madden September 19, 2010 at 4:16 am #

    thank you, very well said!

  6. Rosy October 16, 2010 at 5:07 am #

    What are your thoughts about whether/when it is appropriate to have a computer in a Montessori classroom? I am talking about with the upper grades, say age 6+, in a mixed lower- and upper-elementary classroom setting. We have the sudden advent of 2 machines in a classroom that was previously “computer free”. And, if introduced, with what guidance for usage/viewing?

    • montessorimatters October 16, 2010 at 6:19 am #

      Dear Rebecca,

      First of all, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog. You face a situation faced by many Elementary Montessori schools. I can’t speak from experience because I have always worked with the younger children, but if I were to find myself in your situation, I would place the computers in the classroom with certain rules:

      There should be clear indications on what the computers can be used for. For example, it would be ok to use the computer to obtain the information and background of a college professor that the children want to interview for a project. It would NOT be ok to skip the face-to-face meeting and use the internet as their only source of information. It would be ok to use the computer to type up a FINAL draft of a report; it would NOT be ok to write the report on the computer from the beginning. It would be ok to use a computer to find a school in China with which to set up a pen pal program; it would NOT be ok to e-mail these pen pals instead of writing to them.

      These are some examples of what the limits would be for my classroom if I were faced with your situation. Every teacher/administrator should decide what these rules are going to be, keeping in mind the children’s sensitivities, mainly their interest in exploring and being part of the world. Computers open doors in some respect, but set up barriers to certain essential forms of human connections. Children have the rest of their adult lives to sit within four walls and connect with the world through the internet, but only have a few years to learn in a hands-on way about inter-personal relationships and how people function. What’s more, they are KEEN to do this, they are driven to find out how human beings relate to each other. I would take advantage of this sensitivity, which is there for a reason, and provide them with those opportunities.

      Also, keep in mind that most elementary children already have PLENTY of computer time at home, so limiting their access in the classroom is not doing them any harm. You’re not slowing down their academic development or putting them at a disadvantage to their peers; quite the opposite! 🙂

      I hope this helps… I recommend looking into the work of Jane Healy, who has written extensively on finding a balance between computers and real life for children.


  1. Has the Bread Become Our Master? | Γονείς σε Δράση - August 15, 2010

    […] post by montessorimatters var addthis_language = 'en'; Filed under Uncategorized ← Seriously, Parenting […]

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