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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!

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Sneak Peek

5 May

Back in the days of my Montessori training course, my trainer (an amazing psychologist who had trained under humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers) recommended a book called Magical Child by Joseph Chilton Pearce.  I jotted down her recommendation and promptly forgot about it.  Flash-forward to a few weeks ago, when I saw it advertised on someone’s blog and checked it out of the library.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.  If you read one book about children this year, let it be this one.  (I’m trying to cut down on my book-buying addiction, but this one was a must-have.)

Some delightful tidbits in anticipation of a book review…

“The mind-brain is designed for astonishing capacities, but its development is based on the infant and child constructing a knowledge of the world as it actually is.  Children are unable to construct this foundation because we unknowingly inflict on them an anxiety-conditioned view of the world (as it was unknowingly inflicted on us).  Childhood is a battleground between the biological plan’s intent, which drives the child from within, and our anxious intentions, pressing the child from without.”

“The brain achieves its clarity of operations only through interacting with or moving into physical touch with the living earth itself… To the extent the newborn is allowed interaction with the earth, to that extent the brain clarifies its own portion of the picture.”

“In our anxieties, we fail to allow the child a continual interaction with the phenomena of this earth on a full-dimensional level (which means with all five of his/her body senses); and at the same time, we rush the child into contact with phenomena not appropriate to his/her stage of biological development.”

“Just as baby teeth come before giant twelve-year molars, so all the ramifications of concrete thought and experience must mature before abstract thought and experience can unfold.  We can force certain forms of abstraction prematurely on the child in his/her concrete stage of development, but the effects are specifically damaging (even though the damage will not be detectable for several years).”

All of these ideas (and many others in the book) were stated by Maria Montessori in her work at the beginning of the 20th century.  Pearce’s book, written in 1977, echoes Montessori’s viewpoints without once mentioning her.  She would be pleased, however, since she always said: “I keep pointing at the child; they keep looking at my finger”.  Pearce’s book does just what she wanted, it looks at the “modern child” (who in many respects hasn’t changed at all) and gives us a road map to guide his potential.

Powerful reading,  worthy of  your time and essential for your child’s healthy development… I hope you agree (and stay tuned for the book review)!

Book Review: Mindset (Part I – The section for parents, which teachers will also find useful)

24 Mar

“Much of what you think of as your personality actually grows out of your ‘mindset‘,” writes Dr. Carol Dweck in the introduction to Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  “Much of what may be preventing you from fulfilling your potential grows out of it.”

Dr. Dweck defines mindset as the way you view yourself and your life experiences.  People with a fixed mindset believe their personality, intelligence, and talents are set in stone.  They confirm these traits by evaluating their successes and defeats as pass or fail, win or lose.  Fixed-mindset folks are very concerned with how others view them, so they surround themselves with people who will shore up their self-esteem (aka, suck-ups).  Deficiencies are hidden and successes are trumpeted as confirmation of their beliefs.

On the other hand, people who adopt a growth mindset see their traits as the jumping-off point for development.  They believe that effort is the key to growth and conclude that each individual’s potential can only be discovered and reached through dedication, passion, and training.  The growth mindset is evident in people who learn from their mistakes, accept feedback, and stick with it when the going gets rough.  They surround themselves with people who help them grow and discover their potential.

The first 167 pages of Mindset show how the two frames of mind can affect performance, outcomes, and enjoyment in the world of sports, business, and personal relationships.  Dr. Dweck identifies the mindsets of famous (and not-so-famous) people and discusses the impact their viewpoints have on their lives and those of others.  It’s an interesting read, but in the interest of brevity, I’m going to skip to chapter 7 to find out where mindsets originate and how to keep our children on the right track.

“You learned that so quickly!  You’re so smart!”

“Look at that drawing!  Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”

“You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!”

Apart from the exclamation points, what do these sentences from the book have in common?  They are all supposedly encouraging messages that parents send to boost a child’s self-esteem.  Have you heard similar phrases being used?  Sure, we all have.  Have you uttered them?  Probably, and you had the best intentions in mind (I know I did!).

Unfortunately, here’s what the children hear:

If I don’t learn something quickly, I’m not smart.

I shouldn’t try drawing anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.

I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.

How did Dr. Dweck figure out that this is what the children were hearing?  She realized, while conducting seven research studies, that the children she had identified as having a fixed mindset were obsessed with these concepts.  The children would take great pains to prove how smart and talented they were, and would rarely take the opportunity to learn something new during the research studies if it meant stepping outside their comfort zone.  It stands to reason that the more we insist on praising these qualities, the more obsessed they will be with proving them true.  The problem comes when they hit a bump in the road. To the fixed mindset children, “if success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb,” explains Dr. Dweck bluntly.

At this point you must be thinking: Well, if I can’t praise my child, then what do I say to let her know she’s on the right path? Dr. Dweck suggests that we praise “the growth-oriented process”.  In other words, put into words what the child has accomplished through hard work, practice, and good strategies.

“I see you’ve been practicing your cursive handwriting.  I can tell you are being very careful about spacing your words.”

“You chose many beautiful colors to make that picture.  Can you tell me about it?”

“I noticed that you rolled the apron very neatly and cleaned the protector before putting it back on the tray!  Thank you for keeping our materials tidy.”

If improper praise hurts children, improper criticism is the nail on the coffin of the fixed mindset.  Sure, we all want to provide what the corporate world euphemistically calls “feedback for success”, but most of what we consider constructive criticism is heavy on judgment and light on support.  In Mindset, we’re reminded that constructive means “helping the child to fix something, build a better product, or do a better job.”  Therefore, our approach should be empathic and should open doors towards success.  For example, if a child does a sloppy job on a test and misses a few questions, dad could ask: “Son, is there something that wasn’t clear to you when you prepared for the test?  Do you want to go to the library to do some more research or would you feel more comfortable asking your teacher for additional review material?”  Hitting the roof and grounding the boy is not the right approach here!

Dr. Dweck’s research also confirmed that the fixed mindset stems from a situation where parents place conditions on their approval.  All parents want the best for their children, but what if your child’s idea of “best” is different from yours?  Most people (including yours truly) have faced conditional approval from their parents in some aspect of their lives: academic, professional, social, or cultural.  Most of the time, parents pass judgment unknowingly, thinking that they are setting up their child for a future of happiness by pushing for their own ideals of success.

In Mindset, we learn that some ideals are helpful while others can do terrible harm.  Growth-mindset parents encourage their children to choose a career that will have a positive impact on society or remind them to choose a romantic partner that will respect and support them emotionally.  Fixed-mindset parents will let their child know that they expect her to be a doctor or want him to marry a beauty queen.  Which ideals work best?  Those that provide respect for the child’s individuality, offer inspiration, and allow the child to slowly work towards the goal.

At the end of the chapter, we are challenged to “Grow Our Mindset”.  Dr. Dweck suggests:

“Tomorrow, listen to what you are saying to your kids and tune in to the messages you’re sending.  Are they messages that say: You have permanent traits and I am judging them? Or are they messages that say: You’re a developing person and I’m interested in your development?”

I’m ready to take this challenge!!  Will you take it with me in the next few days and post your honest thoughts? (Anonymous comments are welcome!)

“Mindset” was written by Carol S. Dweck, Ph. D. and is published by Random House. Copyright 2006.

The Psychology of Success

17 Mar

Here’s what I’m currently reading…

Amazing book, not only for helping children, but for changing my own perspectives and thought patterns!  Stay tuned for the book review and Montessori perspective this weekend!

Mommies Who Get It

24 Feb

I have been DELIGHTED to get so many amazing responses to the Parenting, Inc. book review from mommies who are sick and tired of light-up toys and Barbie merchandise (and how about light-up Barbie merchandise?!).  You guys give me hope that when I have kids, I’ll be able to find mom-friends who have the same values I do, and who respect their kids and know what’s best for their development.  Hats off to all of you, and A BIG THANK YOU for sending me links! I’m working on a follow-up post as soon as I recover from this majorly insane week (more on that later, but it involves temper tantrums, peeing on carpets, head-banging and shoe-flinging).