If you’ll forgive the soapbox

Original from CNN.

And now, my new and improved verison:

Feel free to have this reaction.

I was visiting my nephews, again. Within seconds of seeing me fiddle with my Kindle, my older nephew, Jack, who is 8, asked me, again, if my Kindle had any books on it.

“Uh, no, sorry Jack,” was my reply, letting a white lie skip through my teeth. I knew his mother and father might be none too pleased to see the two of us hunched over the tiny screen reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” or “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

What his parents are doing is difficult. They’ve chosen to keep Jack book-free for as long as possible. Of course, Jack has gotten a taste of books. He gets to read on special occasions, and will probably read at friends’ houses where the rules are different.

I suspect his parents will persist until they can’t hold out any longer, until peer pressure from schoolmates, combined with the reality that kids of Jack’s generation will be inexorably bound to printing technology like none before them, forces them to relent.

Perhaps it’s a lost cause. Still, key questions can be raised here, and they are good ones to consider. What is the appropriate age to let kids loose in the paperback playscape? Are books OK for 8-year-olds? Seven-year-olds? Six? How young is too young?

Some books are appropriate for certain age groups and some books aren’t; obviously, no one is allowing their 5-year-old to read “The Lord of the Flies.” (Jeezum, let’s hope.)

I’m no expert, but I’ve been reading up on some of the research. For one, the trend is that each year, younger and younger kids are experiencing page time.

This article references a study saying that since 2005, “the average age that U.S. youngsters started to use printed materials had fallen from just over 8 to just over 6 1/2.”

Educational psychologist and author Jane Healy recently wrote: “My position is that children are better off without books before the age of 7. By age 7, their brains have undergone a great deal of maturation and the basics should be in there. They can start to expand the type of thinking they can do so they can actually start to get something worthwhile using good literature, for example, good travel guides.”

To my mind, the issue goes beyond the debatable ill-effects of book violence — which I debunk in this op-ed, suggesting that book violence can be a good thing.

To me, the issue isn’t about fears that books instill violent behavior, but rather that books are usurping the power of more conventional toys. There may be merits to shielding boys and girls like Jack from their vellum futures, at least temporarily, if kids can first learn to amuse themselves without automatically reaching for a bound sheaf.

The truck, the toy sword, the soccer ball, the sandbox, the board game, the pad of paper, the videogame: All can be as magical and entrancing as anything a publishing house can cook up. Perhaps this is the rule of thumb: Once a love of digital play is instilled in young minds and habits, then let kids run free through the wild world of words.

Obviously there are no definitive answers. These are questions that have been discussed on Wired.com before. But I hope this space can continue to provide an excellent forum to discuss the issues. I’m curious to hear your viewpoints. Please comment below.

And, next time I see my nephew Jack, I’ll have a better idea of how to counter his whining — sweet whining, but whining nonetheless.

9 thoughts on “If you’ll forgive the soapbox”

  1. I have to say I’m a little mixed on this article. Because I came from a home where I didn’t get a simple gameboy till I was 8 (and then only because we were going on a road trip). I didn’t get my first console till I was in high school (“Slim” model PS2). Yes, I played video games whenever I went to a friends house that had them; yes, occasionally we would rent the N64 from blockbuster over holidays. But they were never readily available to me, almost until I could drive a car.

    While sometimes I look back and am sad that I never owned any of the great Nintendo consoles, I do value the fact that a lack of video games is what made me get into reading and I’ve been reading almost non-stop since I learned how. There are days when I look back and think that my childhood was better because I spent a lot of it outdoors. There are times I contribute much of my creativity to having a lack of things to do as a kid. You just don’t come up with some of the crazy ideas if you don’t let yourself get bored every once in awhile.

    I do believe my parents were over zealous when it came to limiting video games and sometimes I believe it is the reason why I’m so in love with them now. Perhaps if I had been introduced to them slowly I might not be quite so obsessed with them now (not that that is necessarily bad).

    I guess in the end I’ll end up allowing my kids to play video games as a kid… but only in small doses. Some kids won’t have any problems managing “regular” play time alongside video games, but if I feel that my kids aren’t doing kid-stuff other than video games, I won’t hesitate to restrict access to them. Everyone should know how to live life outside of a computer screen.

    tl;dr Live life in moderation, too much of anything is bad.

  2. Yes! I think “everything in moderation” is key here. And education.

    Some parents ban their kids from eating junk food. But I think it’s more valuable to teach your children why junk food isn’t good for you, and good eating habits in general.

    My parents used to limit me to one hour of TV a day. I didn’t like it at the time, but it meant I had a more healthy balance of different activities. Sometimes I wonder if they should have done the same for computer usage, when I was a bit older :D

    I adore reading, but if my child was reading for the majority of their spare time, I’d probably think about limiting them and/or encouraging them to do something else for a few hours a day.

    1. My mother tried to limit me to an hour a day of computer use. Not only did I completely ignore said limit when she wasn’t around, but it had a negative effect on our relationship and my growth, as there wasn’t anything else for me to do (all my favorite reads are online, a lot of my studying was done online or at the computer, and for a while all my music was stored on my computer), and in the end it didn’t make any difference as I’m on the computer for most of my free time anyway now that I’ve moved out.

      I also have to question the wisdom of this move from a mother who leaves the hospital when her son is three days old so she can get back to work, at which point she plopped me in her lap and worked on the computer. Both my parents have worked closely with computers for their entire careers and have spent more than a little of their free time teaching me about computers. I’ve also picked up a lot on my own; when I was three I found a workaround for the child security program on the computer. I think I was bound to spend more than my fair share of time on the computer when I got older.

      That’s just me, though.

  3. I really don’t have an opinion on this but I just find it odd a child would be discouraged from reading books. I remember being a kid and my parents were constantly on me about getting outside and doing something else with my free time, but inevitably I would end up back with my nose in a book. I think kids should be encouraged to start reading as early as possible. There are plenty of books designed and meant to be read by children. I distinctly remember reading a Pokey Little Puppy back when I was a youngin’.

  4. I agree with Mazil: moderation. I don’t think kids should always have their nose in something electronic, but then again that’s how most of our part of the world operates so they should know how to use electronics. My daughter is familiar with laptops but she won’t get her own til she’s older.

  5. LOLz, nice switch. After 7? Well, that certainly doesn’t explain me. I was playing games when I was 3. I was playing Doom by 8. Later on, around the age of 10, I was playing Hexen, followed by Duke Nukem 3D.
    And just to throw it in there. I already knew many Edgar Allan Poe stories, by heart (Bonus points for catching the reference!), at around the same age.
    The blood, gore and giggles as I ran around with a digital chainsaw didn’t have any negative influence on me, that I know of.


  6. I have 2 reactions to this article (and yes I read the real one too, lol):

    1. Technology is the new future. The sooner you adapt to it, the better. Wrap your mind around the logic of programming and surround your body with silicon and copper, from the earliest age. This is what our race has become, and the height of our technology is yet to be upon us. Soon all political squabbles, and all national boundaries, will be dissolved in a massive interconnected cyberscape that will challenge the very limits of our human potential. Embrace it, immerse your children in it; for they will inherit more power than any in our planet’s history has ever dared to dream of. Soon the world will move as one on the digital pulsebeat of an Ethernet packet, and the sooner you are connected, the better.

    2. That being said, there is a slight point to the idea that too much technology can be a little de-humanizing. I don’t think that we have really reached that point yet, but your comparison raises an interesting point; books require active use of the imagination to “function” properly. Video games do most of that work for you, more and more.

    For example, contrast playing FF 1 and FF 12. They are both cool games, but FF1’s 8 bit graphics and unrealistic turn-based combat system force you to make better use of your imagination than, say, FF12, where all the visuals look almost real and you can cast spells and swing your weapon in a more or less realistic way, even though you might have a “wait” bar.

    I know I have benefited greatly from both, but I also realize that books make a better “work out” for your imagination, if you want to put it that way, than video games do because they do a lot of the visualizing for you.

    I don’t think there is too early an age to start exposure to electronic media (within age-specific content restrictions, of course); computers a facet of our world that is not going anywhere but up in terms of ubiquity. But, as many of the above posters have mentioned, moderation is still in play here; and telling your kid that 3 hours of PS2 a night is enough, go read something, is probably a good idea. Besides, some kids are just more physical in nature, and would rather be outside running around as opposed to sitting in front of a screen all day; those kids will sort themselves out with little to no prodding.

Comments are closed.