Parents are bombarded by messages urging them to buy their children educational games and toys so they will turn out intelligent, brand-name clothing and gadgets so that they will fit in and be popular… Then there are the activities urged upon parents: sports, dance, art and music classes, academic enrichment programs… Parents who don’t have money to buy many of these things and experiences may feel that their children are missing out. Parents who can afford to buy them may find that their children are missing something more subtle but at least as important.
Children can learn many valuable things from structured activities, but they need some unstructured time in order to learn creativity and self-motivation and to discover their own priorities. Children can enjoy and learn from games and toys, but they can also become swamped with stuff, constantly looking for something new instead of using and enjoying what they have. Children may be temporarily protected from some kinds of bullying by having all the ‘right’ things, but social relationships based on having the right stuff are not apt to be constructive and lasting.
Virtual Life and Real Life
Classrooms are adding more electronic technology and parents are told that children need to become adept in the digital world if they want to succeed professionally or socially as adults. It’s true that the Internet provides vast amounts of useful, instantly available information, electronic communications technologies can help children connect with and understand the lives of people in distant places, and many careers do require virtual capability. But the Internet also provides vast amounts of misinformation, manipulative advertising, hate speech and offensive content, and electronic communications technologies can allow children to be harassed and bullied by their peers twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We need to be aware of the gifts and dangers of these technologies.
Children also need plenty of time in the real world. Many doctors and researchers warn that infants and toddlers need real-world, tactile activities to help them develop their minds and their grasp of life, and that screen-time is usually counterproductive for them. Even older children show higher rates of obesity, sleep problems, mood disorders and other difficulties if they spend many hours on-screen each day. This is partly because screen time distracts them from other essential activities–talking, working and playing in person with family and neighbors; exploring the natural world; reading books, which engage the mind in a different way from image-based media; taking time for quiet reflection, spiritual practice and creative activity.
Mary Pipher’s book The Shelter Of Each Other talks about the difficult and paradoxical task of parents. They need to prepare their children to understand and take part in the wider culture around them, and at the same time to help them question and find alternatives to the parts of that culture that are unhealthy. There is no simple rule for striking the right balance. If we are clear and honest with ourselves and our children about the hard questions, we may eventually be able to help them develop the insight and judgment to determine the right balance for themselves.