I’ve been teaching Human Growth and Development for a long time. Since we discuss how babies develop, the beginning of each class is a lot like a parenting course. Most of my students have remarked that they feel so much more prepared to be parents because of what we discuss in class about what babies need to develop successfully.
A recent piece in the New York Times, “There’s Evidence on How to Raise Children, but Are Parents Listening?” discusses what doesn’t help. The article focuses on the theory that children who come from advantaged backgrounds simply hear more words than children whose environments are less enriched. The idea is that because they hear more words, they’re able to learn, and deal with the world, better. That’s not new information, but what is interesting is that this article points out that research does not support methods that have been developed to provide children with more words. These methods include various varieties of visual and electronic sources for verbal information – think Baby Einstein, and the Teach Your Baby To Read products.
As the article points out, these electronic sources – whether from TV, audio, or computer – have been shown to reduce verbal development in very young children. As a result, the World Health Organization has made a recommendation that children under 1 should not have any screen time at all, and very limited screen time between 1 and 4. Let me repeat that for the folks in the back – NO TV, COMPUTER, OR PHONE ACCESS BEFORE 2 YEARS OF AGE.
This is true for all children, so why are we, who are interested in raising boys, talking about this? The reason is that it can be difficult to keep boys quiet and amused, so parents are very tempted to give them screen time to keep the little boys quiet. When I see very small children with a phone or tablet in their hand, the child is almost always a boy. Parents seem to find it easier to keep girls busy.
Then what is it that children actually need to help them develop the skills necessary to manage their world? Remember, the items on this list are true for all children, but are particularly necessary for boys, because research says that parents do not talk to boys as much as they do girls.
- Skin -to-skin contact. Hold your baby as much as you possibly can. Don’t carry your infant in a car seat, use a sling that holds the baby against you. The car seat is designed for safety in the car, it is not a substitute for the warmth that a child needs. Research shows that preemies have better and faster neurological development if they are regularly held by someone against their skin what is called “kangarooing” or “kangaroo care.”
- Talk to your infant/child. While electronic sources do not seem to help babies develop verbal skills, interacting with older humans definitely does. Parents have been observed talking to their boys less often than to their girls, so talk to your children. If your son does not seem to be paying attention, never mind, keep talking to him. Many boys find it hard to look at someone who is talking to them – they are still listening.
- Read to your child. The NYT article does mention that children who are read to develop verbal skills earlier and better than children who are not read to. The sound of the written word is not the same as the sound of the spoken word, the rhythms and vocabulary are different, and hearing what written words sound like helps children develop skills in reading. For some reason, audio books have not been shown to help children develop verbal skills, they need the live performance.
- When children get old enough, they need to be responsible for their things. Children as young as two and three can pick up their toys, by five they can make their bed, and by eight, they can be responsible for getting a snack or light meal – and cleaning up after themselves. Children who have no responsibilities are guests in their own home, and don’t feel that they belong to the family. Chores are one way to help us all be a part of our families.
None of this is new information, but the increasing number of electronic devices, particularly in the hands of small children, is a serious problem. Aside from the problems with acquisition of the verbal skills which will provide a basis for reading – so necessary in school – another problem with frequent electronic use is an inability to develop attentional skills. Think about how often boys are diagnosed with both reading and attentional problems. Letting your son go out in the back yard and dig for buried treasure or hammer some boards together to make a bird house is far more beneficial than any skills he may develop on a device. Remember that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates did not grow up with computers. Your son needs to solve problems for himself, with his mind and hands, not simply learn how to point and shoot on a screen.