Who is Tending to the Minds of Our Boys?

”An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”

Proverbs 18:15

As I entered the local Barnes & Noble bookstore the other day I was greeted by a beautiful table covered with books with and an inspirational sign that said, “Inspiring Stories for Unstoppable Girls.”   Try as I might, I could not find a similar display for boys.

I first encountered this bias in our publishing and book world when my daughter, who is now in her twenties, got her first American Girl book back in the late 1990s.   Started by the Pleasant Company, American Girl books tell the stories of characters like Kirsten Larson, born in 1854, a Swedish immigrant who settles in the Minnesota Territory, and Josefina Montoya, a young Mexican girl living in New Mexico who was born in 1824.  The books come in a set of six books with colorful pictures, whose historical fiction is designed for 8-to-11 year-old girls. But the books are just the start. Girls can also buy dolls based on the books as well as furniture, clothes, and accessories. Bought by Mattel in 1998, the brand has expanded to include American Girl Stores, where girls can buy the books, dolls, and costumes as well as dine with their dolls in a specially themed restaurant.

As you might expect, American Girl has become a very profitable enterprise and has done a great job introducing girls to the world of books as a fun and lively experience, especially for those whose parents or grandparents can foot the bill for the dolls that cost over $100.00 each.

But you will not find an American Boy series of books or stores that help capture the imagination of boys. Somehow because they are boys, they are supposed to figure this out on their own without the encouragement of the book world. My son who is in his young teens has found some series to be interesting like the Percy Jackson books and 39 Clues. But other than that, few books capture his attention.

He and his friends would much rather play video games and talk about the characters in the games than discuss anything they would find in a book. It seems as a culture we have ceded the minds of our boys and young men to the influence of the creators of video games, whose most popular titles such as Call to Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Bloodborne invite them into a world of violence and mayhem.

As parents, we see an ongoing battle for our boys’ minds. How do we get them to read when the publishing market is all too content to cater to girls? How do we balance boys’ desire to play video games, whose online interactive features encourage them to connect with one another, with the importance of reading for the development of their imaginations and learning to focus? Why is it when I Google “Books for Girls,” I find sites that talk about empowering girls, but when I Google “Books for Boys” I find sites that merely recommend good books or “great” books?

I don’t have a ready answer for this except to say that our boys need to be empowered as well. They need to feel they will be able to offer something positive to the world in the future. Just like today’s iKids girls, our iKids boys need to be encouraged to read during the most important period of brain development a human ever goes through, from ages eight to fifteen, when the brain develops its ability to think, to make decisions, to discern what is good and evil, to value relationships, and to make choices about faith and belief.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age.  For more info go to http://iKidsgen.com

iKids and Screen Time: Is it Time to Hit the Pause Button?

It’s hard to believe, but the iPad has only been around for four years. First introduced in 2010, it ushered in a digital wave of devices that have been quickly embraced by families with children. Almost everywhere you go you will see children with digital devices about three inches from their faces as parents do their shopping or walking.

Some recent articles and studies reminds us that we are in the midst of a great experiment – and it might be time to hit the pause button on the amount of time we let the iKids use our favorite devices.

  1. Is there a difference between reading a book on a screen than reading a physical book?
    Apparently so. When parents read a book to a child on an iPad or Kindle Fire there is more focus on what is happening on the screen than on the story that is being read. As a child looks at the words on the screen, they want to touch the screen to make something happen. Instead of focusing on the words and the story, they are more interested in the images on the screen. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University says the goal of reading a book is starting a conversation about the story. “But if that book has things that disrupt the conversation, like a game plopped right in the middle of the story, then it’s not offering you the same advantages as an old-fashioned book.”
  1. Does the number of words a child hear matter?
    While much is made of the economic disparities between the rich and the poor, another disparity has great implications on a child’s success in the future. Studies show that affluent parents spend 30 minutes more a day reading and talking to their children than poor parents. The daily intake of words is just as significant as maintaining a healthy diet or getting enough exercise. By the time a poor child enters school he or she has heard 30 million less words than their affluent peers whose parents buy them books, read to them, and engage in more conversations. What makes this even more troublesome is that a child can’t make this up by working harder when they are older. The development of language skills it closely tied to the developing brain of the toddler and preschooler – once that time is past, you can’t make it up. This research does not take into account the new trend of using digital devices. If the affluent turn to using tablets for reading instead of physical books, the number of words heard by their children may go down.
  1. Does multitasking damage your brain?
    You would think watching TV and flipping pages on your smartphone at the same time is just a harmless activity, just a way to spend some of your down time. But it turns out, multitasking, especially if it is an ongoing way of life, may be taking a toll on our brains. The brain can only do one thing at a time and with the constant switching between streams of information you end up doing multiple things inefficiently. Stanford University researchers found heavy multitaskers did poorly when it came to productivity because they are unable to filter out unnecessary information. In another study, researchers at the University of Sussex compared the MRI scans of people who multitasked and those who didn’t. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in their cortex, the part of the brain that controls our emotions and cognitive ability. Neuroscientist Kep Kee Loh, the study’s lead author, explained the implications: “I feel that it is important to create an awareness that the way we are interacting with the devices might be changing the way we think and these changes might be occurring at the level of brain structure.”

The Implications:

While the use of techgear for reading and entertainment may be convenient and fun, when it come to iKids we need to seriously think about how much they should spend on screens. Because children and young teens are at the peak of brain development, a careful watch must be made on how the devices are used.

  • For preschoolers, the old fashioned practice of reading a physical book develops imagination and deep thinking. It makes a connection between the parent, the child, and the story that enhances their thinking and creates an emotional bond between parent and child.
  • For 8-10 year-olds, the types of study habits they develop will greatly impact their ability to think in the future. Working to use one stream of information, rather than being surrounded by multiple devices will be a challenge, especially as schools increasingly turn to the use of techgear in the classroom.
  • For 13-14 year-olds, as smartphones become the center of their relationships with their friends, the challenge becomes weaning them off their constant texting, SnapChatting, and uploading. When it comes to schoolwork, what was said earlier about 8-10 year-olds it true – moving them away from multitasking is important for their long-term brain development.