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.

7 Ways to Uncouple from “Now”

The operative word for the digital age is “Now.” Whether its getting a prompt to “Like” or a disquieting nudge because you haven’t answered that email, it seems that little is being done to remember the past or prepare for the future. Our devices are not created to encourage us to ponder, reflect, and discern. They are designed to get us to search, to click, and to hyperlink – always looking for the next best thing.

This is true for our iKids as well. As we shuttle them from school to practice to church to camp to after-school events…are we giving them time to take a break? Where in our hurried lives do we hit the pause button and breathe?

So in attempt to break free, here are 7 ways to take a break from the tyranny of now.

  1. Read a novel. Our smartphones and tablets are full of ways to distract us and the reading we do is nothing more than scanning short bursts of information. Taking a break from screens and reading a real book helps our mind imagine, relax, and refresh.
  2. Learn to cook Moussaka. About six months ago my family and I went to a Greek restaurant and I tried moussaka for the first time. For some strange reason I went home and decided to learn how to make it. It was out of my comfort zone and cultural background, but now that I have cooked it a number of times, it’s not half bad. If moussaka is not your thing, find a recipe that takes a lot of preparation and challenges you. The act of cooking a complex dish gives you a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the time it takes to make something good.
  3. Take a media fast.   We are so hemmed in by our screens and by our need to respond, that we don’t know how to live without a smartphone in our hand. So take up the challenge to shut it down for an evening or even a day. Turn off all media and give yourself time to think and reflect (fasting in Biblical times was related to food, fasting for us is giving up our media intake for a period of time).
  4. Write a letter. If you don’t remember how to do this, it entails getting a piece of paper and a pen and clearing a spot on a table to write. Writing by hand is slower because it makes you use the artistic side of your brain. When you write with a pen or pencil you are literally drawing a picture – one that others can recognize – that communicates a message to someone else. This is not the same as typing or texting. Writing by hand gives you an opportunity to think and to reflect as you share your thoughts with another person.
  5. Read a book to someone else. This is different than #1 above. By reading aloud to another member of your family or a friend the words take on another meaning. It also moves you to engagement.   This last week I picked up Love. Period.: When All Else Fails by Rudy Rasmus and starting reading it to my son. It has been a very rewarding experience as we are learning together and being challenged live out our Christian walk in today’s society.
  6. Listen to a story.   Take the time to talk with an older adult who grew up before the digital age. This might be an older relative or a member of your church. As you listen, you will see that they talk in stories and they focus on relationships. Talking to an older adult gives you an opportunity to break free from the onslaught of being “on” all the time and to hear about a time when relationships were built face-to-face and time moved at a slower pace.
  7. Pray. A long time ago I took a class on spirituality and we were taught a very simple prayer that has stayed with me. It goes like this, “I belong to God.” That’s it. Find a quiet moment and give yourself time to repeat this phrase as you pray it over and over again. It’s a very powerful prayer because it will remind you created you and will give you a sense of the timelessness of God’s presence in your life.

iKids now Available on Kindle

Cover amazonAfter two years of research, writing, editing, rewriting, and rewriting again, iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age is now available for Kindle at a special promotional price of .99 cents.

iKids Kindle Version

The focus of iKids is how digital media, especially the advent of smartphones and tablets, is affecting the lives of children and young teens born since 2000.  A quote from the book best sums up the importance of this topic:

“The one discovery that most resonated with me was this: We are in the midst of a great experiment. No one knows how the use of techgear and digital media is affecting the mental and social development of iKids. Whether it’s Toys’R’Us selling a line of tablets for four-year-olds or school systems giving children iPads so they can take the Common Core test online or parents giving eight-year-olds smartphones so they can keep track of them when they go to school, the iKids are immersed in a screened-in environment that beckons them at every turn.  The only thing we know for sure is that as our society purchases techgear in record numbers and puts it in the hands of our youngest generation, we are faced with a slew of questions that won’t be answered until iKids are in their twenties and thirties.”    iKids, p. 13.

In iKids I invite you to join me in wrestling with the issues of how we raise this newest generation, one that is pushed and pulled by the forces of technological change.  We will look at how companies like Disney and Apple look for ways to capture iKids to keep them as life long customers.  We will talk about privacy and the importance of one’s identity.  We will discover how gaming is the metaphor for the spiritual life that connects with this generation and we will be challenged to look at how our own use of digital media shapes the lives of our children.

The book itself tells a story of how digital technology is changing the way we interact with media.  The kindle version of iKids includes links to not only the chapters but also to a series of articles that are embedded in the book.  Topics like “So your iKid wants a Phone”, “Who Owns Our Pop Culture?”, and “When Faith Communities Adopt Schools” are just a click away.  Also, URLs to various sites are active as well as hyperlinks to the over 200 footnotes in the book.

I invite you to take a look at iKids: Parenting in the Digital Age and join me in this critical conversation about the future of the iKids Generation.

Craig Kennet Miller

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“Miller’s unique navigation through the digital waters surrounding pre-teens and
teenagers today is brilliant. As a pastor of a growing congregation and the father
of two young children, this resource is essential. I highly recommend adding it to
your collection.”
—Olu Brown, pastor of Impact Church in Atlanta, Georgia and author of Zero to 80

“An enlightening look into the world of the newest, techiest generation, iKids is
chock-full of useful tidbits to help parents prevent children from overloading on
too many screens and too much technology. [This book is] an excellent guide for
Christian parents who want to raise their children with the right values.”
—Jean M. Twenge, author of Generation Me and coauthor of The Narcissism Epidemic

“Every parent in America needs a copy of this book. If I were a pastor or staff
member of a church, I would make sure every parent and grandparent had this
book, and I would organize teaching and small-group discussions around it. There
is something to learn on every page—from information to perspective to practical
tips.”
—Reggie McNeal, author of Get Off Your Donkey: Help Somebody and Help Yourself

“This book is an amazing representation of the children who are entering into
middle school. Miller provides a vocabulary to understand these children and
their experiences, and he provides teachers, parents, pastors, Christian educators
and other leaders in the church ways to give guidance for a deeper spiritual walk
with God.”
—Leigh Meekins, Christian educator and ordained deacon, The United Methodist Church

“I read iKids through the eyes of a grandparent. I am giving a copy to each of my
children to help them practice proactive parenting in an age of techgear and digital
media, and better understand their influence on the mental and social development
of our grandchildren.”
—Mike Slaughter, Senior Pastor of Ginghamsburg Church