Changing Childhood

Three recent stories in the news reflect changes that are taking place in the way children are developing.  They reflect not only children’s exposure to technology, but also the influence of a current emphasis on brain development and early academic achievement.   

The first is a report that book publishers are increasingly producing board books for  babies that are miniature works of literary art, classics such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Moby Dick”, and “Les Miserables”.  Along with thinking about playing classical music to  babies in the womb, and teaching them foreign languages at an early age, the idea is to expose babies to fine art and literature in order to stimulate their minds.  While the books do not try to offer the narratives involved, they use pictures of the characters in the service of explaining counting, colors, or the concept of opposites.

Next is a study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that examines children’s use of technology, reporting a “drastic” shift in the number of children under 2 using mobile devices like iPhones, tablets, or Kindles.  The author of the report is quoted saying, “IPhones and tablets are game changers, because they’re so easy to use . . . a young child who can touch a picture can open an app, or swipe the screen.”  While young children seem so tech-savvy, the actual fact is that technology has gotten much easier to use.

Finally, moving up the developmental ladder comes a report that colleges are worried about the fading interest in the humanities on the part of college students.  It appears that the recession, as well as student debt, has helped turn the view of college into that of a tool for job preparation, and that interest in the humanities does not lead in that direction.  Outside funding for science has led universities to build up the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – and the feeling is that  power is in the sciences.

What is the connection – if any – between these different stories?   Perhaps becoming tech-savvy before age two has some relationship to ability in science and technology as a college student.  We don’t know enough yet about brain development to draw that conclusion.  But what about the increased use of iPhones and tablets by those under two, and the development of “literary” board books which seems to point in another direction?

The fact is that these new board books are in reality simply using the images drawn from the classics to promote the same kind of basic learning about objects, colors, and numbers that were always part of first books.  The commercial motivation behind the new look is the same as that of the earlier “Baby Einstein” videos:  supposedly promoting infant “genius”. 

The focus on early intellectual stimulation and brain development, and the emphasis on science and technology, seem more specifically related to our poor academic standing in comparison to China, Korea and countries like Poland.  The current competition with China is reminiscent of the 1950’s competition with the Soviet Union.  As is the case now, the educational system was refocused on science then because of the fear that we were falling behind in the space race.

Neil Postman, the late author, educator, and cultural critic, wrote a book called, “The Disappearance of Childhood.”  In it he described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy.  In ancient times children were not distinguished from adults in terms of dress, behavior, or activities, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.

Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. “Childhood . . . was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be psychologically assimilable ways.  The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”

Postman pointed out that “language is an abstraction about experience whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.”  He made the further point that the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible.  It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience.  He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.

Most parents would agree with the difficulty – almost impossibility – of protecting children from information and sights we believe they are too young to process.  New developments in technology have eroded the distinction of children from adults even further.  Postman believed that in Western civilization, the growth in empathy and sensibility – in humaneness – has followed the path of the growth of childhood.

These qualities have distinguished us as a society. Our values have derived from the humanities.  It will be unfortunate if a total focus on technology, and the promotion of only one aspect of early development, lead us to ignore those aspects of education that in the past spoke of, and to those values.