Do Gadgets Help Kids?

There are a few universal expressions that every parent has uttered since the dawn of time. “Boy, they sure grow up fast,” is likely a contender for the number one spot for parents of older children. On the other end of the spectrum (ie. parents of young children), it's likely, "things were a lot simpler back when I was a child."

Of course, more often than not, it is the culture that has changed, while children remain the same. After all, if every generation since the dawn of our species was now faster at growing up than the previous generation, we would now be starting careers before we learned how to crawl! Some things just won't hurry up, no matter how much it looks like they do.

Everyday parenting is not the same as it used to be just a few years ago. The Tom Sawyer style of raising a child by letting him or her bang around the neighborhood on their own, exploring wild places, and meeting friends on their own has become more restrictive.

There are the soccer moms who guide their children from one organized activity to the next. There's also the helicopter mom or dad who are so-named because they hover protectively over their child.

In addition, we now have an entire digital universe to influence growth. There will always be that mom who drives kids around in a largely silent car, as each child probably sits mesmerized either by games or text messages.

This is the new dialogue: An odd disconnect with the person sitting next to you and an electronic attachment to distant voices.

Can these gadgets help children learn to socialize?

Of course, they are doing just that. It just looks different in comparison to how we socialized as children, which is why it seems something is lost and very little is gained.

You may know nothing of the quality of conversation that is sent out with a percussion of thumbs into these electronic devises. The car you drive in may remain silent as your kids use their phones and tablets. You can't even eavesdrop if you wanted to.

But yes, gadgets can help a child socialize. They are not the maw of vacuous development which they appear to be.

This was first noticed in the not-so long ago past when personal computers (remember them?) were still finding a purpose in our culture. One of the primary excuses for buying or for even making one was the promise that they would be great devices for teaching. The promise, of course, was that families would rush out to buy programs to teach their young children to read or do mathematics. They could teach math and science – whatever was preferred.

To a point, this is true. It has not been proven otherwise, but the average family simply turned to pursuits offering faster gratification. Just to make a point, Grand Theft Auto likely outsold all the math, language, and spelling learning programs put together by a factor of 50.

Yes, people buy learning programs, but they are not easy to find. The local Best Buy isn't known as a source for digital learning; it is known as an entertainment center.

But computers did surprise educators in one unexpected way: Children learned quickly using computers and were afforded new opportunities as a result. And it was soon theorized that the reason they worked so well is because computer programs were non-judgmental.

Even though a computer voice would say “right,” “wrong,” “yes,” or “no,” children saw them as impartial. Even a teacher with good emotional control betrays an emotional expectation when they teach. Teachers show disappointment in the child, even unwittingly. Computers don't do that.

Examples of the opportunities afforded as a result of advancing tech are as simple as the ability for a child to be included in larger projects. In the past, an adult would need to be heavily involved in something as common as creating a yearbook. Now, children with a working knowledge of design programs can work with design templates from online publishers like Memorybook Publishing, with little guidance from adults. 

In addition to “straightforward” or “classroom type” learning, “benign neglect” styles of teaching can also help a child with developing social skills, overcoming fears, learning constructive methods of dealing with stress, etc. There are computer programs which help with these things - sure. But more often than not, children absorb this type of information through metaphor and the examples that they get from sources of entertainment.

For example: You can tell your kindergartner over and over again that he will absolutely have fun in first grade, but it won’t have the same impact as seeing a show about kids having fun or looking through an older sibling’s yearbook. Why else do you think shows like Sesame Street are so easily able to “hit home” for your kids?

The practice of “benign neglect” in parenting is a significant idea that proves very hard to master in practice. It is so tempting to hover. It is so rewarding to micro-manage. But judging a child is implied just by walking in a room. A smile, a pause in a conversation – emotions are conveyed with very little effort when all is said and done.

Computers can encourage learning with simple prompts that rely on a child's curiosity to complete tasks. That is one of the great lessons of learning: It often occurs, as it happens, while you are busy doing other things.