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What Do Kids Need, Anyway?

August 19, 2011

To me, what kids mainly need is activity, learning and quiet reflection.

(I suppose my list refers to the "content" side -- of course they need parents, etc., too.)

The outdoors is the world, and so kids need to explore it and learn it to make it theirs -- but the indoors is the same. The reason why they need to know it is so they can know themselves. I don't mean they need to learn endless details and trivia, but to get the sense of what's "out there" and how to deal with it.

The worst things would be inaction, passivity, and victimization (consumer exploitation or training for the same -- playing/watching electronics, shopping, eating junk, mindless or grade/test-oriented education, which isn't the same as rote learning, which can be fine, if the content is relevant).

A kid/person can be actively listening, actively quiet. It takes work to sit and think or to ponder. Even the willingness to do nothing is an effort. I think that goes along with the activity side. It's processing.

The learning they need is a combo of the basics plus the details. Macro and micro.

They need settings and arrangements conducive to all this. --Notebooks, drawers, folders, dry-erase board, calendar, corkboard, pens, pencils, markers, paints, brushes, paper, scissors, glue, tape. Progress needs organization.

Kids need to learn about and respect the beginning, middle and end of things. BEGINNING: plan, prep, start. MIDDLE: do, persist, trial'n'error, setting aside, stabilizing, finishing. END: clean up, put away, record, reflect.

I've been researching and googling to try to find the benefits of "screen time," but so far I find none. Kids will likely want a lot of electronic exposure and devices, but it really does seem that having NONE of them can only help them. There is definite harm to all of it and nothing good from any of it. The only good answer seems to be to strictly limit it and control it. Pick only good material for them to watch. Ha! Isn't that outrageous?

They will like a lot of the bad stuff, but they will get absolutely nothing good from it. A main test is that the kids themselves would not be able to describe a single benefit. Certainly the parents couldn't.

Devices are designed to exploit people. To make money for someone else. Any benefit comes from a SEPARATELY DEVELOPED ability to be creative. A device can be a tool, but the ability to use something as a tool is unrelated to any device.

Electro-devices only obvious effect, when used as designed, is to "kill time." But time is the stuff of life. So really what they do is KILL LIFE.

Parents use them as babysitters, pacifiers -- but the effect is only superficial calming and restraint. The real impact is spirit killing (and training for consumption and lemminghood). Real babysitting is an active skill. A screen can't do it.

Sometimes people watch screens as a way to rest when they're tired. But really they're only a way of postponing rest. They're fatiguing, actually. Sure, they're amusing. ...But only in the sense that "amuse" means "to go against the Muses" -- a-muse. To cut off from creativity.

Even good stories just don't sink in when they're told by screens. Much more is needed. That's why the "Golden Ages" of cinema and even of TV involved larger social settings: "going to the show" where you saw your neighbors, or watching a TV show as family time in the den -- or listening to a Radio Hour. But even this involved losses. Kids who felt unmoored from family and society escaped into matinees. It was all they could do once they were abandoned. Far better than praising good movies we should repair the damage that drives people to movies in the first place. Then there was the family singing and the popularity of the parlor piano -- which disappeared with the Radio Hour and then the TV. Live music is a social cement that can't be replaced by electronic consumption. Novelty unglued our social fabric. Our main goal now shouldn't be to improve the novelty but to rebuild society.

Now, this criticism refers to using these devices as standalone items, willynilly, as bought from companies that only think or care about the devices. When one has developed the skill to be creative then one can use devices as tools -- as part of the bigger picture of life.

Skill and creativity are not small things. And we don't need devices to learn them. We first need judgement (ability) and knowledge (content). Acquiring these takes an entire childhood of effort and structure. There's no time to waste.

Then when we have a malfunction beyond our training while out riding a bike, we can use our cellphone to call home for help. Of course, we could just go up to a neighbor's house and ask to use their phone. And most bike malfunctions are easily fixed with a little training that every biker should have before heading out. So we don't really need the phone. And we certainly don't need a crutch.

Sticking to a tool approach, though, prevents our kids from losing sleep as they lay in bed clutching their device, texting their friends obsessively and idiotically as they, too, lose their sleep.

What do the texts say that kids send, anyway?

Like anything untrained, kid-texts are probably 99% idiocy -- not to be harsh, just being technical -- they're contentless. That is, the function is not communication. They're being misused and the effect is exploitation. Of course there is a training -- it is to BE a tool, a customer of the device company. To be a human takes different training.

The "boring vs. fun" rule which is so obvious and powerful to kids (and which our dysfunctional market society encourages with all its might, 24-7) has to be pushed down the ranks to mere side-effect observation and not allowed into the judgement side. "Fun" is no reason to do or not do anything. It's a side effect on occasion. There are other, more important values that can be shown and revealed to kids. Then there's the Law: anything done just for fun promptly becomes boring. Fun isn't enough. There has to be some there there.

Even "like vs. dislike" should be subordinated. Sure, there are aptitudes, but kids are so incomplete and so small compared to what they will soon become that this dynamic can't be allowed to be a main guide for what they do. They need to start from a different place and to learn to push at limits and preconceived notions. This is true for adults, but when as a kid you've only done a few things then so much more is not what it seems to be at first. Even something like trusting that a bike if leaned around a corner won't slide out can be a big breakthru experience of trust for a kid that they can really hesitate to do at first, maybe because they don't "like" biking and declare it to be scary.

I suppose all this stuff is obvious, but we might end up at a loss when our kids declare that what they "like" most is beige junkfood, playing/watching electronics and sitting on the couch, buying stuff, and having you drive them places.

Kids can resist growth or even learning. This can be hard for adults to understand. It's the main point of childhood, right?

If we "make" them do things against their druthers, then we can seem like the "bad guys" to them.

Older kids readily label anything that parents suggest as being uncool.

One trick is that it seems like it should be fine as parents to do the "I don't want to see you in this house until it's dinner" routine. Provide them with tools and a space and leave the rest up to them. They may gnash their teeth but they'll eventually figure it out.

Then there's bribing. I don't see the harm in paying kids to have actual, real fun -- meaning, to do meaningful things. It's understandable that they need a little jumpstarting in a world where initiative is Public Enemy #1 -- the enemy of consumerism, mainly. Even bribing them to play with not their usual other kids might be OK. A neighborhood is an important thing. It mostly means a group of people who you had no choice in selecting but who you need to learn to appreciate. Structured games are great social mixers. This is where sports really come into their own. You don't have to "like" a kid to need a catcher for a softball game. You don't have to like him once he's there as long as he obeys the rules. Rules bring kids together -- they also keep them at a reasonable distance. You can even have a good time wrestling someone you don't know (or like) if each obeys the rules. Time can change the liking part. But unless there's a reason to do something together it might not happen if kids do things with others on a strictly "I like you" basis. Rules are an equal challenge for everyone. Even a best pal can be a challenge when a "public good" is involved that for the time being is more important than social druthers. You never know who will have a hard time with a game on any given day. Those who can't deal just have to sit out until they can.

Then there's Reverse Psychology. It's likely critical that a parent never be seen as the source of an idea for something good or fun to do -- at least once kids pass a certain age. The parent needs to plant the seed, needs to work at the plan indirectly, and see what it takes to get the job done. Each kid is different.

Lastly, and most importantly, there's doing stuff with your kids yourself. Do a little something every day and do a bigger something every week. Kids need to learn how to do, and how to have fun. Everything done just for fun becomes boring in short order -- this is very frustrating to kids as they don't know what happened or why. They learn how to approach things in a way that connects to Life itself only from parents and other adults.

As always, it's about what we do, not what we say.

Let's get to it!

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