Dumbed Down Parenting

Lots of parents tell me they rely on screen activities such as GameBoys, DVD players, and computers to entertain their kids when they are traveling, waiting for appointments, or sitting in restaurants.  “It’s so easy,” they tell me, “it really keeps them quiet.” Yes, the screens do engage kids, for sure.  But are there ways to occupy kids that are more beneficial to them?

Over the years, I’ve gone to restaurants now and then with my grandsons Jackson and Miles.  Before we head out, I always stick some open-ended toy or material in my bag—a handful of legos or small blocks, a few sheets of paper and some markers, or a hunk of playdoh.  What I find really amazing is that once we’re seated and waiting for our food, the boys become deeply engrossed in these activities without fail.  They seem really happy and peaceful as they sit with their grandparents and create.  And we have some really nice conversations about what they’re making—buildings with lots of windows, or how you can draw really big muscles.  Have you ever tried to talk to a kid who’s on a GameBoy?  You can shout quite loud and still not be noticed.

Children learn the most when they are directly involved with hands-on activities and when they interact with people.  With open-ended materials like playdoh, building toys, and art materials, children can explore, problem solve, and make up stories and characters from their own imaginations; the possibilities are limitless. But when kids engage with the screen, their involvement is more repetitive; the activity doesn’t foster new and original ideas. With handheld games and screens, children don’t invent what they want to make or do; they play the games or watch the stories that someone else has created.

I think we parents have fallen into an all-too comfortable trap since we’ve had the electronic option.  It’s so easy to turn on the switch—bingo! The kids are occupied.  It becomes an easy habit for us—we quickly turn to electronics when the kids are bored, when they’re arguing, when we want them to be quiet.  We choose this option first instead of searching for other possible ways to engage them.  And this has dumbed down our parenting:  we no longer have to use our own ingenuity to find interesting alternatives for our children.  But I think it’s time we reclaim our parental creativity, time we look beyond screens to find better, fuller activities that can optimally engage our kids and help us be the fully involved parents children need us to be.


Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch. Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.

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