We've all done it as parents: dumped our kids in front of the television set, or the computer, the DS or the iPod to get some downtime ourselves.
We've justified it with excuses like "it's good for them," and "it gives them a chance to relax," but deep down, many of us worry that we're choosing to tune the kids out with digital devices purely for our own convenience. And what, if anything, do the kids get from it?
If those kids are younger than 2 or 3, absolutely nothing, says Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, director of the infant-language laboratory at Temple University's department of psychology who, as a mother herself, has narrowed the recipe for success down to what she calls the "Six C's":
· There's "collaboration" with other people — something you don't learn from being poised in front of the TV.
· And "communication" — the ability to appreciate diverse opinions and be a good listener; another skill that you can't get from the computer or TV.
· "Content" comes next, something you can get quickly from educational TV and electronic gadgetry.
· "But be mindful of the range of content," warns Hirsh-Pasek. "We have so much content coming in through these devices that we don't learn 'critical' thinking — the fourth C."
· "Creative" innovation is No. 5, something that parents need to be aware of. "Business leaders today are telling us that while kids know the facts, they're not creative," she explains. "In a world changing as rapidly as ours, if you're not responding creatively, you're in trouble."
· Finally, there's "confidence," and with it, the ability to take risks. "We're so busy being cautious that we're not giving our kids a chance to fail at anything," says Hirsh-Pasek.
There's no such thing as perfect parenting, but as you evaluate technological gadgetry and your kids' engagement with it, keep these ideas in mind.
"Remember," affirms Hirsh-Pasek, "the children who play in the sandbox are getting all these skills. They move from the sandbox to the board room."
And it happens in the blink of an eye.
She goes on to explain that "we know young kids are better when they're actively rather than passively engaged, and TV is passive. My research on language indicates that when pre-3-year-olds watch television, it's not useful in terms of their learning, even if it's 'Baby Einstein.' But there are kids this age in the country who are watching two to three hours a day, and it's even prompted some companies to come up with new remote controls that smaller kids can use."
When you stick your children in front of technological devices, ask yourself why you're doing it first, suggests Hirsh-Pasek: "Are you doing it because you think they're becoming a genius there, or because you need a break?"
If it's the latter, you'll be comforted to know that not all TV is bad. Research from shows such as "Sesame Street" and "Blues Clues" suggests that children do learn from such programming, especially as they move into their preschool years.
"A half-hour show is reasonably good, but three to five hours a day is not," she seriously cautions. "So what they watch has to be managed, because if they watch the wrong sorts of shows, it's bad for them."