"Wow," my 11-year-old son said, pointing out the window of the car. "That's a Porsche!"
I can barely tell a Porsche from a water buffalo. So I was somewhat bewildered to discover that my son was a car connoisseur. "How can you tell that's a Porsche from over here?" I asked, somewhat testily.
"Oh," he said. "I watch 'Top Gear' all the time."
The television. It had educated him.
TV and the iPhone and the iPad and all the myriad screens that flicker and glow and burrow into our unresisting frontal lobes — these things aren't supposed to edify children. Or at least, there have always been somber voices insisting that those flat, moving images will dumb kids down rather than smarten them up.
Newton Minow famously looked upon television back in the 1960s and proclaimed it a "vast wasteland" that could destroy the brains of the young and impressionable. More recently, in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued guidelines recommending no screen time at all for children under the age of 2.
Of course, many parents, educators and experts are leery of too much screen time after that, as well. They worry that screens shorten attention spans, and that if we expose our kids to them, we'll breed a generation of monsters.
My son is now about as sweet a Porsche-identifying tween as you could possibly wish for, but back before he could walk he was a colicky, stubborn, cranky nightmare. If my wife and I could shut him up, via any means, we did so, whether that meant stuffing Cheerios into him or sticking him in front of a "Thomas the Tank Engine" video, AAP guidelines or no AAP guidelines. AAP members were not showing up at our door to babysit; therefore, they lost their vote.
I did feel some guilt about all that Thomas, but now the AAP has absolved me. It has issued new guidelines that very reasonably point out that "media is just another environment." The guidelines suggest paying attention to what your kids watch without panicking about it. Don't let them watch so much YouTube that they never interact with you, and think twice about showing your toddler that "Friday the 13th" marathon. But an hour of Angry Birds on the phone isn't going to hurt anyone.
On the contrary, screens can be an amazing resource for kids of whatever age, just as they are for adults. Although the AAP says that most games for toddlers don't have much educational value, that doesn't mean they're worthless — unless you think there's no worth in a happy baby giggling at flashing lights. An entertained, happy child is a good thing, even if he's not being turned into an Einstein-level genius. Speaking from personal experience: better playing Angry Birds than eating dust mites. (Granted, those activities aren't always mutually exclusive.)
And once kids get a little older, screens really can become a valuable educational tool. My wife has been gleefully watching John Oliver with our son; the boy is now up to date on all sorts of issues, from immigration to standardized testing. He's also startlingly tuned into pop culture; he always knows what films are coming out well before I do. That may seem like a useless, frivolous skill, but as a pop culture critic, knowing what movies are coming out is supposed to be my job. Not that I want him to follow in my keystrokes, but if he does, all this Web surfing will count as career training.
New media technologies are always greeted with suspicion. Once upon a time, cultural arbiters were worried that novels would corrupt young women. "Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world," Jane Austen declared, "no species of composition has been so much decried." Eventually, novels were accepted as an ennobling pastime, and now the complaint is that kids aren't reading enough of them and are instead reading Twitter.
Information delivery systems are just information delivery systems; there's nothing sacred about one, or anything satanic about another. People worry that screens will prevent kids from learning. But I'm sure I'm not the only parent whose kid has looked up from his screen, glanced out the window and told me something about the world that I didn't know.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."
What does it take to be a good parent? We know some of the tricks for teaching kids to become high achievers. For example, research suggests that when parents praise effort rather than ability, children develop a stronger work ethic and become more motivated.
Yet although some parents live vicariously through their children’s accomplishments, success is not the No. 1 priority for most parents. We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful. Surveys reveal that in the United States, parents from European, Asian, Hispanic and African ethnic groups all place far greater importance on caring than achievement. These patterns hold around the world: When people in 50 countries were asked to report their guiding principles in life, the value that mattered most was not achievement, but caring.
Despite the significance that it holds in our lives, teaching children to care about others is no simple task. In an Israeli study of nearly 600 families, parents who valued kindness and compassion frequently failed to raise children who shared those values.
Are some children simply good-natured — or not? For the past decade, I’ve been studying the surprising success of people who frequently help others without any strings attached. As the father of two daughters and a son, I’ve become increasingly curious about how these generous tendencies develop.
Genetic twin studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited. That leaves a lot of room for nurture, and the evidence on how parents raise kind and compassionate children flies in the face of what many of even the most well-intentioned parents do in praising good behavior, responding to bad behavior, and communicating their values.
By age 2, children experience some moral emotions — feelings triggered by right and wrong. To reinforce caring as the right behavior, research indicates, praise is more effective than rewards. Rewards run the risk of leading children to be kind only when a carrot is offered, whereas praise communicates that sharing is intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake. But what kind of praise should we give when our children show early signs of generosity?
Many parents believe it’s important to compliment the behavior, not the child — that way, the child learns to repeat the behavior. Indeed, I know one couple who are careful to say, “That was such a helpful thing to do,” instead of, “You’re a helpful person.”
But is that the right approach? In a clever experiment, the researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler set out to investigate what happens when we commend generous behavior versus generous character. After 7- and 8-year-olds won marbles and donated some to poor children, the experimenter remarked, “Gee, you shared quite a bit.”
The researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different types of praise. For some of the children, they praised the action: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” For others, they praised the character behind the action: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.”
A couple of weeks later, when faced with more opportunities to give and share, the children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been. Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities. The children learned who they were from observing their own actions: I am a helpful person. This dovetails with new research led by the psychologist Christopher J. Bryan, who finds that for moral behaviors, nouns work better than verbs. To get 3- to 6-year-olds to help with a task, rather than inviting them “to help,” it was 22 to 29 percent more effective to encourage them to “be a helper.” Cheating was cut in half when instead of, “Please don’t cheat,” participants were told, “Please don’t be a cheater.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.
Praise appears to be particularly influential in the critical periods when children develop a stronger sense of identity. When the researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler praised the character of 5-year-olds, any benefits that may have emerged didn’t have a lasting impact: They may have been too young to internalize moral character as part of a stable sense of self. And by the time children turned 10, the differences between praising character and praising actions vanished: Both were effective. Tying generosity to character appears to matter most around age 8, when children may be starting to crystallize notions of identity.
Praise in response to good behavior may be half the battle, but our responses to bad behavior have consequences, too. When children cause harm, they typically feel one of two moral emotions: shame or guilt. Despite the common belief that these emotions are interchangeable, research led by the psychologist June Price Tangneyreveals that they have very different causes and consequences.
Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, whereas guilt is the feeling that I have done a bad thing. Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating: Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond either by lashing out at the target or escaping the situation altogether. In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior. When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right.
In one study spearheaded by the psychologist Karen Caplovitz Barrett, parents rated their toddlers’ tendencies to experience shame and guilt at home. The toddlers received a rag doll, and the leg fell off while they were playing with it alone. The shame-prone toddlers avoided the researcher and did not volunteer that they broke the doll. The guilt-prone toddlers were more likely to fix the doll, approach the experimenter, and explain what happened. The ashamed toddlers were avoiders; the guilty toddlers were amenders.
The most effective response to bad behavior is to express disappointment. According to independent reviews by Professor Eisenberg and David R. Shaffer, parents raise caring children by expressing disappointment and explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation. This enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity, which are conducive to becoming a helpful person. The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”
As powerful as it is to criticize bad behavior and praise good character, raising a generous child involves more than waiting for opportunities to react to the actions of our children. As parents, we want to be proactive in communicating our values to our children. Yet many of us do this the wrong way.
In a classic experiment, the psychologist J. Philippe Rushton gave 140 elementary- and middle-school-age children tokens for winning a game, which they could keep entirely or donate some to a child in poverty. They first watched a teacher figure play the game either selfishly or generously, and then preach to them the value of taking, giving or neither. The adult’s influence was significant: Actions spoke louder than words. When the adult behaved selfishly, children followed suit. The words didn’t make much difference — children gave fewer tokens after observing the adult’s selfish actions, regardless of whether the adult verbally advocated selfishness or generosity. When the adult acted generously, students gave the same amount whether generosity was preached or not — they donated 85 percent more than the norm in both cases. When the adult preached selfishness, even after the adult acted generously, the students still gave 49 percent more than the norm. Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.
To test whether these role-modeling effects persisted over time, two months later researchers observed the children playing the game again. Would the modeling or the preaching influence whether the children gave — and would they even remember it from two months earlier?
The most generous children were those who watched the teacher give but not say anything. Two months later, these children were 31 percent more generous than those who observed the same behavior but also heard it preached. The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.
People often believe that character causes action, but when it comes to producing moral children, we need to remember that action also shapes character. As the psychologist Karl Weick is fond of asking, “How can I know who I am until I see what I do? How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?”
Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.”
A geneticist says any new parent should 'roll their child on floor of the New York subway' — here's why
A team of geneticists made headlines a few months ago after its mission to document all the bacteria on the New York City subway turned up nearly 600 different species of microbes crawling around on all those greasy rails.
They found some icky stuff, including the bacteria that give people food poisoning, and the bugs that can cause meningitis.
But before opting for an Uber, keep this in mind: Almost all of the germs they found were completely harmless.
In fact, those creepy-crawlies might actually be good for people.
According to an idea called the hygiene hypothesis, exposure to germs and certain infections — especially at a young age — actually helps prime the immune system so it can defeat these microbes more easily in the future.
Some research has suggested that the idea could partially explain why children who grow up around animals and in rural areas appear to develop conditions like asthma less often than children who don't. More studies, however, are necessary.
And even for people other than young children, the hygiene hypothesis makes intuitive sense: After all, literally every surface in the world is covered in bacteria. The idea that things can be "perfectly clean" is a myth — humans need bacteria to live.
"We tend to think of our homes and personal environments as these pristine places, and public ones as dirty and infested with bacteria," Chris Mason, a Weill Cornell Medical College geneticist and the author of the subway-pathogen study, recently said at a public event in New York. "But you should really think of yourself as a rabbit who gets to hop between two forests."
That's why Mason isn't afraid to let his own young daughter ride the subway or play in the dirt.
"I would advise any new parent to roll their child on the floor of the New York subway," said Mason.
Like the surfaces people touch and the ground they walk on, the human body is already teeming with thousands of different species of bacteria, from the Lactobacillus acidophilus lining digestive tracts to the Propionibacterium acnes populating the skin on faces and arms. On average, about three pounds of our body weight is accounted for by bacteria alone.
So the idea that a little more exposure couldn't hurt makes sense. Perhaps everyone should be a little less germaphobic.