This is a non-baseball rant, triggered by a paragraph by Steven Goldman on the Pinstripe Blog.
As you might imagine, I spend a lot of time in bookstores. Almost every time I go, there's a mother or father with a crying kid. The kid is saying how he or she wants a book, and the parent is saying no. Having seen this, oh, about 500 times over the years, I made myself a pledge: Should I ever have children, I might sometimes say no to buying a toy, or candy, or a goldfish. I would sternly counsel against drugs, drinking, smoking. However, when it came to books I would be the most permissive parent ever.
I probably felt that way, too, until I actually became a parent. Then I learned how much more complex these situations are than I had ever imagined.
Kids (at least my kids--I imagine this is fairly universal) rarely cry only because of the thing they're crying about. There's usually both a surface-level reason for crying (that an outsider could discern), and another unspoken, underlying reason that only the parent of the child can know.
Crying is a language unto itself. If one of my kids is crying about not getting a book, she's usually communicating something else, too: "I'm getting tired now; I should probably have a nap", or "I'm getting hungry", or "I need to understand the rules and limits of this unfamiliar environment." When my kids are well-fed, well-rested, and understand the rules ("you can only buy one book today"), they can usually handle rejection without bursting into tears.
So unless it's my fault (I didn't set the rules in advance), I'm usually not going to spend $15 to make her stop crying: (a) it might not work anyway, (b) it's not solving the real problem, and (c) if she's crying to test her limits, being permissive is counterproductive; she'll cry next time, too, if it lands her an extra book. Instead, I'm going to give her the nap or the meal or the firm "no" she's really asking for.
Goldman also presents the common argument that reading helps kids learn to think:
In this life, critical thinking skills are what it's all about. Your wits are all that stand between you and being conned by hyenas and devoured by wolves. Reading is a great way to develop them. The only way to recognize arguments, both good and bad, is to be exposed to them.
Whether I agree with that or not depends on how you define "critical thinking skills". From that last sentence, I suspect that Goldman would define it to mean the ability to make and dissect arguments. In that case, while I'd agree that reading is a great way to develop that ability, I'd disagree that those skills are what it's all about. There are many different kinds of intelligences, and reading is good for developing some of them.
Steven Johnson, in his new book, Everything Bad Is Good For You, shows how popular culture, fueled by new technologies, helps to exercise other parts of the mind that reading develops less efficiently. Take, for example, his explanation of the virtues of video games:
Start with the basics: far more than books or movies or music, games force you to make decisions. Novels may activate our imagination, and music may conjure up powerful emotions, but games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding. No other pop cultural form directly engages the brain's decision-making apparatus in the same way.
Analysis and decision-making happen in two separate parts of the brain. Analysis is a rational process, but decision-making requires emotions to work. Studies have found that people with certain types of brain damage lose the ability to feel certain emotions, and along with it, the ability to make rational decisions:
Those individuals can still use the instruments of their rationality and can still call up the knowledge of the world around them. Their ability to tackle the logic of a problem remains intact. Nonetheless, many of their personal and social decisions are irrational, more often disadvantageous to their self and to others than not.
It makes sense for the brain to tie decision-making to emotions. Emotions function as a memory-enhancer: the stronger the emotion associated with an event, the more likely it is to be remembered. So if you want to improve your decision-making skills, you need to experience the emotional consequences of your decisions, good or bad, to retain the memories of your decisions.
A mastery of facts and logic alone does not make you a good decision maker. That's not how the human brain works. To become a good decision maker, a kid needs to practice making decisions. A kid needs to play.
As education funds get cut, and the jobs of school administrators come to depend on the reading and math test scores of their students, the value of play gets forgotten. Schools have become places where kids work to improve their scores, instead of play to improve their minds.
Kids need to play games, and learn to make decisions. They need to play music, and learn to recognize patterns and express emotions. They need to play sports, and learn spatial reasoning. They need to play with their friends and learn to handle social relationships.
And the best part is, kids love to play, naturally. Just as a cry tells us when a child's needs are going unmet, an expression of interest or enjoyment tells us when they are. Evolution has had four billion years to evolve our intelligent species. We should trust and listen to its mechanisms. The best way to turn a blank-slate child into an intelligent adult is to let a kid be a kid.