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An XBox, an iPod, a Ball, a Book, and a Friend
2005-06-05 00:10
by Ken Arneson

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.

   --Antonio Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens

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.

2005-06-05 01:10:59
1.   Kenny
Good post Ken. I too believe that socialization and play is an important part of growing up. Especially during the high school years. I mean how many things that are essential to the "American existance" are connected to High School? Like the prom, homecoming games. All people I encounter in college the seems maladjusted are usually people who were homeschooled and missed that socialization. Those people are book-smart but are people-dumb.

Yes, it's important to be book-smart, but we can't forget the other smarts.

I'm also going to spend this time to state my displeasure of general lack of funding of the arts in America. Do we want to be remembered for American Idol? Art is what separates us from the Animals.

Perhaps I'm biased, due to my career and goals and other aspirations, but Art is a vital part of human existance.

Even kids who were considered outcasts in school do better than homeschooled kids in terms of socialization because they are more exposed to social norms.

2005-06-05 08:21:25
2.   NetShrine
"Should I ever have children, I might......"

As a parent of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, I now just love it when someone starts off with one of these.

People, until you've had children, you'll never know what it's like or how you will react. It's a whole 'nother world.

2005-06-05 08:38:51
3.   Loogy
As a parent of 2 homeschool kids, I can definitively say that "socialization" is the most over-rated concept. My kids are confident and outgoing and have many friends. The biggest problem with "socialization" is it is narrowly defined as kids of the same age. This is okay to a point, but a child is even better adapted if he or she can communicate with younger and older kids and with adults. The idea that homeschoolers are "locked away" with no interaction with other kids is incorrect.

Kenny's description is a common mischaracterization. There are just as many maladjusted non-homeschoolers. Homeschoolers are remembered more because it is unique. People always remember easier what is different.

2005-06-05 09:07:02
4.   Ken Arneson
Kenny, many parents feel the same way as you about arts in the schools. There are grass-roots movements afoot now to try to revolutionize schools to bring back the arts.

Here are a few I know about in the East Bay:

2005-06-05 09:29:17
5.   Bob Timmermann
When I went with my brother and his then 5-year old son to Disneyland, the 5-year old kept asking for cotton candy despite never eating it before. We didn't want to buy it because, well, it's cotton candy. It's just sugar.

We tried appealling to him on the basis that his father and I both disliked it. That didn't work. He just wanted. We tried telling him that no other relative liked it.

These were not persuasive arguments. He got his cotton candy.

Which he said he liked.

As someone with no children, I defer to those who do for taking care of them.

And I sincerely doubt that the children in Goldman's story truly wanted a particular book, but rather just were reacting to a picture on the cover.

2005-06-05 10:54:47
6.   Ken Arneson
My kids get one dessert a day. What they have for dessert--cotton candy or whatever--is up to them. If there is a value to eating cotton candy--the sensation of eating something something colorful and fluffy, or the need to learn through experience that the taste of pure sugar is boring--we're not denying them that experience. But they get it in moderation.

More importantly, the kids are forced to make a value decision: if you have cotton candy now, you can't have ice cream later.

Same goes for bookstores: if you tell them they can buy one book only, you're helping them practice making decisions. Even if you know they're making a mistake with their choice, let them make it, and they'll soon learn not to judge a book by its cover.

2005-06-05 16:44:49
7.   Bob Timmermann
If Mr. Goldman becomes a parent, he want to investigate the concept of public libraries.

You know. The books are free, but you do have to give them back.

2005-06-05 19:50:39
8.   Blackfish
Some great thoughts, Ken. One thing that so many people forget is that variety of experience is often more important than the quality. Reading books alone teaches children how to read books. It's a useful skill, but only one of many. By providing a variety of experiences for the child, you (A) strengthen all of the child's senses and cognitive faculties, (B) teach the child to become open-minded individuals, willing to try new things, and (C) teach the child to find ways to generalize what they've learned for use in other domains.

What you say about emotions and decision-making is true. We tend to think of our rationale and emotions as existing in separate areas of our brain, and this is one of those things that drives me crazy. People don't realize that our emotions are not simple, primal aspects; in truth, they have many other things layered on top of them in complex ways: memories, logic, and perceptions. If you impair brain functioning in areas associated with traditional thinking, there's going to be changes in emotional processing, and vice-versa. Our brains aren't composed of isolated parts, but rather is a composite of integrated parts. Just addressing any single part is not doing anyone any good.

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