I had the opportunity the other week, to have a chat with Annie Fox; educator, novelist and radio host, about her new book Teaching Children to be Good People. Admittedly, her book has absolutely nothing to do with iPads in the classroom but I figured I would try to mix things up a little. Bring some humanity back into my digital domain as it were, because when it comes right down to it… School is still about creating good people, good citizens and good learners. Isn’t it?
The following is the good stuff from our conversation and if the truth be known, it actually has a lot to do with going digital. I hope you enjoy it.
Me: When you say “good people” what are we talking about?
Annie: When I say, “S/he’s a good person,” I’m usually referring to a generosity of spirit. Someone who consciously looks out for the wellbeing of others. Someone who turns toward a person or situation that needs help rather than turning away.
Me: In your book you talk a lot about communication with your child and how this is the key to raising a “good person” In your introduction you say, “We parent-educators are gardeners. We plant seeds and offer nurturing lessons that our kids can internalize.”
Is it possible to communicate effectively or nurture another human being, through a digital device?
Annie: Of course you can communicate effectively through a digital device, but because we are social critters who have managed to survive throughout the millennia by “reading” each other’s subtle facial expressions and body language, And observing each other in the context of our relationships, I don’t think we can fully nurture another person without being right there with them… at least a good part of the time. So when tweens and teens tell me about some guy or girl they met online with whom they’re “in love” it gives me pause. I don’t doubt for a moment that their digital connection is important to each of them. And I don’t invalidate the support and encouragement they may be providing for each other. However, this isn’t the way teens truly learn the fundamentals of creating and maintaining healthy relationships. The digital connections can certainly support “real world” relationships, but they shouldn’t be a substitute for them. Same with parents and kids. Texting is not a substitution for parent-child conversations.
Me: There is a HUGE push education to make kids more digitally literate. They say it is a crucial skill for the future but it seems to me that the digital device can be extremely dehumanizing. Is it possible that the digitization of our schools is compounding the difficulties we seem to be encountering in raising, teaching and nurturing our children to become “good people”
Annie: I agree. Increasing reliance on digital communication reduces (in the minds of many kids) the need to actually have real conversations. And they seem to have lost confidence in their ability to have real conversations. Hey I understand if you’re having a conflict with a friend or a bf/gf, you’re going to feel uncomfortable, worried, confused, stressed, etc. When we’re uncomfortable we tend to want to avoid the source of that discomfort. I understand, if you’re really hurt or angry that it might seem easier to text your friend or your bf/gf: “I can’t believe you did that! You’re such a #$%#@!!” rather than sit down, face to face and discuss what’s going on. But a face-to-face conversation (without technology), where I talk and you listen and then you talk and I listen is more likely to lead to greater understanding. And that’s going to lead to healthier relationships.
Kids need to understand how to manage their destructive emotions. That’s the biggest challenge in growing up. But the availability of the digital connection to peers discourages kids from taking the time they need to calm down and step back from the precipice before they respond. The result is a culture where the go-to place is anger and we’re all in the habit of adding to the “social garbage” that has become the air we breathe.
Schools embracing technology aren’t to “blame” for any of this. Nor are parents who provide their kids with access to tech toys. But it’s a question of balance, isn’t it? And I don’t see a lot of adults modeling and teaching that kind of balance within their family. When we fail to set limits on social media and web use, we fail to expose our kids to other ways to nurture our intellect, our creativity, and our relationships. Follow that path and it’s harder to teach kids to be good people.
Me: The next question I suppose has to be, is it possible to teach appropriate use of a digital device at school, if the same message is not being delivered at home?
Annie: If by, digital device you mean a cell phone, many schools wisely restrict their use during class or during school hours. That’s not to say though that schools shouldn’t teach their students to be responsible digital citizens. They should be part of the solution in that way! If the same message isn’t being reinforced at home, yeah, that’s a missed opportunity on the part of parents. And yes, it makes the school’s job that much harder. Better if parents, educators and students come together to discuss the use and abuse of technology in an open community forum. And together, as fellow stakeholders, come up with policy and guidelines for home and school.
Me: You mention in your book about the pressures kids feel to be someone else or something else in order to fit in. We see examples of how the digital world can facilitate the façade and sometimes ending with tragic results.
Annie: Like I said before, it’s a matter of balance. Technology’s not going away and that’s a good thing! We need it to solve many of our current problems on the local, regional, national and international levels. Technology makes a powerful servant. But it’s a lousy master. But we have to recognize that there is an addictive quality to using technology. Changes in the brain have been observed after a relatively short amount of time surfing the net! Our brains are adapting to the new ways of searching for and processing information. What has also been observed is a change in the part of the brain that is associated with empathy. Which may explain why teens aren’t always responding with their “higher angels” when they’re online with peers. Combine the “connection addiction” with changes in the “empathy sector” of the brain” and add in the fact that most tweens and teens suffer from peer approval addiction (doing and saying whatever it takes to fit in) and we’re faced with the perfect storm.
Me: Can you suggest any possible ways that a digital device and the digital world could be used to help kids become secure in their identity and ultimately the kind of “good person” you are talking about?
Annie: There are plenty of game and story apps that use the technology as a way to get kids thinking about themselves and others in respectful and compassionate ways. My own Middle School Confidential graphic novel apps do that. And there are thousands of wonderful websites that promote just causes that appeal to the hearts and minds of young people. Remember the Save the Rainforest campaigns that got elementary school kids raising money in the ‘80’s? Well I just googled “Save the rainforest” and got to an incredible site by the Nature Conservancy! What an awesome example of technology teaching kids about philanthropy and social responsibility and environmental activism.
Bottom line, we’ve got to insert balance in our kids’ lives. There’s great stuff to be had through digital connections and there’s also great stuff to be learned from unplugging, talking to each other and stepping outside and looking around at the natural world.
So there you have it folks, human connections are still required to raise a functional, caring human being… Hooda thunk it?