Leave Those Kids Alone

It’s been a month of weaning two young minds from summer gaming addictions and establishing new sleep routines; in short, the kids are back at school, hurray! To my dismay, I find myself echoing admonishments from my own childhood; saws like “A cluttered desk leads to a cluttered mind,” and “You’re going to need glasses if you read in that light,” drip much too easily from the tongue, and the look of resignation I see on my children’s faces is a mirror of mine at their age. The world has changed beyond recognition in the last three decades, but I am stuck in a time warp, with my parents’ homespun wisdom perfectly preserved for posterity.

However, there’s ample research to suggest that their theories about focus, concentration, and the evils of distraction no longer hold true. One study, conducted by the Maryland Population Research Center, concludes that it is just fine for kids to spend long hours at the computer; turns out reading and playing games actually boost academic achievement in some cases and even contribute to improved sociability for girls, quite an upending of the geek stereotype.  One middle school in New York accepts that video games are an integral part of our kids’ lives and uses them to impart learning.

The second finding, equally confounding, is that the conventional wisdom on good study habits is largely wrong. Cognitive scientists have determined that not having a dedicated place for homework, but letting the child study wherever it wants, is better for knowledge retention. Also, students learn better when their attention is not focused on one particular subject at a sitting.

When the reality is an earphone-clad, horizontal teenager with a chat box open on his cellphone while he researches his homework on the Mac, it’s time to put away rose-tinted childhood memories of diligent, single-minded study, and resign ourselves to the fact that our contribution to our children’s education has to be in the values we instill in them and the character they develop.

As for the rest, scratch a little beneath the chrome and you will find that kids are still learning and growing much the way we did, exploring the world—even if it is with mouse clicks instead of turning pages—making friends—even if it is on an online network rather than an empty street—and playing games—even if hopscotch has been replaced by Halo. It is a humbling thought that, when my exasperated teenager shakes his head and says, “Mom, you just don’t know anything,” he may well be right.

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