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Parents need to get smart about educational media

Monday, January 27th, 2014

More than half of parents feel their children have learned a lot from educational television, apps and games, according to a new national survey of 1,577 parents of kids ages two through ten that is the first to quantify the amount of children’s screen time that is educational. But the time spent with this beneficial content drops sharply as children get older, even as the minutes they spend with TV, tablets, smartphones and gaming systems increases. You don’t need a math degree to know that’s a bad ratio.  (The study defined educational content as material that is good for a child’s learning or growth, or teaches an academic or social skill.)  ”There’s a need for parents to be more mindful when choosing educational media,” says Vicky Rideout, who directed the study for the Joan Ganz Cooney center at Sesame Workshop in New York City. So what can you do?
Turn to TV. For every subject except math, parents were more likely to report that their child learned the most from TV than from platforms like console games, tablets or other mobile devices. This could be in part due to the fact that TV is still the primary way kids spend their screen time. But it may also be because parents have difficulty finding apps that are truly educational, or because kids gravitate to games they perceive as more fun (those Angry birds are stiff competition for Duck Duck Moose and its top-rated learning apps). Of course you have to choose your TV wisely: In the survey, 96 percent of parents rated Sesame Street as very or somewhat educational. SpongeBob SquarePants washed up at 9 percent.
Beware age 5. It’s the time when kids’ tend to turn away from educational media as they spend more time with mobile devices. Among two to four year olds, the study found 79 percent of media used is educational, whereas among five to seven year olds the proportion declines to 39 percent. The researchers describe the drop as “alarming” and due in part to more use of mobile devices (vs television) as kids get older. Fewer parents felt that their kids learned from mobile  than from television. Which leads me to…
Be a digital dragon There will come a time when your mild-mannered kindergartener suddenly starts caring about what games other kids at school are playing. Many of these will be games that are not only devoid of educational value, but downright violent. You’ll have to set your family’s rules and expectations and stick to them against all kinds of pleading.
Choose kids’ media wisely. Get help at Common Sense Media, which has long rated television and movies and now also rates apps, or subscribe to reports from Children’s Technology Review. More parents in the study felt that their child learned reading or math from educational media; good science and arts apps may be harder to come by. At the CSM site you can search the database by subject category and there are some good art apps listed there.
Don’t give up on books. While 62 percent of kids in the study had an e-reading gadget, about half of them don’t use it for reading. They may like reading on paper better, or this finding may be due to the fact that on tablets, there is stiff competition for your child’s attention. So continue to provide books on paper and expose your child to libraries and bookstores even if you also give her a device for digital reading.
Play and explore with your kids. ”A fair amount of research shows parents and kids engaging with media together enhances it’s benefits,” Rideout says. Whether you’re discussing Sesame Street’s themes with a preschooler or researching robots or iguanas on YouTube or Google with a school-age child, ask questions about what your child is seeing and reading. David Kleeman, SVP of insights programs at PlayCollective, a research group that focuses on kids, families and play, points out that as kids get older, they may learn from sources parents wouldn’t necessarily classify as “educational” at first blush. In one previous study, he said last week at a Cooney Center forum focused on the new survey results, half of American boys reported learning valuable lessons about friendship from SpongeBob. As kids get older and the devices they use get smaller and more personal, it’s still important to engage them about what they are seeing. Who knows? Maybe ultimately this 100 percent digitally native generation will teach us a thing or two?
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Downton Abbey and a Tale of Two Georges

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Digging in to the fourth season of my favorite soap opera for fancy folks, PBS’s Downton Abbey, which premiered last night, I was reminded of how very happy I am to be living in 2014 instead of 1922. Seeing the misery in the Grantham/Crawley crew 6 months after baby George’s birth made me think of that other much happier nonfiction family, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and their own baby George.

Let’s take a look at some key differences between the two famous Georges, HRH Prince George of Cambridge and the baby George Crawley born to Downton’s Lady Mary and her late husband. (You’d have to be living under a rock not to know what befell poor Matthew but stop reading now if you’re putting off Season-4 viewing for a future binge-watch.)

For one thing, HRH George can look forward to a long, healthy life. A boy born in Downton George’s day had a life expectancy of only 56 years, whereas life expectancy at birth for males in England is now hovering at a robust 80. In Downton’s era thousands were still dying of tuberculosis. So let’s hear it for progress, specifically vaccines and good hygiene practices, which have fought back so many infectious diseases.

Consider the progress that has been made in other areas of parenthood:  The Duke was by Kate’s side when she gave birth; had he been able to get to the hospital in time, poor Matthew undoubtedly would have been banished to an anteroom or sent down to the pub.

Then there’s breastfeeding. The Duchess is reportedly breastfeeding her son. Not so sure about Mary. All the fun and memorable moments of Downton babycare seem to be left to the chilly Nanny West, who tells Mr. Barrow that he isn’t allowed to touch the baby without her permission. (Who can blame her, given that the influenza pandemic was only just winding down.) The Duke and Duchess, on the other hand, have said they want to be hands-on parents, and although they apparently have Will’s childhood nanny helping out, the fact that Will drove his little family home from the hospital himself signals an active role for everyone’s favorite royal father.

But far and away it’s the conditions for women that are most troubling in this comparison.  The Duchess graduated from university, whereas in Downton days, only about a quarter of students of higher education were women. And yes, the Duke and Duchess had a boy, but had their child instead been a daughter, the newly published Succession to the Crown Act of 2013 altered the rules of succession to the throne so that male heirs can no longer kick women out of place in the line for the throne. Poor Lady Mary is out of luck there as well. Baby George inherited two-thirds of the estate while Mary inherited only one-third. The baby and Lord Grantham thus have the controlling interest. Wait ’til little Downton George gets wind of that–imagine how hard it must be to discipline a majority shareholder!  Maybe a lot like disciplining a future king?

George isn’t the only regal name for a baby boy. Check out our baby name finder for more inspiration.

Plus: Nanny West not really your style? Learn how to choose a good nanny in this video:.

Child Care: Tips for Choosing a Good Nanny
Child Care: Tips for Choosing a Good Nanny
Child Care: Tips for Choosing a Good Nanny

Image courtesy of PBS.

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Attention Digital Dragons: You’re Not Alone!

Monday, November 25th, 2013

We’ve had helicopter moms. And tiger mothers. I’d like to propose a third parent type: the digital dragon. You know who you are. Your toddlers still color with crayons in restaurants. Your preschoolers have never logged $249 worth of accidental in-app purchases on your iPhone. Your bigger kids have signed a contract like this to ensure the responsible use of devices. And everyone in the house knows that what you’re screening on movie night needs to be cleared through the Common Sense Media site.

A couple hundred dragon types gathered into a packed room last week to hear Chelsea Clinton moderate a panel hosted by Common Sense Media about how to raise caring kids in a digital world. On the stage: Jim Steyer (founder/CEO of CSM), Dr. Howard Gardner (professor of education at Harvard and the author of the book The App Generation) and Slate senior editor Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defending the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. There were many interesting nuggets, including the fact that a recent report by CSM on kids’ mobile use in America finds that the average amount of time they spend has tripled in the last two years. And that California has passed what’s called the “eraser button bill” which requires web sites to allow kids under age 18 to remove their posts if they want to do so.

But for this dragon lady, the joy of the event was being reminded that I am not alone. Because it can sometimes feel as if I am the only parent who is being called a “jerk” by my kid because I refuse to let him explore the digital universe untethered.  I felt so much more comfortable with my own fire-breathing behavior as the mom of two boys, 9 and 12, when Bazelon, mom of two boys ages 10 and 13, explained her caution with the internet by saying, “I would not open my front door in the city where we live and send my children out and say, ‘good luck.’” Right! Or when Steyer, a father of four, said he is “referred to by my kids as the world’s most embarrassing dad.” Hey, I thought that was my husband!

Don’t get me wrong: I said dragon parent, not luddite parent. I am wholly in favor of kids having access to digital tools—with limits and supervision. And we moms and dads can’t delegate this to the school and expect them to deal with it. Just as it is your responsibility to have the sex talk, it’s also your job to have the digital-safety talk. And the appropriateness-of-sharing talk. And the no-posting-photos-from-parties-not-everyone-was-invited-to talk. And many others. Key is to have these chats in a way that encourages your child to put himself in another’s shoes. As the speakers pointed out, as less communication happens face to face, kids miss out on learning to read the facial expressions and vocal cues that can help them feel empathy. It may be harder, then, for them to know what is hurtful to another child. One of the hardest conversations I’ve had with my kids about the power of a text message started with the words “Imagine how you would feel if…”

One fine place to start the process is by taking this new quiz to assess how digitally healthy your family is right now. And then if you want to meet fellow dragons, consider lifting your eyes from your phone (yes, we dragons can be guilty of major “do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do” behavior) and talking to parents at your child’s playgroup or school to compare notes. If the mood in the room last week is any indication you will find that even in this age of sharing, many other dragons are struggling and feeling like they too are alone.


Image: Shutterstock

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Can’t find a movie you can all agree on? Try a board game!



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My one-in-five experiment

Monday, November 11th, 2013

I’ve been engaged in an informal experiment lately that has been eye-opening (to me and perhaps some others) so I’m going to blow my cover and encourage you to try it too. After Parents published this story about child poverty in the U.S., I decided to make it a point to bring up the most noteworthy statistic from the piece as often as I could in casual conversation: One in five children in this country now live in a family where the total annual household income is below the federal poverty level of $23,550. One in five. In New York City, where I live, the number is actually closer to one in three. Which might explain why some people hardly blink when I share the fact. Others, however, are shocked.
It can be very easy to get nose-down in our own little world and lose track of the larger one. But for all of us—and for our children–the future is at stake. Children living in poverty are at risk of troubles both physical and academic, starting with impaired brain growth and weak acquisition of language as babies and progressing right through to higher dropout rates, increased risk of both hunger and obesity and, eventually, diabetes and heart disease. Dr. Perri Klass, one of my all-time favorite writing doctors, makes the cost of childhood poverty upsettingly clear here.
We can’t change a problem if we’re not aware of it, of course. So as we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I challenge you to help raise awareness by also sharing the one-in-five fact. And then to look for ways to make a difference. In my case, our family lives close to the Harlem Children’s Zone, so we both see what poverty looks like and help fight it by donating to the organization. And no matter how much or how little your own family has to give, we can all teach our kids how to appreciate what they do have–it’s the first step to learning how to share our blessings with others.

Use our worksheet to figure out how to make room in your family budget for charitable contributions.


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Have you ever wanted to make time stand still?

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Courtesy HBO

Like any parent you’ve probably felt that way now and then—I know those twinges come more and more often as my kids get older. But I can’t imagine anyone who has yearned more desperately to stop the clock than Leslie Gordon and Scott Berns and their teenage son Sam, who are the focus of the wrenching but wonderful new documentary “Life According to Sam,” which premiers Monday, October 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO (check local listings).  Sam has progeria, an incurable genetic disease that speeds the body’s natural aging processes. By the time kids with progeria are 9, they resemble elderly people, with hair loss, muscle loss, brittle bones and the least visible but most dangerous symptom: the blood vessels of an 80-year-old. Virtually all of these children suffer heart attacks and strokes; on average they do not live past age 14.

Progeria is one of the rarest diseases; only 250 children worldwide have it. So drug manufacturers aren’t exactly racing to find a cure. That’s why soon after Sam’s diagnosis in 1998, Leslie and Scott, both doctors, founded the Progeria Research Foundation along with Leslie’s sister Audrey Gordon. (I first met Scott through the March of Dimes, where he is a senior vice president and I am a board member.) PRF quickly raised over $1 million and 4 years later had found the gene for progeria. The film chronicles the family’s race to study a drug therapy for the condition in a trial at Boston Children’s Hospital, even as they also slow down to savor the time they have together.

“I didn’t put myself in front of you to have you feel bad for me,” Sam says early on in the film. “I put myself in front of you to let you know that you don’t need to feel bad for me. This is my life. Progeria is part of it. It’s not a major part of it. It’s a part of it.”  The family’s ability to keep up with everyday life in the face of this disease is remarkable. Sam goes on a ride at an amusement park and cracks two ribs, but he also goes to school, plays sports and enjoys rock concerts. He is fragile but extraordinarily strong.

People “take time for granted,” says Leslie midway through “Life According to Sam.” Anyone, but especially other parents, will be awed by the family’s courage and amazed that they could spare one single moment of their time together to share their experience. “Everyday what I’m thinking of is how to save the kids and how to save Sam’s life,” says Leslie.

You will find yourself rooting passionately for Sam and his family and all the other kids in the trial, who come from around the world because the PRF is their best hope.  (Parents who loved “Miss You Can Do It,” from the same executive producer, Sheila Nevins, can expect to be similarly wowed by “Life According to Sam.”)

Sam allows himself to be documented in excruciating detail in his quest for a cure. His deed is a gift to the children with progeria who will continue to come after him and whose families already line up outside Leslie’s door, looking for a cure. But by putting themselves in front of the camera, Sam and his parents give a gift to all of us, a reminder of how fast the days pass. Watch it as a reminder of how very much we should value our fleeting moments together. But most of all, watch it to meet Sam, and to celebrate each passing birthday with him.

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