Awakin Calls » Mary Rothschild » Transcript
Mary Rothschild: Attention, Digital Media and Young Children: From Confusion to Agency
Guest: Mary Rothschild
Host: Rahul Brown
Moderator: Richard Whittaker
Rahul: Today we are very grateful to have a remarkable guest speaker with us, Mary Rothschild, whose personal journey is not only inspiring but has a tremendous impact on many people. Thank you again for joining today's call. We'll start with a minute of silence just to anchor ourselves and prepare for the dialogue.
Thank you and welcome again to our weekly awakin call today in conversation with Mary Rothschild. Here's how the call is going to work - in a few minutes our moderator Richard Whittaker is going to engage in a deep dialogue with Mary and by the top the hour we're going to roll into Q&A and the circle sharing where we will invite all of your reflections and questions.
This week's beam is attention, digital media, and young children, from confusion to agency. We have the great pleasure having Richard Whitaker as our moderator today. For those of you who don't know Richard he is actually the editor and founder of Work and Conversations magazine. Richard thank you so much for joining us.
Richard: My pleasure, Rahul, really happy to be here.
Rahul: You know, Richard, this call today, to me, is particularly poignant because we live in this era of distracted partial attention and you know I've heard it said that my generation maybe the generation just slightly after me is the last generation that knows what it's like before the Internet came around. and so, young people are especially in this world where they are incredibly distracted from an early age and that's become the norm. There was a shocking statistic I heard around the goldfish having the lowest pension span until recently. Where it's now become us. And in a way, attention seems to be the fundamental literacy. If you can't focus then you can't really accomplish much and so the scary thought that this is the place that we're at. My understanding of Mary's work is that she is actually shining the light on that and beginning to do work that is turning the tide. You know it also feels especially relevant that you are the moderator because your work, in particular, involves I think a deep attunement and a deep attention to the quality of people around you to be able to figure out those folks that you want to interview and then necessarily going into the deep dialogues with them to tease it out into new insight.
So it's just great to have you here and I'll pass the baton on to you to introduce Mary.
Richard: Thank you, Rahul, yes, I think you've touched on a central piece of this. I mean it's true, well Mary and I especially are from this generation that even before television in some cases and it's a brave new world we're in; it's what's going on so, there's a big question about how to adjust to it. I think this is really the central reality and the central thing to look at and I know this is something that Mary is very much focused on.
I know from the notes here of how to do these calls that I'm asked to do a little personal story about my own relationship to media. I stopped watching T.V. about I'd say fifteen years ago.Earlier when I was raising my daughter, my wife was very much a fan of T.V. and I was pretty much also getting sucked into television all the time but I also was very unhappy about that and one day I was so frustrated that I actually cut the television cord with the wire cutter and I didn't really think about it being plugged in. (laughter)
And, there was a huge electrical flash and it burnt the part of the wire cutter. Very dramatic. It didn't really stop the media in coming into our house but it was a very dramatic moment. (laughter)
So anyway I have many stories of my own about my relationship with the media. One thing I've noticed is that I listen to radio when I'm driving a fair amount but now I've discovered that I prefer silence and that's a very interesting development. I feel it's encouraging to begin to prefer silence. Anyway. Now here's how I met Mary- I met Mary two years ago. I got a phone call one evening from Jacob Needleman. Jacob is a person many of you may know or know of - an interesting man. He said, Richard, I've got a really interesting person over here I'm talking with, Mary Rothschild. Do you know her? I said, no, don't know her. He says, well she has some really interesting things to say about media - children and media. Are you busy? I said, not really. He said, well look, why don't I send it over to you and I think maybe you should interview her. So twenty minutes later from that phone call, Mary is sitting at my dining room table and we're having an interview. So that was how I met Mary. I think some of you may have read that interview- it's a very interesting interview.
So, in any case, that's how I met Mary and then she went back to Brooklyn where she lived and I didn't see her again until recently. I want to just say a few things about Mary here ... she taught at Fordham University in the Communications Department where she taught gender and media and also digital media and public responsibility. She's taught at Delphi University, a course called Children and Media. And for over twenty years, with her nonprofit, "Healthy Media Choices", she worked with parents teachers and children, up to the age of about six, on how to be intentional about media use around and with those children. She also created a children's center in her home in Brooklyn, "Ariadne's thread," where the activities are organized around the working with hands on things and with attention to touch and sensation.
I know Mary is very passionate about how to meet this pervasive role and influence of media intentionally. So instead of increasing the polarization surrounding this question her interest is in helping others, helping parents and others, cultivate the agency that we all actually have, or could have, to be conscious and intentional in our consumption of media So Mary, thank you for being here, it's great to have you on this call.
Mary: Thank you Richard. First I want to thank Pavi and Preetha and Rahul and all the people at Service Space who are so good at supporting & implementing ways for people who want to connect with like-minded people to do so. I really appreciate all the ways that Service Space does facilitate these conversations. We did a certain amount of preparation but already some of the things Rahul has brought and you brought Richard, bring things to mind that i'd like to address before we go on. One is the thing about generation - the generation before the Internet which is Rahul and the generation before television, which is me. And I have one of the things that I think are very important that I haven't really thought of in a bit (maybe we dressed in our interview Richard) is that I remember the moment that the television came into my home as a child. I was about seven years old. And I remember standing on the stairs and television coming in and the very kind of physical sensation I had and the visual impression I had was of all the furniture turning toward the television. Everything turned toward it. And now of course it's so inured to this everybody, if we have television furniture pointed there. But it was so clear that something very structural had changed. And we weren't going to look at each other any more. We were going to look at the television. Rahul also mention literacy and I thought that he was so right on there, in terms of attention adult literacy. In fact there's wonderful man who works in this general field called Howard Rheingold, he's here in California. He wrote an article and it's part of his book, the name of which does not come into my mind at the moment, called attention to the twenty first century literacy. He addresses this in very open ways. He doesn't necessarily see multitasking as so negative, but he brings the question of what's going on? Mostly with his students who are older. But this is something that is emerging in the society - is this question of attention and where we're going with all of that? Anyway Richard, how would you like to begin?
Richard: Well thank you for those thoughts. You've made this huge move. I mean it's huge because you lived in Brooklyn pretty much most of your adult life and all of a sudden here you are in the Bay Area. You've been here just a few weeks. You want to say anything about this big change in your life?
Mary: The word that comes to mind is refreshing. After the exhaustion is lifted. It's refreshing in the sense that there's a very definite sense of beginning again. But not nearly in the same place of my work and in my personal life as well, of course I'm in a completely different situation. My husband and I bought a house with our daughter and her family and that includes my five year old granddaughter. So my personal life has expanded to have this very day-in and day-out contact which is wonderful. Also in terms of my work with young children, I'm much more connected with this young child and some of the things she says and the way that her very intentional family is trying to navigate all of these things. So I would say that for me, (which is fundamental in my work with parents and community, and various people I work with) it is this sort of stepping back. I've taught undergraduates, I've run this nonprofit, I've worked directly with young children, and what of that do I, can I, continue here, who will I continue working with? Where do I want to spend my energy? There's this book coming out in the not-too-distant-future. All of these questions about how really to serve my calling. With the environment at my age and with my skill sets, so to speak. Kind of a wonderful time - in terms of - I love it here, I feel completely at home! I love New York, I Loved My Life in New York, I loved teaching at forum. Obviously we have a lot of very close connection there, but there's this sense of really being in the right place, even though it is the unknown. 1
Richard: One thing that stood out for me in what you just said is that you are now in an extended family and I wonder if you want to put in a plug for that because that's kind of an ancient way of life, an extended family where generations are together we don't typically have that in the US.
Mary: I think it maybe coming. One thing that has been in the media is the fact that children are staying at home longer. The economy is dictating a lot of this. I was out of the house as soon as I could be and I had a little apartment when I first came to New York. I had an apartment all to myself - it was a 5th floor walk-up and it had the bathtub in the kitchen but it was all mine for $37 a month and I could barely do it. But I could live in New York on my own in a little apartment. I don't know that anyone can do that now. I was a student so I wasn't really making a living. So the economy is dictating a lot of younger people staying at home longer so that's still inter-generational. I also think that as baby boomers are aging and the economy being what it is (and it's not necessarily my situation but) I think you will see more and more of this question coming - of how can we pool our assets, how can we work together to get everybody what they need in the family, if the family has a healthy relationship (fortunately mine does get along). So I think it might be coming, but the other thing that I've been kind of seeing out of the corner of my eye, is my situation is physically being in the house (we have a separate space obviously we don't share kitchen) is that we are always inter-generational, we carry our family with us. Even if they're passed on. So many of our associations are the way of thinking about things come from the way we were brought up. This step back that is so fundamental to my work especially with parents, and through great community et-cetera but really with parents and teachers of young children, is this step back what we call sifting out the goals - what do I want to keep, what I feel is really valuable, what helps me in my daily life, and what would i just as soon not replicate. What's my role? I'm the grandmother, I'm not the mother. Of course that's always an interesting thing because the parents have obviously got the primary decision making role. So often grandparents (I think this is coming more into view for me and I really feel it needs to be addressed) come to me and say I'm really concerned about my grandchildren - I can't get their attention, they're always on their media stuff, and I don't want to step on the toes of my children and talk to them about it. And then the parents talk to me about how the grandparents give the children those very digital media things, because they know the children will like them and they want the children to like the gift etc. So there is this interesting resource that needs to be addressed. That the resources and family, the allies we could be for each other, how do we speak about these things? How do we speak about what's going on without confrontation, without all the stuff that could happen.
So there is this interesting resource there that needs to be addressed. As a resource, as a family, as the allies we could be for each other. How do we speak about these things? How do we speak about these things without confrontation? Without, you know, all the stuff that could happen. It's kinda rich for me because I'm seeing all these young families, and I'm seeing the church for schools and all the things. And it's coming to me that we all have this concernment about what we want to bring from our own past. But also that we need to be able to speak to each other across the generations even if we're not living with each other. But I think you will see more and more, it really works! I don't know if it would work if we had to share a kitchen
Richard: That's wonderful. No I know that there's an important piece in your life that I think informed everything that you do. And that has to do with some of your early experiences in the religious community. I wonder, as a kind of background for where you are today if you wanted to share anything around that.
Mary: Well in the little bio that Service Space puts out for an Awakin Call, I mentioned, and it's interesting that I did that. I was in the middle of moving, so I guess I was open to revealing things that I actually don't usually speak about. But Service Space is a place where there is an understanding that people, service is the common denominator. Common understanding here, so I guess I felt free to speak about this moment when I was probably about 18, maybe I was 17. I was brought up in a very Catholic home, even though that is not affiliation now, I really am grateful for that. I feel that sacraments had a tremendous impact on me as a young child. I was very convinced of the power of a holy communion and connections of God and wanted to serve God and humanity. And so I pondered going into a cloistered community and pray. And I looked into the Poor Claires and a couple other communities. But I ended up in a semi-cloistered community, but missionary and semi-cloistered at the same time. So they worked very much in the world or in foreign countries. But also work semi-cloistered so they would either work serving, or they would work, not in total silence. But also a very joyful community of married to missionary sisters and very open. I think that particularly in missionary communities, because they are kind of on their own, they tend to be more open to new ideas and ways to do things. And in any event at that time, this is in the 60s, this was in 63 I went in for two years from 17 to 19. And just moments in the theology class, and I can't remember what book we were reading or what we were looking at, there was this idea that came from some theologian, about humans being able to be a prayer between Herst and God. You can be a vehicle like conduit. I can remember the impact, right now, it had such an action on me. I'd recognized something. It wasn't even connected with religiosity. It wasn't like God, like Catholic to God. It was something much more visceral and fundamental. And there are many things that talk about that of God and every man, so it was more about something higher in myself. I do feel that it does, refrain the question that way, that does inform because I was such an open, impressionable wishing to serve places especially at that time of my life. It had such an impact on me, that it does inform me with my work with people with very young children. This isn't something that I do or can do. It is something that is a potential at times. And that we can tap into that if we step back and leave enough room for it. And I really feel that anyone can. And that gives a sort of impartiality to look at what's going on, what we want, who we are at this moment, so that we can say, is what's going on now going to result in what I wish for. Is this, where are we going together? How are we using our time? All of those questions then can be looked at, not so much as a point of view of guilt or innocence, or it's bad, it's good, or I have to fix it. Rather in a more objective way that's less laid. With all the reactions we have the way we are and the way we think other people are and where we think other people should be. But rather, what do I really want? At the end of the day, what's the most important thing?
Richard: Yes, that's the key. That's a very important thing. That is in the way you are sort of trying to address these very big questions around the media when you talk with others, parents, and others. I mean that is one of your points of entry isn't it. Where I mean you have a term, I know you used with me: lifeline. Looking at one’s life, taking a careful look at one's life. I think you invite people to take a careful look and ask, as you just said, ask what is it that's really important. That phrase, lifeline, I think you're working on a book right now, and I actually have a title right here: From day one, creating a loving lifeline. So I think, maybe you could continue what you were saying there and sort of frame it there in terms of how you may think of a lifeline that we might develop.
Mary: Yeah, you said it very well. From my all these years of working, in a way I regret putting media so centrally in the name of my organizations and the way people present my work. Even though, ultimately, that is where we are spending out time. That's where we are as media. But ultimately, it's a step back from that before that. It's the process that's important to go through before we address to anything. In some families, it's not media, it's something else, right. But this questioning of what's the most important thing, how are we spending out time, just looking at it and not necessarily we are not media. But how do we spend our time, you just trying to quantify. With both parents' work, we come home, we have how many hours in the evening with our kids, are we together, are we not together. And really looking at that. And sometimes I'll get workshops, and there are a hundred people in a room at a conference or something, and everyone is going through an individual assessment. You know, that we pass out in assessment sheets. And everyone is going through a personal assessment of how they're spending they are. Who they are at this moment in terms of being a parent or space communities, the part of that's very important to them. Who are you and what's the most important thing for you? In terms of your relationship with your child. And then how are you spending your time? Time is our basic resource, time is life. And if we look at our time, we say, "Oh, I really want a relationship with my child." I want to be close with my child. And you have 1 hour a day when you're actually really, physically with that child. And everybody is tuned into something. It'll work out, but it's not necessarily a good idea so then there is this whole question of time. I can tell, you being so close to a family that's trying very hard to get a lot of good attention to a child. The whole time factor is huge. I mean, where is the time, right? Especially if both parents are working, and the child's in school, and maybe has after school activities and then maybe some children in preschool have homework which is ridiculous, but in any event looking at time and where time already is. One thing I try to avoid, like the plague, is guilt.
Is making parents feel guilty that they don't have more time. That they aren't doing it right. It is more trying to be impartial about it. Where is time?
Richard: Can I interrupt here? I think what you are saying is so important. When you said time is life. The thing is how often do I feel that there is...everyone knows this saying, "Time is money." Well, what a mistaken view that is. Time is life is something that I certainly recognize in myself how I generally speaking don't recognize that. I just want to underline that. I think that is such a central thing. And I think that it is not easy for people to connect with that. That time is actually my life.
Mary: And we are asleep to that fact because we are just trying to get through our days most of the time. So we need to look at it. There is a man named Keith Frome who used to be the Headmaster at a school in Massachusetts and is now head of an organization that helps kids from economically disadvantaged families write their college essays. And he wrote a book called What Not to Expect? I think the subtitle is "the spirituality of parenting" or something like that. Wonderful book. I recommend it.
And he tells the story about how one day when he was the Headmaster at school, he has this meeting in the morning with his child who is older than the age group I address--he is probably 10 or 11 at least--and the school is nearby, fairly nearby was not coming down. He kept saying, "Come on, I got to get to school." And the boy was just dragging his feet. Wasn't coming down. And the childcare provider for the younger child had come.
And he said, "You know, why don't you just leave him? He can get to school on his own, take the bus, whatever. Let him learn a lesson. You are not a chauffeur service."
And he said, "You know, you are right. I'm going to teach him a lesson and go without him."
So he went to his school and went to his meetings. And in the car, driving to school, he was hit by this sense of loss because he realized that these minutes going to and from school were the only time he and his son were together, just the two of them during the day. They weren't necessarily talking that much. Sometimes they would talk, sometimes share each others music, whatever. And he realized that this was such a precious thing for them to connect during this time.
So this is the kind of thing that we need to see is that it doesn't have to be...although some people might want to rearrange things, and I think that is also good if they can...but sometimes it is just recognizing what is already there and instead of putting on the TV in the back of the car or whatever it is, screen thing in the back of the car, or everybody looking at their cell phones. Saying, "The time in the car is family time. It is time to turn everything off. We'll listen to our music or share music or whatever." But trying to be intentional about it. I think that could make a tremendous difference. Even ten minutes a day could make a tremendous difference in a relationship.
From my point of view, putting the relationship in the center of the question rather than media in the center of the question helps us.
Richard: That is lovely. I think that is a wonderful way to put it. I think that is such a powerful story that you told that it was only after he got in his car and was driving away that it struck him that this was the time that he spent with his son and he didn't know that. So people don't know that. That is the thing. So I'm thinking a big part of what you are doing is trying to wake people up a little bit. We are all sort of hypnotized in a way. Wouldn't you say? Maybe that is a funny word to use, but we are just enraptured by all these things demanding our attention or taking our attention. Again, we are getting back to attention.
Mary: Right. It is a narrative that we have bought. That somehow we always have to be available to whatever call comes in or every email that comes in on our phone.
I speak about this sometimes as the myth of the digital gene, you know. That people I heard at a conference that people say, kids are born with a digital gene. That children have this tendency toward digital media from a very early age. Well of course they do because they are surrounded by it and because people give it to them.
Mary: So this narrative that we're... one of the things that we really look at is what is my story, what story do I want to live out. What story do I want my family to live out. And you know all this caring for the digital future, parenting for the digital future, and I really feel that there is another narrative. What about parenting for the climate change future? What about parenting for the economic swing future? You know. All the things that really, we do need to prepare children for to be self-sustaining, to know how the solar (clothes?)36:04 you know whatever. I feel we bought this narrative that the future is digital and we really our kids need it, the sooner the better. What they actually need, especially the age group I'm really concentrated one, the first six years, the kids the research says, that is where our view of life is formed. And one of the big things that forms that view of life is the stories, that we speak, being played out. I mean if everybody I mean its huge forty inch thing and all the people and all the furniture are directed toward it, you obviously, no body has to tell you its important.
Richard: Yea, yea, and all the stories that big screen is telling us. And we talked about this but the culture story there are these, maybe you want to say what the culture story is or do you want me to say it?
Mary: Well (laugh) from my point of view there are three main threads and I do want to get back to the thing, I realized I didn't really address it about the life-line. If you talk about weaving a cord of meaning, the cord that the commercial media will weave is that you never look good enough, you have never have enough stuff and that violence is an acceptable way to solve conflict. Those three things.
Richard: And there's a pill for everything, right?
Mary: And then there's a pill for everything, increasingly because of big pharma as being able to directly advertise for you, there's a pill for everything. Is that really the narrative that we want our children to buy into? Or for us ourselves to buy into? And the reason I speak about a life-line and in the book I'm trying to point out the different cords, the different threads that can be rewoven into a lifeline and the flexibility of the life needs to have as we change, children grow, is first to step back and self-awareness, just to look, look at what's going on, is a very basic strand. Narratives....
Mary: Family narratives, Robyn Fivush at Emory University and her colleague did all this research on family narratives and they had as part of Emory was Meaning and Ritual in American Life. I think its meaning and ritual? In any case, in any event. They studied narrative in American life and what they found was that children who know their families stories, even stories of failure, hardship whatever. immigrant stories they were exponentially more resilient facing the challenges of adolescence, you know.
Mary: We need to know where we came from and also the narrative of whatever belief system you have. If you have a humanist belief system faith-based whatever it is, um... to share, to really share your life with your child, is basically what we are talking about is to share who you are to be a person, rather than a role with your child.
Richard: That's a really big thing, you've pointed this out. Some people are ashamed of who they are, they try to cover it up. And you're saying this is really unfortunate because everybody needs to know the family story and if it’s a hard story, if it’s a story where people felt they didn't do well enough they even need to know all that right?
Mary: Thats right. The resiliency - we bounce back. I gave a workshop years ago in a homeless shelter. And with mothers - it was mostly about abuse. People - they had had a very hard time. And they found the space safe. The kids. And they were really discouraged. How did they end up - they wanted to do so well for their kids. And here they were in this - the end of the road. And i think you know - really actually - you are courageous and you are resilient and you found this safe space for your children. The children were happy and playing nearby. And it is matter of perception. We really need to see that everything isn't good, bad, success and failure. We are complex beings and life is complex. And that is why the whole dialog around media use, the way the media address - the question of media use with young children is always, " oh media is bad for your kids" and two days later you open the paper and it says " media is maybe not so bad for your kids, after all!"
And parents really confused. And we really need to take our agencies and say "ok - number one - parents do not have the time to read the article. So the only thing they see is the title. So it’s extremely confusing. And to say - " ok - what am I going to feel is right for my family - for my child? How am I going to navigate this?". And for myself this is a personal question for me. Because in terms of my work, I also have this pastiche of different people i can work with. Some people take money from the industry, I would not take money directly from you know - Sony Pictures - probably - or Disney- if I am funded by Disney as part of my work, it would nullify the work , but there are organizations that do really good media literacy work. Who do take some funds from the industry. I will work with them. Not in ways that I will take the funds. But I see them as a resource - because I would like media literacy to be brought directly into the homes. Through games. There are all kinds of ways that we can , as adults , you know have a sense of humor about some of the stuff like - " they really think that we believe that that medicine is going to cure something or my hearing - gives it much more trouble with its The ads for pharma for instance. To step back again - media literacy is a wonderful set of tools for stepping back and evaluating- also creating - using family stories to create - if you have a far away aunt and uncle, who has a story to tell the child - have them use these wonderful tools to tell that , bring that story into the family. I will work with them because I want some of those resources. And then there are some people like Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, who is very much about screen time right now - a focus that i feel is a little narrow - but they do great work - they do great advocacy work. And one of the most successful organizations about media and young children. I work with them. I love them. I love their work.
So to me - for all of us - there is this puzzle. We need to draw the pictures of the puzzle which is going to come together as. And we can take the pieces from different elements - for instance - in terms of young children and media - this five year old granddaughter of mine - is a good example. She has never had a television. She probably seen a couple of Disney things. She has a couple of Disney books. But she probably can tell you every Disney character - because of the other children. Right. So our definition of media needs to expand. Because the other children for her are - there is a medium there. They are bringing the information - right? To her about the society without her parents. Parents do not have that much control in a way. You have control in your home. And another child about the same age - her parents called me and said " she really wants this Elle dress. Every body has this Elle dress. She does not know who Elle is - but she wants the dress. And i don't want her to have the dress. Because she is going to put the dress on and pretend she is Elle. And i don't like that."
Richard: That is an interesting piece where - if she gets the Elle Dress and she puts it on- you pointed it out to me earlier in an conversation - that that is part of the problem with everything being branded. That once you put a dress on - you have somehow taken in the whole brand and the whole thing you have absorbed it in a certain way.
Mary: Right complete with all the gender stereotypes. And everything that comes with it. And which may be complex. And it is not necessarily terrible. So i think that you have just a little thing like Elle. So that she feels she is part of her age group. This is what i call the inoculation method. Which actually is a thing. Where you give a little bit of something to not make it a forbidden fruit.
Richard: And that is an important point. It is not that you are going to block all this stuff. You can’t. You can’t block all these influences. So you give parents this method of taking a little bit of it and accepting it and bringing it in; so that the child does not feel totally isolated. You calling that the inoculation process. That’s great. That is a great word for it.
Mary: I can’t remember - there was a time when that term was actually coined. It has to do with politics probably why it is in my brain at the moment. It was a way of forestalling propaganda. This people did not want. And this is propaganda. We are in the middle of a lot of propaganda. About media use. And the most important thing to focus on is these first six years - i mean if it is so easy for children to integrate into digital media; what is the hurry- if we know that during the first six years - and all the research says - the most important thing is the relationships with the family. The contact with nature. The contact with the sensory experiences of working with materials. And feeling their own agency with material and being able to make things. And do things and also work with their families. And we know that - then why would we go out of our way and spend a lot of money and lot of time in a digital media space, that is not going to necessarily serve any of that. That is one of the things that we have to look at- is the propaganda really around of having to have it and having to have it soon.
Richard: I just want to look at that little more; this whole thing that you brought up. The importance in the first six years of life - for a child to have a relationship with nature. Meaning my body, the front yard, the grass, the flowers, the earth under my foot. Even the concrete under my foot. My foot is touching the concrete. If i have my shoes off - my bare foot is touching the concrete. The point is that if we can have our body relating to the actual real physical world ; that is a crucial thing. Right? That is what you are saying?
Mary: Right. This is what I am saying - the senses - the sensory dullness. Even when a lot of people talk about media with young children, talk about " Well it is not really kind - it is content". If people who want to speak about how much time children are spending- the other side says " No. It is content that is important. Not time." And so there is the whole debate. Actually from my point of view, the fundamental thing, is " what is that child physically doing?" They are sitting still. By and large. Unless they have a Wii thing. Which is a whole other conversation. They are physically - their thumbs are moving and their minds is going and following - there might be fight or flight going on if there is something fearful on the screen. And which is toxic. But they are not interacting with their whole bodies. In the sensory light.
Richard: That is a huge point. And that is the confusion in the way people think. When they say content - what is the dichotomy that you were talking about - time and content? Here is the problem that people don't realize that content is the actual experience. I mean if I pick up a rock in my hand that is content, the experience of holding my rock. That is sensual, physical thing, that's content and people only thinks that this is part of the hypnotism or I think. People only think that what's going on in my mind, my head that's content. If it isn't going on as a sort of a mental process it's not content. Would you go along with that?
Mary: I haven't thought about it exactly that way before but for the child it is very immediate content. It's content about their visceral life. It is a direct impression of life. It was so interesting, I was listening to a teacher recently who said, oh we can bring animals. It is so wonderful that through digital media we can bring animals into the classroom that the children have never seen. No they bring images. (Laughs) People don’t know the difference. There is a fundamental difference and then we learn about it. We see it but do we smell it? Do we actually feel the earth move as it runs? There is nothing wrong in learning about animals in the academic sense but it is not the direct immediate experience. And this is one of the things where we have weekend retreats and we had one with the faith community and one of the exercises that we do is to really try to plumb the depths of what were our experiences of this kind of contact with ourselves as young children and we draw about it or we write about it as each person wishes and it's amazing actually what people bring. And do our children have stillness any time to be still with their lives, even just walking to and from someplace. Do they ever have stillness? You know in the city you know there are all the billboards and important stuff, do they ever have stillness? A time to just be and be in there bodies and being alive. Even that will be a huge thing to just provide and to think of that as something that was a necessary thing to make sure if that was part of your child's life from time to time with a huge- huge thing even if you all sort of stuff. Each family needs that stillness because and there's a common denominator what people bring and it isn't you know other people or the festival but it is this moment of stillness. So we really need to privilege that and say if that has value along with the ballet class and everything else that the children are doing because along side the immediate question is the over scheduling question with children because some children you know they're constantly being asked to interact with other children, to be in classes or something which could put tremendous stress on them and then if you add the media in, they really don't have any time or space to just be quiet and just ponder.
Richard: That reminds me of a story you told and I know we're getting to the point where we might open this up to some questions but I remember Mary telling a story when you were a child of a hollyhock I think. Can you tell us that story?
Mary: Yes in terms of this exercise that we do, the thing that comes immediately to my mind in terms of the first time I remember like knowing I was there on the earth was I was looking up at a Hollyhock and I know exactly where that Hollyhock was. Hollyhock is a tall flower and I was three years old. I couldn't possibly have been alone where I was because it was a driveway, nobody would have been there by myself as a three year old. But I felt completely it was the hollyhock and me you know it’s like we were there together in this moment of just quiet and actually so many people have brought similar experiences of very very early experiences and how do our children probably are just walking by so we don't have to necessarily try to engineer things. We just have to leave space so that there's nothing overtly distracting. Because the child you know has this in them. They are going to be, if they love it they are going to have the ability to come to themselves but it is so distracting. All of this stuff that we have now where people put these IPad or a cell phone in children's hand as they're walking along now because they don't want them to talk to them, or they just need some time thinking or trying to figure out what they're going to do next. It depends upon the parents that sometimes is the reason that they do these things but one thing I just want to before we open it up in terms of where I am now and having come three thousand miles and suddenly here on the West Coast.
The other thing that I am seeing is that the society has shifted. I mean number one there is handheld digital media so that's changing the landscape because the child takes it wherever they go. They don't want to go in the tent but want to take the phone with them but not only that, I think the society is shifting in terms of awareness which is increasing that this really is an issue. You see CEO's and people who work in Silicon Valley forming lobbying efforts about addiction but they consider addiction to digital media and not necessarily among young children but they're trying to address this because they're the ones who made this stuff. They know. They are sending there children to Waldorf school because they know about the dangers. So I think we are in a very turbulent time about this and there are a lot of different voices and that's why it became even more confusing for parents and you really need to say you know what's important to me when we put that relationship in the center of the question and not the media in the center of the question and then see what's going to serve the development of this young child and the development of the whole family, the adults as well are developing right. What's going to serve? So we are at a interesting actually not interesting but we're in a kind of a pivotal time because there are more resources but they don't owe us any good if they just confuse us. So we need to see what's important to us and take what serves only the rest alone and not worry about the rest of it but to see what is going to serve our purposes and to communicate with each other and try to be flexible. Flexibility is a big part of that lifeline because as the child grows and the family grows things change and you have to be flexible and keep stepping back, looking again and asking what's going on now?
Richard: Mary you were mentioning about how even some of these tech leaders are somehow against the technology that they have built and this is sort of a major development as you pointed out and it was the vice president of growth at Facebook who said I think this is the literal quote, " It is literally at a point now where we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. This is where we truly are. The short term doesn't mean you have a feedback loop that we created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation and it's true and it's not an American problem, it isn't about Russian add, this is a global problem." He being an early investor in Facebook who also became a conscientious objectors to social media added that, "we've built the technology that exploits the vulnerability and human psychology." And you know there was also a sort of groundbreaking book that recently came out called "Chaos amongst you" which highlights all the ways digital media has hijacked our neurotransmitter loops to manipulate it in all sorts of ways, to the point where even Mark Zuckerberg, who of course founded Facebook, posted an apology on his Facebook account over Yom Kippur, where he apologized for how his work has been used to divide people instead of bringing them together.
What I was hearing is that you are sort of taking a middle path in this question. The very people who have been responsible for bringing this technology to mass use have gone completely in the opposite direction. Could you comment a little bit on why you hedge your opposition or you cautionary note about the danger of this.
Mary: Well, I think that is a great question Rahul. I appreciate your bringing it up.
You know this whole question especially around children 0-6 being born into this environment, it is really kind of a crucial piece because the first six years of life are the most neurologically active. That is when the basic neurological connections get formed and then we edit it with neuroplasticity throughout life. To have children born into this very short loop situation is...trust me, I'm definitely on the side of none until 6. But my experience is that...I'm very happy to see people are coming and saying what you quoted. However, Mark Zuckerberg at the same time Facebook is bringing Messenger for kids. So they are playing to the customer saying something, so they are addressing it. But meanwhile back at the ranch. What is actually systemically going on is sometimes very different.
My interest is helping the individual parent. From my point of view, to be one more person saying, "Digital media is going to kill your kid's neurons" is only going to feed into this dichotomous conversation. From my point of view, it is much more important, and this is my piece, other people have other pieces, and it is not the only piece. Join an advocacy group and really advocate for more legislation. You know the FCC has no power. Look for ways that society at large can address these things.
But that has failed. For example, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Very effective organization. There was an app a few years ago that came out that was targeting very young children and was being advertised as educational. There is no app on earth that is educational for a child under the age of 6, certainly under the age of 3.
And so they went to the FCC and they filed a complaint, and the FCC said, "We are going to take up this complaint." Well, the people wanted to forestall that action, so they took the claim off the product. By the time that process had taken place, 5 million people had downloaded that app. It is too slow. They have their piece and it is a great piece and I really support them.
But from my point of view, the other side of that question is the individual having the discernment, having the process in him or herself to say, "Is this a good idea for my child?" And looking at the research. You should know what the research said. But to say, "I have some agency here. I can not buy this app just because someone gives me the app, doesn't mean I have to let my child have it."
This is the impotence that everyone feels. They don't feel they can withdraw. Everyone has it. The kid wants it. From my point of view, the middle way is the way that the parent is going to be able to feel agency. Some parents will not have a television. My daughter's family doesn't have a television. They are not going to let the child have an iPad. But other families will say, "They are seeing us on it all the time. We feel it is a part of life. It is like a book." And that works for them. And from my point of view, that is a success story.
I understand it is only one aspect of the question, but I just don't feel my own role is to feed into...if I were going to, I probably would be on the side of let's legislate to protect very young children from this. But I don't see that as having worked. And I don't see Zuckerberg taking his Messenger for kids away, real soon.
Rahul: You were pointing out that a number of tech leaders also put their kids in Waldorf schools which, for those who don't know, I think Waldorf doesn't even teach kids how to read until they are seven. The policy is no technology until you are 9 or 10. I can very much relate to the question of the right way to raise kids in that environment because I have an almost-five year old who is going to be going to kindergarten next year and we have just come through the process, or maybe in the middle of the process of thinking about where to enroll her in school. And I came across this interesting tidbit between Waldorf, Montessori, and Public school, where we have a lot of examples of world leaders and tech leaders who have gone through Montessori, specifically I'm thinking of Larry and Sergey Brin were both Montessori, and there are a number of other CEOs in Silicon Valley. And outside of Silicon Valley, there is a long list of very renowned people who were educated in the Montessori system.
We also have the same kind of lists from public schools because public schools are very huge. But a friend of mine who had his daughter in a Waldorf school, and he loved it, but he said the one thing is that there is no leader. There is no very prominent personality that has come out of Waldorf that we can point to. So in this era where achievement is something on the minds of parents, what do you say to that range of outcomes across Waldorf, Montessori, and Public?
Mary: Well, I think there is an assumption in your question that I would favor Waldorf school. I worked with a school very similar to Waldorf, in fact more extreme in some ways about media. What I found when I spoke to people in Waldorf administration level is that there is the image and then there is the reality.
A lot of parents send their child to Waldorf schools for the reasons that it is the best place close by, they went to the open house and the kids related. It is not about their banked philosophy necessarily. So what happens is the child goes home has all the stuff, all the media that you basically sign an agreement not to have. And then cannot bring it to school. Cannot bring those impressions to school because it is not part of the thing.
So what is the child learning there? There is a hypocrisy there that the child is learning very directly. I know people who went through Waldorf schools are very creative. I think there is a big emphasis on individuality which may not in a competitive environment be able to take you to the head of Sony or something. I think basically and many people have asked me about schools. For the child, the other children and the class they are going to be in is going to be the most important thing which is something you can't change. But people do self-select according to philosophy and the geographic local, etc.
The Waldorf philosophy, I think is great. I think in reality...I talked to somebody who said they couldn't do research because there was not control group for children who didn't have media beyond a certain age. There is no control group anymore. And I called the Waldorf school and said, "You know, people are looking for a control group. I wonder if you have anybody in mind." And they said, "All of our kids are on media."
So I think as a parent it is very important. There is all this material you get from school, but talk to people who are actually physically in school already is very important. Because there are many varieties of Waldorf. I don't know about the whole success thing. It is not something I'm attuned to--why successful people come out of one. Montessori, the thing that I saw with young children coming out of Montessori schools that I worked with was this wonderful sense of their own abilities to really as a child feeling the sense of their ability to clean up after themselves and pour things themselves. All the age-appropriate things they were really encouraged to do, required to do. The children I saw in those environments when they were younger had a lot of attention issues etc. thrived. There was a lot to be said for the structure, for the freedom within the structure in the Montessori system. But of course, that was just a couple of schools that I was personally involved with.
So I think you always need to dig down. You know there is the philosophy and the schtick. Then dig down and see what is really going on here. In a way, to say we require you not to have media, in a way, makes media very central for the child. Unless the child is never going to meet anybody but other Waldorf children who have no media, they are going to know about this stuff. And so it makes it very central, because why are they so worried about it? Is it bad or is it good? The child has a burden in my point of view. Is it productive? I wonder if it is. I don't know the answer. It is too complex and too individual. Good question though.
Rahul: Yeah, thank you for that answer. You were also mentioning that there is no such thing as an educational app for a kid under six. So we have this video series that we got from a friend called Leap Frog which teaches kids the sounds of letters. We've allowed our daughter to watch that on occasion. And as a four year old, she is pre literate. She is able to sound out words. I feel like it has boosted her literacy to a certain degree.
Mary: I shouldn't have said six. It is between two and a half and six depending on the child. They can do things that help. My granddaughter does some math thing that has rewards and she loves it, so it is on her mother's iPad, so she can use it. It seems to be helping her at five years old.
I think this app that I was talking about was targeting under three or under two. There is nothing, no way. So much of what we know about what helps children learn is really in some ways intuitive--"motherese," the sing songs that comes very natural to people with very young children that we think is kind of silly. Actually, it is very important part of the children learning, hearing the sounds of the language. The voice is a medium. Tone of voice matters to a child. And background noise blocks a child's ability to learn a language actually. Even if people are talking in that language in the background, it blocks the language they are hearing from the person in front of them. That whole thing...I have a feeling that your family is probably good at language with your child. Whether or not you can attribute her pre-literacy to this app is a question too. It was so young that that is why they went to the FCC. It must have been under three. But this whole thing about what is educational and what that even means, right? What are we learning? What are the essential things?
I was saying to Richard, I would love to know if anyone is doing research on the families in Puerto Rico who have not had electricity for quite a while now. And the governor said to parents, "Learn to play with your kids again because you're not going to have electricity for a while." I would love to see what resources people have found. what has been developing, when they got unplugged unintentionally for a while. We think of this as being a reliable resource, and it really it isn't. It has bot to be plugged in, it has got to have a grid, it has to be up. So the whole thing about addiction, to get back to the people in Silicon Valley who are particularly addressing addiction. The thing that is addictive is that digital media can do what no human being on earth can do for us. As long as it is charged, it is always there. It will do what we ask it to do.
So there is this reinforcement, especially for a very young child, of getting the attention, getting the reaction they want, the relationship in a way, that they want. Nobody has the attention to be always attentive to a child like that--to always respond. So it is a particularly addictive medium.
Rahul: You were also mentioning that the lens to look at these questions from is relationship and attention. On that note, I'm curious what your recommendation is around what age do you think is appropriate to teach a child meditation. For me it seems like meditation is a wonderful blending of these two threads of relationship and attention, particularly relationship with one's self which is where all other relationships flourish. Different schools of philosophy think of the right age as varying, so I was curious what you feel or thought about that question.
Mary: Well, this is a great question. From my point of view, the basic thing is modeling from the very beginning. If this is something that is important to you that you are going to take time for. And some variation of it for the child. And the end of the day, lighting a candle, being quiet, and reflecting. Having quiet. My family has a little chime and we listen until we can't hear it anymore. Things that are integrated int the child's life from a very early age. And then the child will pick up on it. When we talk about children, we tend to say children or ages. They are different. Each one is going to have the gravitation towards meditation at different ages. But I can tell you that I have examples in my own life of children who know there is quiet time because parents are quiet. They are to be quiet. They say, "I'm going to have quiet time now" at four years old. From my point of view, modeling with attention, modeling that we are paying attention when we are cooking, to paying attention to being quiet, paying attention when speaking to each other is primary. Modeling. And that is the hard part because we are distracted and our lives are full of all kinds of pulls. And even invite the child to sit quietly by you from a very early age. Personally, I think the child will say...a lot of people say that nine is a very pivotal time. A child is developing in away from the family towards the peers more, so I think preparing for that by having some things in place that identify as core values of the family. Quiet time. Family meetings. Talking with each other about what is going on. Finding time to be together before 9 is a good idea.
Rahul: Mary, you were also mentioning about these three main threads, three messages we are getting from media: never looking good enough, not having enough stuff, and violence being an ok way to solve problems. That framing made me think of Yuval Harari's statement in his book, Homodeus, where he was talking about how historically the occupation or preoccupation of humanity had been to figure out how to avoid plague, famine, and war. And what we sort of moving into now, given that we in a way developed systems that have made the likelihood of plague, famine, and war increasingly unlikely, at least from a statistical point of view of actually killing any of us, it is a statistically improbable event. That our new preoccupation is bliss, immortality, and divinity. And that our technologies in a way are essentially aimed at feeding these three new preoccupations. I'm curious if you have thought about the role or the extent to which our media choices line up with the way Harari has diagnosed our collective attention.
Mary: It is interesting. I guess you are talking about the US population because I wouldn't tell anyone in Afghanistan that war isn't going to kill you. I haven't thought about it in those terms, but I do think that one relevant thing there is something that an organization that I'm related to called Media Ecology Association speaks about is looking at media as environment. We go into these environments. So in terms of bliss and immortality and divinity, these are aspirational things that these companies spend billions of dollars researching what we wish for. To always be young. To always be happy. The whole pharmaceutical thing--the visual is someone who has terrible allergies running through a field happily while they are telling you all the side effects of the medication, certainly talks about this. So the aspiration to be free from disease is still escaping the plague. Your personal variation on disease, in terms of escaping the plague what comes to mind really is all the pharmaceutical advertising that happens, and that children are definitely absorbing one of the constructs of the society.
But this wish to be happy and immortal, these are fundamental human wishes, and you can probably bet your last dime that the advertisers are researching how to help us think that we are going to get them by buying their product and by looking at whatever they are trying to sell us. But we choose our environment. I think it is very important to think of these different media as environments that we go into, psychologically we go into an environment that influences us. And environments are a medium for us. The children around a child do provide societal input. They provide a medium for that child to learn about the society directly from the narrative they are bringing, the backpack, the logos are everywhere, right?
I think it is more complex than we ordinarily think of it, and certainly from my point of view, there is so much dichotomy. Now Silicon Valley is up in arms about what they have created; meanwhile the product is it being reflected? Is all of that actually going to affect what they actually are doing?
Here we are. These are amazing things. The digital media are amazing tool sources. They can open us to speaking with each other. But how to bring us home. That is what I'm interested in. To say, "What can I take? What can I leave? What is my ultimate most important thing?"
Rahul: I wanted to ask you one final question which is how can we as the broader ServiceSpace community serve your work?
Mary: Oh, that is difficult for me to say because here I am in totally new territory and very happy to be connected with ServiceSpace. I would say keep doing what you are doing. And helping people like me put our word out there. I don't know in terms of anything particular right now that I can see, but I certainly appreciate the invitation.
About Awakin Calls
Awakin Call is a weekly global series of deep conversations with inspiring changemakers. It is an all-volunteer offering and is completely free, without any ads or solicitation. Read more ...
Subscribe To Newsletter
To stay updated about guest announcements, fresh content, and other inspiring tidbits, subscribe below and we'll send you a weekly email.
If you have any questions, feel free to drop us a note.