Dear Ms. Smartphone: My wife and I are planning an in-home baby shower (finally!) and we’ve asked guests to gift children’s books to read aloud. Most people like that. But one or two friends say that we are being priggish and old-fashioned. They offered to pool their gift and get us a Kindle and Kindle gift cards instead! I want to be ready to talk about this when they come for the party next month. T.C, San Mateo
Dear T.C., First of all, congratulations and happy celebrations. I totally applaud your gift-giving stance, and would ask your Kindle inclined friends to get you a subscription to a print newspaper or magazine, perhaps a year or two from now.
First, the trend: if you have visited a bookstore lately or looked at the best sellers’ lists, children’s books are crowding out adult reading. It’s not just for baby showers. Booksellers expect that babies will start out with tactile print pages but young people and adults will shift to downloads. The vital question is ‘at what age does that shift occur’?
That’s important because routines set early in life become habit forming. In the U.S. the Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended no screen time at all for children until 18 to 24 months, except for video chatting. This summary of the AAP says kids ages 2 to 5 should get an hour or less of screen time per day. Yet, a recent UK study found that 51% of the 6 to 11 month old infants had daily interaction with the touchscreen, and 75% of toddlers between 6 months and 3 years of age use a touchscreen on a daily basis.
Hidden Screen Time
How do children get so much exposure to digital devices? On a personal level, you might institute a strict rule to read in print. However, well-meaning grandparents, care minders, and daycare are naive to the concern and will use screen time more. And, sadly, parents aren’t off the hook. Very young children watch their parents and later on, mimic their behaviors. From the outset they observe grownups on their phones- while breastfeeding, in the car, and on the playground.
Still, I’m less worried about the early months as you will have lots of great reading on hand. And, thinking of showers, do we really need all those rubbery books that float in the water for bath time? Babies books are adorable: they are short, often tactile (think ‘Pat the Bunny‘), use rhyming sounds (‘Chicka Chika Boom Boom’), and grand images (‘Very Hungry Caterpillar’). There is probably nothing better than reading aloud with a warm puppy, a cuddly infant, and a great book (perhaps in that order too!).
Time for Tablets?
What I worry about, per the proposed Kindle gift, is a few months beyond- say ages 18 months to two years. Parents get psyched up that tablets will boost their child’s academic readiness, and kids who don’t participate get left behind. In communications research, there was a similar trend in the 1970’s. TV distributed programs like Sesame Street, and instructional software like LeapFrog, were devised to give kids a head start. The discussion is still open as to whether this entertainment approach debases classroom learning and fosters shorter attention spans. Mainstream research says that the programming did have positive effects, especially for disadvantaged kids. They could repeat letters or numbers when they began school, things that are measured in testing.
The Read-Aloud Guru
While there is a lot of wisdom coming from pediatricians and educators, I’d like to quote a civilian who wrote an earlier book in 1982 and became a spokesperson on the importance of reading aloud to children, particularly as they get older- even to teen years.
In his swan piece, Jim Telease reflects that both libraries and newspapers are “failing” to raise a generation of readers. Children who come from homes containing the most print- newspapers, books, and magazines- have the highest reading scores. As more American homes go without a daily newspaper, fewer children see a parent reading anything, and the less there is to model on.
PRINT At YOuR DOORSTEP
This is the key point (see picture), for while you may be engaged in deep content on your electronic device, chances are your child won’t see it this way. A child mimicking your behavior can’t determine whether you are reading Jonathan Swift, or browsing car ads, emails, and movies. When kids get their own screen time, it’s natural for them to gravitate towards online activities that demand less effort, like videogames and Club Penguin.
So, how do you as a parent encourage child parent interaction, and stave off this digital devaluation? Having print materials- daily newspapers and magazines around is important. They present an impromptu forum for parents to share reactions out loud, talk them over as a family, and debate ideas. Seeing this may help help kids develop verbal literacy, even if they are little. Aim for newspapers that have a weekly pullout section for younger kids, and find some content in the daily paper (e.g. Dear Smartphone, shameless self promotion!) that you can talk over together.
Meanwhile, because the print news copies are physically present, the content can be consumed slowly and enhance memory and information retention. These are skills that help kids academically. That said, kids reared on digital devices might gain different competencies, like fine-grain visual literacy and keyboarding.
Anyway, I’d like to end on a lighter note. Since you are getting so many baby books for the shower, you are sure to get duplicate ones too! Consider sending them to an out-of-town grandparent or family member that plans to spend time with your baby. Then they can read together electronically, and turn the pages at the same time!