TV On Wheels

Yesterday I flew home through an airport in Anytown, U.S.A.  As I walked from one concourse to another to get to the gate for my connection, I passed a woman pushing a stroller.  In the stroller, a little girl — who was probably about four years old — was watching her own little TV and had headphones on so her enjoyment of the program wasn’t disturbed by the surrounding hubbub.  She was oblivious to everything except what was happening on her nifty pink device.

It struck me as an interesting parenting choice.  Going to a modern airport has got to be a cool, interesting experience for a kid.  There’s a lot going on — bright lights, brisk movement, diverse shops and signs, announcements, unknown people, different languages — that would help a child to understand that it is a big world out there with many things to see and understand.  In short, it’s a learning experience.  And if your kid has lived a sheltered life, being pushed through an airport concourse under the watchful eye of Mom is a pretty good, and safe, way to be introduced to the bigger picture.

But this particular little girl was missing out on all of that.  She was in her own lworld, watching a TV program that she had probably seen multiple times already and plugged into her headphones, oblivious to pretty much everything that was going on around her.

In fairness to the Mom, maybe the little girl was exhausted and on the verge of a tantrum, and the path of least resistance was to let her watch her program until she fell asleep. avoiding a full-blown airport meltdown.  If so, that’s a parenting choice that the other travelers, myself included, would applaud.  But it’s also possible that for this little girl, with her very nifty portable TV screen, watching TV programs rather than the world passing by is the default approach whenever she gets into the stroller, whether her mood is good or bad.

We’ve read a lot lately about younger people feeling disconnected, unsatisfied, and at times depressed by the on-line, TV/computer screen world in which they spend so much time.  Maybe the answer is to take away the TV and let kids have a bit more interaction with the real world and the real people in it.  A stroller ride through a busy, bustling airport seems like a pretty good place to start with a device-free approach.

 

On The Hyped-Up Rugrat Express

Yesterday morning Kish and I took an early morning flight, heading south. Of course, it’s March — which means we’re in the midst of the spring break period for local schools. Not surprisingly, the boarding area was overrun with little kids. I’d estimate that a solid third of the passengers of the plane was children — and, because they were leaving early on spring vacation, let’s just say they were a bit . . . excited.

That’s right — we were on the Hyped-Up Rugrat Express.

When you’re not around little kids all the time, you forget what it’s like. Like, how some parents feel the need to talk through every part of the trip. (“Pay attention, Johnny! We’ll be taxiing our to the runway now.”). Or, how much little kids talk, and how loudly. Or, for that matter, how many times a kid can say “Mommy” on a two-hour flight. (The correct answer, based on the little boy sitting in front of us, is 2,435.)

One positive: no back of the seat kicking. As Hyped-Up Rugrat Expresses go, it therefore wasn’t that bad.

Bring Your Parents To Work Day

According to the Wall Street Journal, it’s becoming increasingly common for businesses to host “Bring Your Parents to Work” days.  The Society for Human Resource Management estimates that around 1 percent of American employers host such an event, with advertising and tech companies like LinkedIn leading the way.

fullsizerender__1_Companies see such events as appealing to young employees who are close to their parents. (Or, stated alternatively, some companies may realize that they’re hiring Gen X/Y/Zers who have helicopter parents who have always been deeply involved in every facet of their children’s lives and expect that to continue into core adulthood activities like working at a job.)

The article reports that the parents who attend these days wander around the office, wearing matching “Josh’s Mom” and “Josh’s Dad” t-shirts and snapping pictures of their kids at work and posting them on Facebook.  And, parents being parents, it’s not unusual for them to corner executives and pepper them with questions about how the company is doing — and, presumably, why their gifted kid isn’t moving faster up the corporate ladder.  For that reason, some of the children admit that having Ma and Pa at the office can be an anxiety-inducing experience.  Others, though, think that visits from their folks will help their parents understand what they do and where they spend a lot of their time.

It’s another example of how family dynamics have changed over the years.  My parents were interested in making sure that I got a job, kept a job, and became self-supporting, because that was part of the road to responsible adulthood, but they sure didn’t express any desire to experience the workplace with me for a day — and I really wouldn’t have wanted them to do so, anyway.

Some people obviously see the notion of “Bring Your Parents to Work” days as a way for parents who are close to their kids to further cement that bond.  I see the workspace, in contrast, as off-limits territory, where people should be making it on their own, without oversight from Mom and Dad.  I think it’s part of the boundary drawing that has to occur as children grow up and make it on their own.  Apparently, not everybody wants to draw those boundaries these days.

The Kid Who Wouldn’t Leave

A family drama is playing out in Camillus, New York.  That’s where two parents have had to institute legal action to get their 30-year-old son, who has lived with them for eight years, to finally move out of the house.  This week, a judge formally evicted the son and ordered him to leave the premises.

mr-1038x576According to the son, whose name is Michael Rotondo, in the eight years he’s lived with his folks he’s never been expected to contribute to household expenses or assist with chores or the maintenance of the property.  He doesn’t have a job and is a self-described “liberal millennial.”  His parents have encouraged him to get a job and buy health insurance, but instead he’s focusing on a custody battle about his own son — and continuing to live under their roof.  He says he is “an excellent father” who “would forgo buying clothes for myself so that I could take [my child] skiing.”

In fact, Rotondo believes his parents’ action was retaliation for his loss of visitation rights with his son.  Their first letter to him, in February, apparently came a few days after he lost visitation rights, and said “we have decided that you must leave this house immediately. You have 14 days to vacate.”  His parents then stopped feeding him, and later letters reminded him of the deadline, and offered him $1,100 and advice on how to move out.  But Rotondo resisted, saying he needed six months to leave.  Ultimately the eviction lawsuit was filed, and the judge decided Rotondo had to go.

A lot of people have been laughing about this story as the ultimate “failure to launch” tale about the unappreciative slacker kid who made no contribution to the household and just wouldn’t leave.  I don’t see much that is humorous in this sad case, however.  I’m sure the parents aren’t celebrating their victory over their own child; they’re likely heartbroken about it.  They provided their son with shelter, support, and a safe place to land, and eight years later, with no end in sight, they reached the end of their rope and saw no alternative to turning their personal family story into a very public drama.

And now the son they supported for eight long years is being quoted in the press as saying, “I wouldn’t characterize them as being very good parents.”  That’s the kind of remark that would cut any parent to the quick — not because they agree with his assessment, but because they probably feel they’ve failed in rearing a child who could be such a colossal, oblivious ingrate.

My Inner Grandma

Yesterday Kish and I were talking about health, and before I knew it I used the phrase “fit as a fiddle.”  As soon as I said it, I realized that it’s a phrase that no American has probably used for the last 20 years,

That’s what happens when my Inner Grandma surges to the fore.

grandma-21“Inner Grandma” refers to the vast repository of sayings that immediately come to mind about the small realities of everyday life, like weather, and eating, and getting up in the morning, and how you’re feeling today.  All of the sayings were chiseled deeply into the synapses of my cerebral cortex as a result of spending huge chunks of my formative years with my mother and my two grandmothers, all of whom used some of the same core sayings.  I probably heard them hundreds of times as a callow youth, and was proud of myself the first time I used them correctly and participated in a conversation with Mom or Grandma Webner or Grandma Neal.  Now those sayings bubble up, involuntarily, whenever those everyday moments arise, even though the sayings themselves have long since lost their currency — and don’t even particularly make sense, come to think of it.

“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“I’m in the pink.”

“You’ve got an appetite like a truck driver.”

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine!”

“He’s happy as a clam.”

And that’s just scratching the surface.  I guess it shows how much of our thinking is shaped by our childhoods, and how we remain the product of our upbringing long decades after our childhoods have ended.  Mom and my grandmothers will always be with me.

Creepy Playgrounds

The London Daily Mail has an interesting article about creepy sculptures that appear to haunt some of the playgrounds built during the Soviet era in Russia.  There’s no doubt that there is a profoundly disturbing, nightmarish quality about some of the figures that could haunt little kids and cause them to avoid the playgrounds altogether.

7055939An evil, grinning chimp with fangs?  A crying woman in a blue dress?  A goateed, wide-eyed doctor in a lab coat ready to plunge some unknown instrument into your skull?  A hollow-eyed, distraught boy kneeling on the ground?  A bizarre fight between an emaciated bull and a reptilian creature?  Who came with this stuff, the psychological warfare section of the KGB?

But maybe we’re being too hard on the Soviets.  Let’s face it, American playgrounds aren’t exactly free from disturbing stuff, either.  Any playground that has a jungle gym, an old-fashioned merry-go-ground, and “monkey bars” is bound to present its share of childhood horror.  And the decorations at some playgrounds are unsettling, too.  We used to live a block away from a park we called “Yogi Bear Park” because it had a teeter-totter where the fulcrum was a covered by a cheap plastic depiction of the head of Yogi Bear.  The adults recognized the figure as Smarter than the Average Bear, but to little kids it was an unknown, apparently grimacing figure wearing a bad hat and a tie.  What the parents saw as Yogi, the kids perceived as a weird, lurking presence.  Not surprisingly, the tykes tended to steer clear of old Yogi.

For that matter, childhood is filled with intentionally scary stuff that suggests that adults get a kick out of frightening youngsters.  “Fairy tales” aren’t happy stories about fairies, but horror shows of child-eating witches, child-eating wolves, and other evil creatures ready to devour any wayward kid.  Hey, kids!  How about a bedtime story?

We apparently delight in terrifying children.  The Russian playgrounds just bring it out into the open.

Squelching Summer Fun

When we were kids and lived on The Circle in semi-rural Bath, Ohio, a typical summer day went like this:  we got up early, ate cereal, and ran from the house to play outside with the gang of other kids in the neighborhood.  We’d ride our bikes and climb trees, play “army” and baseball and kickball, build dams and catch tadpoles in the creek that ran through the woods, and make up stupid games.  Except for stopping to eat a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served by one of the moms in the neighborhood — usually selected at random — we were outside and on our own all day long, and after we’d eaten dinner at home, often at the picnic table outside, we’d find our friends again and catch lightning bugs and play freeze tag until it was time for bed.  And if we were lucky enough to go somewhere for a beach vacation (in our case, to Ocean City, New Jersey), we’d dig in the sand, bury each other, and build sand castles.

fun-ways-to-celebrate-the-summer-solstice-sqI remember those long, hot summer days fondly — but if you read the expert advice given to parents these days, you’d think that our entire group of friends was unbelievably lucky to survive them without experiencing serious injury or lifelong trauma.

Consider the “10 Rules for Summer Safety” published by parents.com.  It cautions against overexposure to the sun, heat exhaustion, doing anything around water, wearing clothing with floral patterns that might attract stinging bees, poisonous plants, and bug bites, among other things to worry about.  Some experts (including, apparently, the U.S. EPA) are very concerned about sand, whether a child is digging in it, being buried in it, or even walking on it.  And don’t even think about letting your child walk around outside barefoot!

All of these cautions about potential death-dealing problems lurking outside on that sunny summer’s day are bad enough, but what’s really troubling about these “rules” for child safety is that they presuppose that the parents are right there, at all times, making sure that the kids don’t take off their shoes or touch creek water or walk on sand or risk brushing up against what might be a poisonous plant.  We seem to have totally lost the notion that kids might actually be able to fend for themselves, and that whatever problems might occur — skinned knees, bug bites, sun burns, and the like — were a small price to pay for letting kids get lots of fresh air, have fun, engage in creative, self-directed play, and establish a little independence with their neighborhood friends.

If you took these warnings seriously, you’d decide that the best course is to just keep your kids inside, where there are fewer dangers around every corner and they can be in your line of sight at all times, as they sit watching TV, or playing video games, or tapping away on a computer.  Could it be that the worries about outdoor play that the experts have raised, and the parental response to them, have contributed to the rise in asthma, obesity, and diabetes in children who never go outside and get any exercise, sunshine, or fresh air without being lathered with sunscreen and scrutinized by helicopter parents?

Who knows more about what kids are capable of — the skittish experts of our modern world, or those Moms of the ’60s who were perfectly willing to let their kids go out and play, unattended by adults, confident that the kids could take care of themselves.  I’ll trust the practical experience of the ’60s Moms over the experts any day.

Counting

We learned some things so long ago that we have no recollection of the process.  The words “Mom” and “Dad” and the names of our siblings.  That you don’t stick your hand into an open flame or onto a glowing red burner.  Simple temporal concepts, like “today” and “yesterday” and “tomorrow” and “later.”

And basic words.  Anybody who has children knows that kids typically learn the words “yes” and “no” some time before the age of two and then stubbornly and infuriatingly speak, shout, or scream the word “no” exclusively for the next 12 months.

countingBut counting comes later, along with learning your ABCs.  Counting is a building block for math, just like learning the alphabet is a building block for reading and spelling.  When you think about it, counting is a fairly sophisticated concept.  First you grasp the difference between none, one, and many — and then you learn that specific words and symbols represent precise numbers of, say, the little meatballs in the Chef Boyardee spaghetti that your Mom served for lunch.

One of the challenges of counting, of course, is that the words that represent the numbers, and their progression, aren’t intuitive.  I thought of counting and its challenges when I stumbled across this article about the words “eleven” and “twelve” and their history.  For many kids, the numbers between 10 and 20 are the big challenge because they’re weird and not consistent with the concepts that come before (between 1 and 10) or after (for 20 and up).  To this day, I think the only reason I know the world “delve” is because of the rhyme I learned about counting as a kid.  (“Eleven, twelve, dig and delve.”)

So where did eleven and twelve come from?  According to etymologists, both come from the root word “lif,” which apparently meant “to leave” — the concept being that 11 would mean one left after 10, and 12 would mean two left after 10.  It’s weird, and something that would forever after cause kids learning to count to stumble and hesitate after then got to 10, but it’s not unique to English — when you learn how to count in French, at least, you encounter the same issue and strange words just after “dix”.

That suggests that, in the early days among the common folk, most people didn’t need to routinely count up to 573, or for that matter much past ten.  That makes sense, because we’ve got ten fingers and kids learning to count often do so using their fingers.  Our ancestors created special words for the numbers just past ten, but at a certain point they probably just shrugged and settled for “many” rather than going for precision.

Lots of kids learning to count would like to have taken the same approach.

Garbage In

What are the costs of eating fast food?  Of course, one cost is the simple consumption of an unsatisfying, typically over-salted meal in either a car seat or a sticky and garish fast-food environment, rather than sitting down to a leisurely meal with family or friends.  That’s a given.  Then there’s the weight gain that tends to result from slamming down high-calorie processed foods.  But now research is indicating there’s even more to it.

chemicals-in-fast-food-wrappers-show-up-in-human-bloodThe Washington Post recently published an article about the curious association between fast-food consumption and phthalates.  (Yes, “phthalate” is a real word, and no, I have no idea how it is pronounced.)  The study tracked fast-food intake by 9,000 research subjects — fast-food was defined as any food served at a restaurant without waiters or waitresses — and took urine samples from them.  Analysis of the urine samples showed that people who had eaten any fast food in the last 24 hours had higher phthalate levels than people who had not eaten any fast food during that same period, and the larger your fast food intake, the higher your phthalate levels tended to be.

The results are troubling because phthalates are industrial chemicals used to soften plastic and vinyl and make it more flexible, and the Post reports that they have been associated with a number of adverse health effects.  Male infertility is one of them, and another is diabetes.  Why do people who consume fast food have higher phthalate levels?  Researchers don’t know for sure, but they suspect it is because the processed nature of fast food means that the food tends to touch a lot more machines, conveyor belts, plastic wrapping, other packaging materials, and other potential sources of phthalates before it gets onto your plate — I mean, your cheap cardboard box, paper bag or foam container.

But here’s the most troubling part of the Post story from my standpoint: the research revealed, and other government studies confirm, that one-third of the participants eat some form of fast food every day.  That includes one-third of kids and adolescents.

A diet that includes fast food every day.  Just the thought of it makes my mouth feel dry and briny from anticipation of the salt intake.  It’s no wonder that we’ve got some serious health and obesity problems in the U.S. of A.  We’ve got to start taking better care of ourselves, and it starts with eating better food.

Is Porn A Public Health Crisis?

Utah’s state legislature has passed a resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, and yesterday Utah’s governor signed it.

ip01091The resolution doesn’t ban pornography in Utah — with the volume of porn available on the internet and through various media outlets, it’s hard to see how that could be accomplished, anyway — but it does seek to highlight what it calls an epidemic.  The resolution says that porn “perpetuates a sexually toxic environment” and “is contributing to the hypersexualisation of teens, and even prepubescent children, in our society,” and speakers at yesterday’s signing ceremony argued that porn also undermines marriages and contributes to sexual aggression.

Utah, which is a majority Mormon state, has always long been one of the most socially conservative states in America, and an “adult entertainment” trade group called The Free Speech Coalition said that Utah’s declaration is an “old-fashioned” morals bill that ignores that porn watchers tend to have more progressive views on sexuality and women’s rights and that ready access to porn correlates with a decline in sex crimes.

It’s hard to see how anyone could plausibly argue that pornography is a public health crisis in the same way that, say, the Zika virus or Ebola are.  Porn isn’t randomly striking people down or causing microcephaly or other serious health conditions through mosquito bites, and if there is such a thing as “porn addiction” it sure isn’t as widespread or destructive as alcoholism or drug addiction.  Clearly, there are more serious targets of our public health spending than porn.  And there obviously are free speech concerns at issue, too, that the law has wrestled with since one Justice of the Supreme Court famously declared that he might not be able to craft a legal definition of pornography, but he knew it when he saw it.

Still, I think anyone who pooh-poohs the fact or significance of the increasing prevalence of porn — soft, hard, and even violent — in our society might be missing the point.  “Dirty books” and “dirty movies” have always been around, but they sure are a lot more accessible these days, available with a few clicks of a mouse or TV remote control unit.  Anybody who watched HBO, as we do, can’t help but notice how graphic the depiction of sexual activity and sexual situations has become, and broadcast TV isn’t far behind.

There’s a reason pornography is euphemistically called “adult entertainment.”  Parents have a legitimate interest in protecting their children from exposure to porn until the kids have a chance to learn about sex in a more neutral, less charged, less graphic way.   No one wants their kids to think that the scenarios presented in porn are a normal representation of sexual activity in a loving relationship.  That’s not old-fashioned, it’s common sense.

Parental Eavesdropping

Like many states, New York has a law that bars recording communications unless at least one of the parties to the communication gives consent.  Earlier this week, the highest court in New York considered whether parents can legally eavesdrop when one of the parties to the communication is their child — and held that parents can do so under certain circumstances.

The ruling came in a case where the divorced father of a five-year-old boy, over an open phone line, heard his son having a “violent conversation” with his ex-wife’s bodybuilder boyfriend.  The father recorded the conversation.  (Disturbingly, though, the father apparently didn’t contact authorities to give them the recording until months later, when the ex-wife and boyfriend were arrested after neighbors heard screaming and crying coming from the house.)  The boyfriend argued that the recorded conversation shouldn’t be allowed into evidence at his trial because neither party to the conversation consented.

eavesdropping-1stepmother-helpThe New York Court of Appeals disagreed, and concluded that the father had “a good faith, objectively reasonable belief that it was necessary for the welfare of his son to record the violent conversation he found himself listening to.”  Three of the judges on that court dissented, concluding that the ruling raised policy concerns that should be left up to the legislature and could raise issues in divorce situations, with the parties to the break-up planting bugs to record conversations between their children and the other party to the divorce.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone would argue that a parent who heard their little boy being threatened with violence couldn’t making a recording to try to help their child — but then again, it’s hard to imagine that a father who made such a recording wouldn’t immediately take the recording to the police to try to get his son out of a dangerous situation.  The father’s inaction in the case makes the ugly divorce scenarios that apparently motivated the dissenting judges seem more plausible.

But one person’s bad judgment shouldn’t mask a key reality:  parents should be permitted to eavesdrop and intervene when they honestly believe their child is at risk.  Whether it’s bullying on a school bus, or a situation where a child is falling under the sway of a sexual predator, there are many instances where parents could legitimately decide that making a recording of a conversation involving their child was the right thing to do.  It’s not snooping, it’s trying to protect your kid — and we shouldn’t let speculative worries about what might happen in other worst-case scenarios prevent parents from following their basic parenting instincts when it comes to trying to do right by their children.

Sick Subculture

In case you missed it, there’s a trial underway in Florida in which Terry G. Bollea — better known to the world by his stage name of Hulk Hogan — is suing Gawker.com for posting a grainy, secretly recorded video on its website that purportedly shows the retired wrestler having sex with a friend’s wife.

ap_651364014819_-_h_2016Normally I wouldn’t care about a tawdry legal clash between a fringe celebrity who claims invasion of privacy and a website like Gawker.com, but yesterday I happened to read a news story about one piece of testimony in the case that stopped me in my tracks.  The testimony came when a former Gawker editor-in-chief, Albert J. Daulerio, was being questioned about what he considered newsworthy and where he drew the line when it came to posting sex videos of celebrities.

“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” the lawyer asked.

“If they were a child,” Daulerio answered.

“Under what age?” the lawyer asked.

“Four,” Daulerio responded.

Gawker later said that Daulerio was being “flippant” because, you know, people are always flippant when they are being questioned by a lawyer in a legal proceeding.

Have we really come to this point?  I can’t imagine why any adult would record a sex tape, much less why anyone would want to watch it — but to suggest, even in a “flippant” way, that sex tapes of children would be newsworthy and should be posted on the internet is, in a word, sick.  Any website that would articulate such an editorial policy isn’t really a “news” website at all, but just a mechanism for feeding the voyeuristic interests of a seamy underside of American culture.

There are important legal issues to  be explored at the intersection of the internet, the First Amendment, and the privacy rights of celebrities large and small.  No doubt the Hulk Hogan lawsuit against Gawker will help to develop the law in that area, but it’s also obviously exposing something equally important about the internet — something that is small and sick and sad about our society.  Have we touched bottom yet?

Getting Down And Dirty

The New York Times carried an interesting article recently about how the “dirt cure” can make children healthier.  The theme of the article, which featured an interview with pediatric neurologist and author Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, is that children are better protected against illness and infection if they are routinely exposed to dirt — by eating natural, non-processed foods and by playing outside, with hands and knees on the soil.

2501c9ff68b8ed08549c745f9bddd4c0In the article, Dr. Shetreat-Klein relayed two fascinating things about dirt.  First, in one teaspoon of soil, there are more organisms than there are humans on our planet.  (That sounds impossible, but it’s one of those factoids that is often cited in articles about soil.) Second, soil is home to about 25 percent of Earth’s biodiversity — in the form of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, mites, microbes, and microarthropods.  There’s a lot going on below our feet that we never even think about.

Studies show that kids who play outside tend to be healthier, do better on standardized tests, have lower cortisol levels, which means they’re calmer and less stressed, and be more creative.  Dr. Shetreat-Klein thinks all of those attributes might be related to exposure to the teeming population underground.

I can’t speak to the science of it, but I suspect that Dr. Shetreat-Klein is right . . . and that there’s an additional reason for the results reported in those studies, which is that playing outside is just a lot of fun.  Of course kids who get away from their houses and play with their friends outside, explore a wooded area, build a dam in a stream, and turn over rocks just to see if there’s anything underneath are going to have stronger immune systems, because of what they’re exposed to, but they’re also going to be more curious, more self-reliant, and more willing to take risks because that’s what playing outside is all about.

Our mother used to groan when UJ and I came home with faces streaked with dust and shoes caked with mud, carrying caterpillars or crayfish or a captured garter snake or a big, weirdly shaped toadstool that we and our neighborhood friends found in the woods that encircled our houses, but I think it did us a lot of good in a lot of ways.

Big Brother Barbie

Mattel has introduced a new Barbie called “Hello Barbie.” Implanted with voice recognition software and a microphone, Hello Barbie records children’s voices, sends them over the web to a server where they are reviewed and analyzed, and then uses that information to develop a response.  Eventually Hello Barbie is supposed to learn and remember names and chat away with kids.  The new doll is designed to get Barbie, which has been declining in popularity with digitally obsessed kids, back into the game.

Privacy advocates aren’t impressed. They call the new doll Eavesdropping Barbie and Creepy Barbie, and question why any parent would want their child’s conversations recorded and sent to a faraway server to be analyzed.  You could imagine how such recordings could be misused if they were intercepted, or the server was hacked, and they ended up in the hands of kidnappers or child molesters.  Privacy advocates also wonder if the doll’s chatter could be used to encourage kids to ask for other Mattel toys.  Mattel, for its part, says it is committed to safety and security.

I wouldn’t want to bring any device into my home that would intentionally record and analyze my children’s conversations — but I also think we have forgotten just how much information our existing electronic devices already collect and analyze information about us.  Our cellphones have apps that track our location and tell us about the nearest restaurants. Our home computers collect cookies that remember the websites we’ve visited and the searches we’ve done and then direct pop-up ads for products to our screens based on that information.  Our cars have satellite radios and GPS systems that follow our daily journeys.  Our home cable and wireless systems are tied into networks that are transparent to call center employees thousands of miles away.  A good rule of thumb is that any “smart” device — whether a phone, or a dishwasher, or a refrigerator, or a car — is collecting and recording information and sending it somewhere, where it probably is maintained on a computer server and being used or sold.

Hello Barbie?  It’s more like Hello Big Brother.  And Big Brother is already here.

Should We Show The Door To Common Core?

These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration.  One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards.  In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core.  This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.

The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states.  Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them.  Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.

Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s.  At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.

With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process.  I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school.  Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core.  One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems.  When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said:  “Mom, we don’t do it that way!”  The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change.  NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.

I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond.  Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy.  Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it?  Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?