Advice for raising resourceful, resilient, and responsible childrenbased on the latest child development research.
“Success” is a popular buzzword in discussions about children. But instead of prescribing what success looks like for kids, we should be making sure that they develop the skills they will need to become “doers”—people who proactively seek out what they want in life. Raising Can-Do Kids offers parents hands-on, proven ways to raise kids who embrace the uncertain and challenging adventure that is growing up.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.74(d)|
About the Author
Richard Rende, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist, researcher, educator, and consultant. As a research professor at Brown University, he led many large-scale scientific projects on child development and parenting and served in multiple academic leadership roles. Rende distills scientific findings for parents and policy makers as a writer and speaker, and his work has been featured in Parents.com, Parenting.com, the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Yahoo!, CNN, MSNBC, Time.com, ABC News, and NPR.
Jen Prosek is the founder and CEO of Prosek Partners, among the largest independent public relations firms in the United States. As a successful entrepreneur, Prosek is passionate about promoting entrepreneurship and her book, Army of Entrepreneurs, provides a roadmap for businesses seeking to make their own organizations and employees more entrepreneurial.
Read an Excerpt
Before we launch you into this book, we think it would be helpful to tell you a little about how it came about. In 2012, one of us—Jen, a successful entrepreneur—contacted the other of us—Richard, a child development researcher—to explore partnering on a book. Our conversation, however, quickly turned into a discussion of the uncertainty we were both feeling as parents. While we all want to raise our kids to be “successful”—is there a more ubiquitous phrase these days when it comes to kids?—both personally and professionally, it’s just not clear how we should do that, because the world our kids will enter someday is becoming increasingly unpredictable.
We talked about some of the basic concerns we keep hearing about. Kids can have the most outstanding academic and extracurricular profile imaginable and still get rejected by a lot of colleges, as the number of applicants keeps growing while the number of available slots doesn’t change much. They can have an Ivy League degree and not get the job they want, and a college degree certainly doesn’t guarantee immediate employment. If they do manage to land that job, they might find that it’s either going to morph in unpredictable ways, or that it may even disappear. If the social scientists are right, we are fast becoming a nation of free agents who bear full responsibility for engineering our careers and our lives. The availability of good jobs and fulfilling careers won’t be a given for the rising generation. Many of today’s most prestigious companies and professions won’t even exist. How do we prepare our kids for that?
Jen related that, given present-day conditions, she wanted her daughter to learn throughout childhood the skills she would need to successfully navigate the world’s unpredictability. It seemed less important that her daughter know about a specific field or notch a specific credential; rather, she needed to build skills such as adapting, improvising, learning, persevering, and spotting opportunities. We agreed that the old paradigms of parenting for success are becoming increasingly obsolete. If we want our kids to thrive in that unpredictable world that awaits them as adults, we can’t just hyperfocus on pushing them as hard as possible through the predictable path of schoolwork, exams, and extracurricular activities. There has to be something more we can do to prepare them for a future that we can’t entirely envision.
Jen suspected that raising kids to become more like entrepreneurs would help. Entrepreneurs typically make their way in the world with no road map to guide them; they must motivate and inspire themselves, applying their passion and creativity to create success for themselves and value for others. People had often asked Jen if her parents had done anything special in raising her and her brother, since both had gone on to work for themselves (Jen as the founder and CEO of an international communications business, her brother as an independent artist and writer). The more Jen thought about it, the more she realized that she and her brother had been encouraged at home to do things like explore, be creative, be optimistic, seek out opportunities, make their own choices, and know how to get along with others. Jen realized that the very skills and outlook she experienced as a child were exactly the strengths she brought to her business and the capabilities she wanted to instill in her daughter. It wouldn’t matter whether or not her daughter eventually wanted to become an entrepreneur—rather, her thinking was that she would be well equipped to pursue her own successes by being entrepreneurial.
Jen put it to Richard: Was it reasonable to think that parents could help their kids cultivate entrepreneurial skills? And was Jen right in thinking that cultivation of entrepreneurial skills would benefit all kids, even those who didn’t particularly aspire to start their own companies or pursue business careers?
Richard agreed that Jen’s thinking resonated when we think about kids growing up right now. He had enjoyed a long career as an academic developmental psychologist and educator, having conducted many studies on how the family environment influences children’s development. From a scientific standpoint, what he liked about Jen’s approach was that it was “road tested”—it was demonstrably true that entrepreneurs gravitate to and thrive in a changing, unscripted world. Further, entrepreneurs tend to do what they love and pursue professional success—essentially the goal that all parents have for their kids. Richard knew from his previous work that the kinds of entrepreneurial skills Jen was thinking of were realistically attainable for all kids, and that you didn’t have to be a budding “business type” to benefit from them. He believed, as Jen did, that parents can’t definitely assure their children’s future happiness and success, and they can’t assume that the world will prove a hospitable place either. What they can do is give their kids the strongest possible platform so that kids can do for themselves—now, tomorrow, and decades from now. That “can-do” spirit was exactly what kids today will need to take on uncertainty to create their own success.
Jen proposed that she and Richard collaborate to write a parenting book that mobilizes the latest child development research to help parents nourish entrepreneurial skills in their kids. Richard enthusiastically agreed and was especially excited about focusing rigorously on “evidence-based practices.” It’s fashionable to throw out all kinds of ideas about parenting, but what matters is the evidence. As Richard explained, research never delivers an exact “answer” to a question. What scientists do, at any given moment, is step back and consider the big picture that emerges from research, both the long-standing findings and the new trends. There are always ambiguities, and there is always more research that could be done, especially when we’re talking about new experiences for children. That said, academic research is powerful because it takes what we know, right now, and arrives at a conclusion that is best supported by all the evidence. Those kinds of conclusions are what Richard wanted to present to parents.
Jen agreed, and the idea for Raising Can-Do Kids was born. Afterward, we spent two years researching and writing the book. Our first step was to draft a short list of entrepreneurial skills or traits that not only conformed to what is known about entrepreneurs but that also connected well with decades of child development research. Our initial list wasn’t exhaustive, but it captured core elements of the entrepreneurial experience, and best of all, it gave rise to a range of evidence-based practices for parents. We utilized this list by performing in-depth interviews of some two dozen entrepreneurs across a range of professions, asking these individuals to reflect on how certain skills or traits had impacted their lives (for example, in their childhood, in the careers), and in some cases how they had influenced their own behavior as parents. Our goal was not to extract “proof” from all these talented and successful people, but rather to get real-life stories that illustrated how entrepreneurial skills were put to use in the world. Where appropriate, we dipped into secondary research on entrepreneurs to further illuminate what the main entrepreneurial skills were, and how entrepreneurs put them to good use.
We eventually refined our list to focus on seven skills or traits that span core domains of development—cognitive, personal, and social. These skills became our framework for looking at the scientific literature and thinking about suggestions for parenting strategies, along with reflecting on popular writings about parenting that help reflect current parenting culture. We focused on two related cognitive skills that parents might easily cultivate in babies, toddlers, preteens, and teens—exploration and innovation. Among researchers a consensus seems to exist that children innately possess the ability to explore and innovate, but that they need to cultivate these skills in particular ways as they grow in order to develop to the fullest. All too often, the thinking goes, our educational system fails to do this sufficiently, and our kids wind up lacking what they will need to succeed. It’s worth noting that the concepts we review converge with what many identify as “twenty-first-century skills” all kids will need to thrive as they make their way across developmental stages and eventually go out into an uncertain world.
An additional three personal traits jumped out at us as we thought more deeply about entrepreneurs. Optimism was a big one: By thinking about how it benefits entrepreneurs as they run their companies, we came to understand a number of ways it could be a protective and powerful skill for children. A similar thing happened when we thought about a quintessential entrepreneurial trait: risk-taking. Much has been written about how our culture may be raising children to avoid risk, and how such coddling might hamper their development. In interviewing entrepreneurs, we discovered that they tend not to take extravagant or foolhardy risks for their own sake; rather, they strategically pursue opportunities that at times may carry some level of risk. This surprising behavior helped us shape a useful definition of what constitutes productive or reasonable “risk-taking” in children, which we reframe as “opportunity seeking.” A third personal skill—industriousness, or put more simply, being a “doer”—also stood out as we interviewed entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs tend to take on “dirty jobs” and develop a habit of doing for themselves; this stands in contrast to allegations lodged by cultural critics and others that today’s kids are being raised to be “entitled.”
Beyond cognitive and personal skills, our research highlighted how useful two specific social skills are as entrepreneurs build new businesses. Likeability helps entrepreneurs mobilize teams and build relationships, and it also turns out to be an asset for all children as they progress in their development; meanwhile, diminished likeability can restrict a child’s academic success and eventually damage their professional trajectories. Finally, we embraced a concept frequently discussed in business circles, the idea that serving others is not only personally fulfilling for individual professionals, but a pathway to success in almost any domain. The parenting research bears out how important this is for children as well.
Throughout the book, we suggest concrete actions or techniques readers can adopt so as to parent their kids more effectively. Don’t feel you need to follow our suggestions slavishly. Instead, just use them as starting points. Not every moment of a parent’s life can be artfully crafted to nurture optimal development, but child development research does help identify parenting behaviors that allow our kids to develop their innate abilities to the fullest. Some of our suggestions are derived from cutting-edge research, others from scientific findings established and reestablished over decades—we step back and identify the most helpful takeaways that represent current thinking in child development. We hope you use this book creatively, taking the ideas and tips and putting them into practice in your own way, with a bit of confidence that these will serve you and your kids well. Bear in mind that researchers who study kids continually enjoy learning more about what kids can do and take pleasure in uncovering their capabilities. We anticipate you will have fun applying some of what you discover in this book.
An entrepreneurial can-do spirit is ultimately what childhood, and development, is all about. Kids must adapt to an ever-changing and uncertain landscape in school and on the playground, and they must be able to rise to challenges and navigate inevitable disappointments. While “can-do” has a retro feel to it—and, in fact, much of our book reveals new thinking about the current importance of a number of “old-school” traits—there is also a freshness to the concept that cuts to the core of the challenges our kids will face in the future. Jen attended a conference in December 2014 on emerging market trends, and the leader, a futurist named Edie Weiner, introduced a concept so powerful it stopped Jen in her tracks. Weiner proposed that we are moving from a world of “have and have-nots” to a world of “can and can-nots.” Career success in the years to come won’t stem as much from who you know or your academic credentials (what you have); it will depend simply on whether you have the right skills—most of all, the ability to learn, grow, and reinvent yourself or what you can do. Individuals who can adapt to the constantly changing needs of the marketplace and get from A to Z without a road map will survive, thrive, and find happiness. Entrepreneurs are natural “cans.” And our kids will become “can-do kids” if we successfully pass along to them some elements of the entrepreneur’s experience and skills, especially when coupled with the evidence-based practices supported by current research.
As parents, we want our kids to develop a set of skills that will position them well to define and find both happiness and career advancement. While our first conversation about this book focused on the uncertainty our kids will face, we have come away from the experience feeling good that raising can-do kids is certainly a satisfying way to prepare them for this exciting life that awaits them.
Considering the technological proficiency of young children today, we might assume that these digital natives are better prepared for success than prior generations. A toddler may possess skill sets that many adults didn’t acquire until, well, adulthood, and will acquire new proficiencies beyond anything we might imagine. But as tech entrepreneur Dan Harple observes, there is one thing dangerously missing in children’s formative experiences—something that prior generations had in spades. “Today’s kids have different ‘boundary conditions’ than we did growing up in the sixties,” Harple notes. “We had more unbound freedom. We just went out to play, unsupervised, with no goals for developing competencies. We would flip swing sets over and bounce off of trampolines. I saw things changing in the eighties, the transition to overstructuring and formalizing our kids’ activities. When I became a parent, I resisted a lot of those pressures. Kids need to be able to run and explore.”
It’s perhaps surprising that a techie like Harple would think back so longingly for his low-tech childhood. And keep in mind, Harple is not your ordinary techie. We could spend a whole chapter detailing his contributions as an innovator and entrepreneur. He pioneered Voice over IP (VoIP), streaming media, and interactive screen sharing/shared whiteboards in the early 1990s. He was the cofounder, chairman, and CEO of InSoft, which merged with Netscape Communications Corporation in 1995 and provided, among other things, standards for real-time media to the Internet and the first real-time web platform (which millions of people use daily for web video). Harple has founded a number of other companies, including Context Media (acquired by Oracle in 2005) and gypsii. Harple is currently the managing director of Shamrock Ventures BV as well as a Sloan Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he serves as entrepreneur in residence (EIR). And for all these impressive tech credentials, Harple fondly recalls the role of free time and exploration in his childhood, and also posits that today’s youth require it as well—despite their prowess with gadgets.
A father of five children, Harple walks the walk. While his kids certainly had opportunities to learn technology when they were growing up, they were not always on the computer, and they had ample time for a range of unstructured experiences. “When I was the CEO/chairman of Context Media, my office was a bit larger than it needed to be. One corner of my office had a small dome tent. There is where my kids came and played while I worked. They brought their papers and crayons and toys and ‘worked’ from my office.” Harple’s kids could observe the comings and goings of people and whatever else was happening in the office; they enjoyed the unstructured time, a chance to play and absorb new experiences.
Harple liked bringing his kids to work because he remembered spending time with his own dad, an electrical engineer. “My dad repaired musical equipment—amplifiers and organs. I would just hang with him in the shop and watch him work. Sometimes he’d ask me to find something, say, a thirty-watt resistor, which gave me a chance to explore all the pieces of equipment that were around. I’d also observe all the musicians who would come by to drop off and pick up their equipment. I just soaked up a lot of experiences that would shape what I did later in life.”
All Work, No Play = Childhood?
Harple’s recollections of his youth speak to a concern expressed by many child development advocates: Children don’t get enough time these days for free play. Evidence is increasingly suggesting that parents do not sufficiently appreciate the role free play has in helping build a number of cognitive and personal skills vital for personal and professional achievement. In 2007, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a detailed report on data suggesting that free play has been declining over the past two decades in both home and school. A primary example was the decrease in recess time. In the summer of 2014, public radio station KUOW Puget Sound reported that eleven public schools in Seattle had restricted recess to twenty minutes a day or less. Four years ago, only one school was adhering to this practice. This is especially disconcerting because long-standing research has repeatedly shown that increased recess time leads to better academic performance. Bear in mind that another report by the AAP (published in 2013) focused specifically on preserving and restoring recess time in the early school years and the importance of allowing for sufficient time (for example, more than thirty minutes) for kids to fully engage in activities. Yet we continue to hear news that schools are retracting recess time.
Step back in time and think about what kindergarten was like for you. Chances are, it was a half-day program. We spent time playing and doing art projects in addition to foundational introductions to reading and math. By contrast, it’s not unusual to hear about kindergarten classrooms in 2014 that focus heavily on “academics” and dismiss not just recess but other key features of traditional early childhood education, like arts and crafts.
Forget for a moment about the data, research, and theory. Doesn’t the idea of a five-year-old not having the chance to go outside and play through the course of a seven- or eight-hour day sound strange? How about canceling the school play in kindergarten because more time is needed to prepare five- and six-year-olds for college? The latter actually happened in the spring of 2014 in a school in Elwood, New York. A letter was sent out to parents explaining that it was more important to focus on reading, writing, and problem solving to ensure success in college and beyond. Again, a far cry from the kindergarten many of us grew up with.
It’s important to remember that typical kindergarten activities such as playing and putting on cute plays aren’t just tangential, fun things for children to do. They are primary ways children learn and develop multiple cognitive abilities and academic readiness. An authoritative review of the benefits of play, published in Psychological Bulletin by Dr. Angeline Lillard and colleagues at the University of Virginia, concluded that giving young children freedom to choosefrom arange of hands-on activities confers the most benefits on cognitive development in the earliest years of schooling—as compared to highly structured classrooms that focus on providing top-down instruction from teachers. Children of all ages learn best by using multiple senses and by being experiential. Kids need to be active explorers of their world.
Discussion abounds in the press and social media about whether overstructuring our children’s lives substantially restricts time for free play and exploration at home as well. The journalist Josh Levs has proposed parental anxiety as the primary factor behind such overstructuring. Parents, it seems, are concerned that kids will fall behind if they don’t stay competitive in academics, sports, dance, and any other domain that might lead to success in adulthood. At the same time, many parents such as Dan Harple realize that kids are not being given the chance to develop their own passions for activities like sports or music.
We don’t fault parents for wanting their children to be successful, and for striving to provide all possible opportunities to help them get there—in fact, we agree with that goal. The issue is how we achieve that goal. We get that some structured activities are productive. But future success will also require a wide range of experiences, and the formative years lay a foundation for kids, one that allows them as adults to navigate opportunities and challenges. Keep in mind, the ability to adapt to a changing environment—to be entrepreneurial and proactive in the face of change—is becoming more important than ever in today’s economy. Catherine Clifford, writing on Entrepreneur .com, notes that “[i]t used to be that entrepreneurs were the renegade cowboys out in Silicon Valley. Nowadays, you have to be an entrepreneur just to get and hold a job.” She cites factors like the business appeal of hiring independent contractors and outsourcing jobs, among other trends. Jen sees ample evidence of these trends every day in her work. She further notes that some young employees are able to learn on the fly and improvise, while others aren’t. One of Jen’s prerequisites for hiring employees is their possession of what she calls an “adaptation aptitude.” And as the science tells us, the best way to gain such an aptitude is through exploring new situations and becoming comfortable navigating the unknown.
According to a paper published in Evolutionary Psychology, uninhibited free play during childhood lays the groundwork for adaptability. The fundamental lack of structure in play allows children to explore without boundaries—and when play includes other kids, it introduces unpredictability that requires and inspires adaptation. As kids make up a game, they learn to roll with new rules that they define in the moment. The authors of this paper suggest that this ability to adapt to change in childhood is associated with success in adulthood. Children need to be entrepreneurial when they go out into the world. Otherwise, they’re just not prepared.
Imagine your daughter excels in science throughout high school, goes to a great college, goes on to a high-powered graduate school, gets a PhD, and is considered one of the great new minds in the field. What will happen next? Well, she will have to hope that funding levels in the biomedical sciences are strong enough to permit some institution to offer her a job. And then what? She’ll be asked, in short order, to begin to develop grant applications that will fund not just her research, but her salary and benefits, too. That’s going to require all kinds of entrepreneurial skills that will aid her as she navigates funding trends, grant mechanisms, and changing priorities of funding agencies. And this need to adapt and improvise will be the case for the rest of her career in order to function at the highest level as a scientist.
In the years ahead, all kids will have to be entrepreneurial if they are to truly make it. One place to help—while they’re still in diapers—is to make them naturals at exploring their environment.
Openness to Experience
In personality psychology, the tendency to explore, manipulate, and discover is captured by the trait known as “openness to experience.” Dr. Colin DeYoung, an expert researcher in this area, has described openness to experience as “cognitive exploration,” which includes “the ability and tendency to seek, detect, comprehend, utilize, and appreciate complex patterns of information, both sensory and abstract.” This trait has been shown to predict success in the arts, sciences, and other disciplines—including entrepreneurial success. Drs. Hao Zao and Scott E. Seibert analyzed the findings of twenty-three research studies (using meta-analysis, a statistical technique to summarize an overall pattern of findings) and concluded that entrepreneurs, as compared to managers, scored “significantly higher” on openness to experience.
Curiosity, exploration, and discovery are core components of an entrepreneurial mindset. Jen suggests that entrepreneurs live with their “radar screens” on. They are willing not only to experience the world—but to actively survey everything going on around them. They like to absorb as many data points as possible because it gives them an edge. For Jen, everyday experiences offer stimuli she can utilize in her practice of public relations. During a ride in a taxi, chance phrases offered by the driver may trigger a new thought that could serve a client well. Entrepreneurs discover the advantages of paying attention every minute of the day, and those “radar screens” are always primed to detect signals that could be put to good use.
It may seem logical to think that some people are simply born with this trait. Personality traits, in general, are assumed to be somewhat genetic in nature. So is it possible that openness to experience is driven exclusively or even primarily by our DNA? Could entrepreneurial types just have a higher “dose” embedded in their genome? Hardly. The overarching conclusion from many “genetically informative” studies (for example, natural experiments that compare the similarity of identical and fraternal twins) is that openness to experience reflects a moderate amount of influence from genes—about 50 percent. Now, a statistical estimate such as this probably means a little less than you would think. It doesn’t mean that, for a given person, half of his or her tendency for openness to experience stems from their genes and the other half derives from their environment. The truth is, some people are rated high for openness to experience, some are rated low, some are in between—and the guess is that genetic makeup tells only half of the story. But even that is speculative, as the types of statistical models scientists use to calculate heritability don’t actually identify genes but rather try to model the cumulative effect of many hypothetical genes. And the bottom line from this work is that while genes contribute to behavioral tendencies, the environment matters a whole lot as well.
All this may sound complicated, and it is. So let’s repeat the basic point: Openness to experience is not something only some people are born with. Lived experience does matter. Yes, experientially as a parent, you may observe that your child is more or less open to experience. But that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t try to cultivate this trait anyway and encourage your child to always have their radar screens on, ready to detect interesting things in their world.
Babies Use Their Radar Screens, Too
Babies come into the world wired (in the neuroscience sense) for exploration. Like entrepreneurs, they have their “radar screens on” to search for meaningful signals in the everyday noise of their environment. Babies are also intuitively equipped to seek out the right kind of information—data that their brains are best suited to handle. They can search through a nearly infinite amount of information to focus on stimuli their brains crave. Because of this, they are equipped to make sense of the world in surprisingly sophisticated ways. And having some insight into how they do this can help you, as a parent, appreciate their need for exploration as you promote essential skills in that first year of life.
Consider the visual phenomenon researchers call the “Goldilocks Effect.” Like Goldilocks, babies have a sweet zone of what’s “just right” when they are looking at things. One study utilized sophisticated technology to track seven- and eight-month-old babies’ eye movements in response to varying levels of complexity in the types of stimuli presented to them. If something is too simple, it will not hold babies’ attention for very long and they will stop looking at it. If something is too complicated, they will also lose interest very quickly. But if something has just the right amount of information—not too simple, not too complicated—then a baby will lock in and explore it. The point here is that you don’t have to go crazy buying things to stimulate a baby. The world itself holds plenty of interest, as long as babies are given sufficient opportunity to find their “just right” level of processing.
You can see newborns’ ability to function as explorers in other ways as well. Newborns can recognize a voice in the first weeks of life, and even in the first days. How do we know this? Selective movement is the key—the baby will turn its head one way or the other to try to find the origins of that recognizable voice. Another example is the rooting reflex: Stroke a newborn’s cheek and its head will turn in that direction as a preparation to eat. In a few short weeks this won’t just be a reflex; babies will start turning selectively to their food source (bottle or breast), indicating that knowledge about the “outside world” has formed.
What makes discovery especially compelling for babies is that while the world they encounter is blurry and fuzzy and ever-changing, it also offers enough continuity so as to seem a fairly predictable place. Processing a stream of new stimuli as well as repeatable patterns, babies naturally explore while also feeling secure. A similar balance between predictability and novelty is also something that every entrepreneur needs in order to make her business sustainably innovative. A business lacking in repeatable patterns, one that is purely innovative, winds up being unstable, while one with too much patterned behavior lacks innovation. Entrepreneurs like Jen don’t have to teach themselves from scratch how to sustain this balance. Rather, they only have to relearn something they already learned on a very basic level during the first few months of life.
Cultivating Exploration from Birth On
If babies are more sophisticated cognitively than we think, how might we begin to cultivate their exploration early on? One thing to try is to stick your tongue out at a newborn or very young baby. Many of them will stick their tongue out in response. While researchers have debated the meaning of “tongue protrusion” in newborns for decades, recent well-designed research has confirmed that they are imitating adults. This may sound trivial, but it’s not. It’s actually quite a cognitive achievement in which selective perception (aimed toward the human face) is translated into motor control (sticking out the tongue) in order to support a social interaction. That said, even if a baby doesn’t imitate the act, you are still getting into the habit of giving a baby interesting things to look at and perhaps respond to. You are reinforcing—even in the first days of life—the inherent tendency to explore.
The same principle holds for other behaviors that pique the interest of babies. Try to elicit the rooting reflex by lightly stroking a baby’s cheek; the baby is likely to turn its head toward your finger in response. Talk to your baby as you walk around the room, and see when they start to track your voice. Create your own actions to get a response. You will feel a rush as your baby starts to flex their competencies. And any developmental expert will tell you that these are the core ways that infants begin to learn and integrate information in their environment—and, in fact, begin to realize that the world is an interesting place.
Faces Versus Screens
You have undoubtedly heard about the importance of “face-to-face interaction” in the early years of life. There’s a good reason for this. Babies have a “selective bias” toward the human face—they prefer to look at a face over any object. In fact, given the chance, they like to analyze it. One experiment studied how intensely babies read the face as part of learning language. Researchers found that four-month-olds focus on the eyes, six- to eight-month-olds zero in on the eyes and mouth, eight- to ten-month-olds go for the mouth, and twelve-month-olds focus on the eyes. Why? For the youngest babies in the study—the four-month-olds—the eyes are the logical way of connecting with an adult. But a few months later, they also look at the mouth, where the sounds come from. The mouth becomes the sole target after that—now at eight to ten months—as the focus on the sound becomes intensive.
Why would a twelve-month-old go back to eyes? The four-month-old doesn’t connect the mouth to sounds yet, but the twelve-month-old has all that figured out and is capable of processing language without looking at the mouth. That’s not interesting anymore. The parent’s eyes, however, are a source of additional information for the twelve-month-old, who is connecting what is being said to what the eyes are telling them.
This is an extraordinary amount of cognitive exploration that is happening and changing in just the first year of life. The age differences further support what we’ve been arguing—babies are wired to explore, but they need ample opportunities to engage intensely and continually search out what is most relevant to them. This is the basis for the phrase “face-to-face interaction” featured so prominently in messaging by pediatricians, psychologists, and developmental experts. It is meant quite literally. Babies need to study the face. It gives them (at varying ages) consistently interesting information that is “just right.” The face is fascinating because it is dynamic in real time and it provides enough range of complexity to serve as an endless source of stimulation.
This is why child development researchers worry about screen time during infancy. Experts want to be sure that babies are getting as much human interaction as possible, and excessive screen time interferes with the face-to-face exposure babies need. Babies won’t use their emerging sensory abilities and developing cognitive exploration skills to full capacity if they are focused on a screen. As advanced as tablets have become, screens are just not going to provide optimal stimulation for a baby. It won’t provide that magical mix of intriguing yet digestible visual information that yields those “just right” moments of discovery that can change from month to month.
Think about how complicated it would be to program content on a tablet that would simulate all of the things the human face does. The range of emotions that you display, the nuances your face brings, all of the interplay between the eyes and mouth—no single interaction with your baby is ever exactly the same as another. As a test, sit down and play with any program on a tablet you might show a baby and compare that to watching yourself talk in the mirror, using a range of tones and emotional expressions. There’s simply more you will see in that mirror. This is not to say that screen time is inherently harmful (though some will make that claim); the key is that screen time should not replace dedicated face-to-face time between parent and baby.
This discussion about face-to-face interaction and screen time in infancy is certainly not new. It is, however, more relevant than ever. The changes we’re seeing now year to year are more dramatic than previous technology trends that took decades to unfold. Common Sense Media (CSM) is a nonprofit advocacy group that provides research on media use in children. CSM has been tracking, via nationally based surveys, changes in children’s media use over the past few years; they issued reports on this data in 2011 and 2013. As described by Vicky Rideout, research director for CSM, the changes they observed during this two-year period have been unprecedented—primarily driven by increased access to media thanks to mobile technology. Consider some of these key findings:
Excerpted from "Raising Can-Do Kids"
Copyright © 2016 Richard Rende.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
1 Wired for Exploration 1
2 Primed to Innovate 39
3 Raising Optimists 73
4 Opportunity Seekers 101
5 Doers 131
6 People Skills 161
7 Serving Others 189
Notes and Resources 223