I just finished writing a 5-part series on technology and young children. While it was geared toward parents, my research actually said very little about the parent-child relationship beyond professional advice about limiting your child’s exposure to technology before the age of 10. The common presumption is that children, if left to their own devices, will entertain themselves outside and/or with friends. Neither psychologists nor educators who advocate against a child’s use of computer technology at an early age ever presume that that child will actually be better off relating to, let alone spending time with their parents.
Which is ironic, because that’s why little kids get handed smartphones and tablets, you know. Their parents need five minutes to think, or 10 minutes of breathing space. “We don’t prefer to have our young students engage with technology,” a Montessori teacher recently told me, “but we acknowledge it’s a reality. Mom and Dad need to cook dinner and check their email at the end of the day.” While we have a strict no-phone policy in our house, I thank God every time I can turn to PBS to keep my toddler occupied long enough to throw a load of laundry in the dryer. The struggle is real.
But, no matter how hard we try to distract them, kids are wired for survival. “Isn’t it amazing,” my grandmother-in-law observed, “how they think from day one that they are the most important person in the world.” My brother-in-law called it a survival instinct. Apparently, wanting to be with your parents is a survival instinct as well, for more than one reason. As Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, NJ, pointed out this past week in his sermon on Ki Tavo, parents don’t just provide physical sustenance, but emotional and psychological tools for survival as well.
Citing Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, he quoted, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
In Ki Tavo, God requires us to recite our genealogical history before Him; to reflect on the fact that our father Abraham was a “fugitive Aramean,” that we were once enslaved, and that with God’s intervention we now live freely in our own land. This recitation of a literal success story wasn’t designed to be a burden of tradition, but an esteem-booster. Yes, we suffered, but we took control of our narrative the only way we could, “we cried to God,” and we went from slavery to self-governance.
“We must know our kids and they need to know us,” Rabbi Kornsgold remarked. Educators warn that tablets interfere with a preschooler’s ability to manipulate building blocks. Psychologists warn that video games are more addictive than heroin. 92% of preschoolers have parent-established photographic social media accounts, but how do those selfies help them know their parents or themselves?
Is a child’s place in this world best defined by their relationship to their parents or with a screen? Education isn’t solely the responsibility of teachers, the Rabbi observed. In fact, too often we are relying on teachers to do what we as parents should be doing at home: Instilling and nurturing our children’s sense of self and purpose so that they may grow into healthy, happy adults.
As parents we’re constantly trying to make the best choices for our children. As Jewish parents we are fortunate to not only have the reliable insights of a cadre of experts, but a rich history of proven success to fall back on when confronting life’s challenges. We didn’t become who we are by being put in front of a screen at a young age. It is time to stop being amused at the parlor tricks performed by kids who know how to swipe a finger across an iPad and, instead, use our parlors for their original purpose: places in which to converse and grow with our families.