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Can Learning Make You Stupid?

Parents who grew up with a TV in every room, Lite Brite and other battery operated toys, and a Barbie Princess phone (or GI Joe equivalent) tend to romanticize their idyllic ‘cardboard box served as my plaything’ childhood and throw up their hands at the request for yet another electronic toy.  But get real.  If you were born past 1950, you had electronics in your home and in your toy box.

   I figure that if kids have a healthy balance of electronic and non-electronic fun, they are fine.  Though my youngest had her Nintendo DS with her on a recent ski trip, it never even made it out of the car.  She and her sisters played no-tech games with their cousin — cards and hide and seek.  They baked cookies and brownies.  I don’t worry that they are tethered to electronic devices (though we draw the line at teenage texting during meals).

   Many parents overindulge in electronic distractions for kids when traveling — packing hand-held games, portable DVD players and music, but we have always used travel as an opportunity to catch up on books.  Even before my kids could read, we would go to the library and get a stack of books for every trip; a surprise would be a new one from the bookstore.  Just don’t try this if your child is prone to carsickness (though we’ve found, through experience, that if you can’t read in the car, you can’t watch a tiny screen either).  Luckily for us, everyone can read on trains and airplanes.

   I understand the impetus to get kids started on early learning products.  If your son is reading at 3, he is viewed with awe, and at schools, many precocious learners are treated as smarter. A self-fulfilling prophecy?  Just as early walking doesn’t mean your daughter will be an Olympic gymnast, early reading doesn’t ensure a Nobel prize.  But many parents get caught up in early competition.

   And just because a toddler can recite the alphabet or spell her name doesn’t mean she understands what letters are.  When my oldest daughter, Hallie, was in third grade, she had to memorize the multiplication charts; she was constantly mumbling them to herself.  Once, when she was stuck, Sela, who was in first grade, wearily reeled off the entire table.  Sela had no idea what multiplication was; she had just heard the numbers so many times that she’d absorbed them. But it didn’t help her learn how to multiply any faster.

   There’s no denying that electronic toys can be fun.   And I like my toys, too. I got a portable GPS (since we don’t own a car), and it’s great when we rent a car and drive out of town — we can find out quickly where the nearest Starbucks or (maybe) Indonesian restaurant is, and, since we have no glove compartment to store maps, we can use it to figure out alternative routes.  But in some ways, relying on a GPS makes us stupid … if we don’t practice reading maps, we lose that ability.  Be careful not to confuse electronic learning with the real stuff.


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