Master J plays a Go-Cart game on his mum's Galaxy S phone, with the Pororo clip he's found on his own on YouTube paused in the background...
Master J has been pretty keen on mobile phone-based games for the last year or so. He has also taken a real liking to YouTube, and become quite adept at using it all on his own to find his favourite vintage Disney clips as well as a host of other cartoon series.
His latest craze is with the insanely popular Angry Birds game app.
I'm sure I'm not alone in being a parent who wonders how advantageous or possibly detrimental early exposure to (and independent proficiency with) digital media and games can be for younger children. As someone who had to go down the street and find one of those tabletop versions of Space Invaders to play with as a child of similar age, I'm not exactly born with the sort of antenna that provides readily accessible judgment calls in this area.
I think it's safe to say that there is in fact a lot of development going on when our six-year-old immerses himself in these games. Cognitive and spatial awareness. Problem-solving. Hand-eye coordination. Objective-setting. The list goes on.
Beyond the fact that I had very little access to these things at a similar age, I think the real issue is that it is so hard to see how digital games are helping our boy develop; on the contrary, the negative effects (obsession, crankiness when denied access, seemingly completely cut off from the real world surroundings, etc.) appear to be so much more salient.
So I basically found a way to actually see into this a little deeper, drawing also on my belief that two particular activities -- speaking and visualising -- are fantastic for early childhood development.
I got Master J to explain the games to me. And to draw them.
This is Master J's visualisation of how Angry Birds works.
Well, sort of.
As it turns out, he also uses this picture to imagine playing the game (which he does by moving his finger over the paper and orally explaining processes, interrupted by regular sound effects). AND, by drawing it he can make his own version of it, with the sorts of inclusions he personally wants to see there.
Interacting with this picture during 'story time' in bed, it is mind-boggling to hear what Master J is thinking, realising and imagining. As I mentioned, I think the visualisation and oracy is very good for him as a developing little person, but the talking also maintains a social aspect that I think is really important.
And a dad worrying about whether his kid is sinking into a sort of mental and social stupor finds he actually has rather little to worry about (and a whole lot to celebrate).
If you're worried about your kids with digital games, I think that really depends on what you're doing with them. That's you as in plural: you and your child together.
Image: Michael Randall
When I first heard that my child's primary school was using a 'buddy system', I must admit I initially thought it was a bit of a gimmick: a nice idea in theory that wouldn't amount to all that much in real terms at (play)ground level.
After all, from what I remember of the first couple of years of primary school (other than the baffled feeling about singing 'God Save the Queen' alongside our national anthem), children from the older grades were a source of terror and intimidation. Wandering anywhere near the grade 5/6 haunts felt rather like swimming in Great White Shark infested waters with a whopping big ribeye steak hanging around your neck.
Four months into Master J's prep year at school, I am genuinely delighted to eat my own words and admit that, not only is this a fantastic initiative, in the case of our own child, it actually works. Spectacularly.
I noticed it first in about the third week of school. In dropping Master J off at school, we'd parked in a different spot and needed to walk past the section of the schoolyard where the 'big kids' were skylarking about in those precious free minutes before the bell goes in the morning. Master J was getting very nervous. "I don't want to walk this way," he said, glancing about furtively.
Abruptly, a lanky boy (who must have been of giant proportions to Master J) leaned over the school fence and said "G'day J! How's it going?" and offered him a high five. J's face lit up, and abruptly he completely relaxed. As we continued on, he told me proudly: "That's Angus. He's my buddy."
I was impressed. And jealous. Three weeks into his prep year at school, J had a mate/mentor that could help alleviate the 'big kids' stress I had to deal with until at least Grade 4!
But still, one morning hello (positive as that is) does not a great buddy system make. Buddy Angus from Grade 5 was to show me that it can and does go further than that.
At the school's Food Fair some time later, Master J was wandering a couple of metres in front of us when he was stopped by two of the older kids. They knew Master J by name and wanted to say hello and give him high fives. I heard one of them say to some of the other kids in their little gang: "That's J. He's Angus's buddy." None of these lads had seen me or had any way of knowing J's dad was within earshot. In other words, this wasn't a show or pretence.
That was when it really dawned on me that this buddy thing really meant something. Far from being a gimmick or politically correct (but essentially empty) initiative, the buddy system had really become a part of my kid's school's culture.
I saw Angus from time to time around the school, rolling in the playground with J, in the prep classroom helping J make paper flowers for Mother's Day.
But the best bit of all came well outside the bounds of school and physically far away from Angus himself.
Master J was dashing about a playground down on Geelong's Eastern Beach one sunny weekend with his little 2 year-old sister Miss H. His mother and I were 10-20 metres away. A group of three youths I'd never seen before wandered past J and his sister. One of them spotted J, stopped his friends and went over to him. As I rose from the park bench, wandering what this lout was doing (about to harrass my little son), I heard the boy say hi to J and give him a high five. As he rejoined his friends (and totally oblivious to me), I heard him say -- almost nonchalantly -- "Oh, that's J. Angus's buddy from school..."
The buddy system, so obviously a real part of the school spirit and culture, was quite suddenly (and poignantly) a natural part of these children's broader community spirit.
How bloody brilliant is that???
The issue of bullying in school and the broader community is real, as almost all children would be willing to attest to, and it is one of a bunch of fears that I think most parents have churning away in the pits of their stomachs.
Seeing the real-world effects of this successful buddy system, I feel that little bit safer and assured. My little lad already has more bigger kids looking out for him in prep -- and not just around the school itself -- than I ever had all the way through all the years of primary school.
I've spoken to other parents (at our school and from other schools) who haven't experienced a buddy system result quite as positive as ours, and there are in fact some stories of buddies actually being quite bullyish. So I'll count my blessings with this obviously stand up Grade Fiver named Angus, but also stress that this is something really worth fostering more, so that more kids get the same positive experiences my boy has had.
When it works, it makes a real difference.
Any day now. The Child Welfare authorities are going to come knocking on my door.
I can only hope that they'll believe me when I say that it was Donald Duck who got my little son hooked on drugs, and this is a problem that is historical and dialectal, not of substance!
Master J has always been obsessed with signs. From the moment he could wield a pencil, he wanted to make them himself. Figuring this was an excellent way to sieze on emergent learning principles, his mother and I have always been accommodating, writing the words out for him to copy or (increasingly now) spelling them out for him orally so that he can write them out for himself.
It started with road signs. All over the house we had stop, give way, slow down, roadwork ahead, drive safely and even wrong way go back!
And then just about anything J saw on a screen or door was potential sign-writing fodder. Exit, Private Keep Out, Dangerous Chemicals, Do Not Touch... the list is endless.
Then, thanks to some of those old classic Donald Duck cartoons (which we found for J on YouTube alongside a lot of other cartoons), we started getting things like Test Pilot Donald, Giant Redwood and -- believe it or not -- OLD RELIABLE GEYSER ERUPTS AT 12 O'CLOCK.
Unfortunately, it was the archaic Donald Duck cartoons which also gave J his 'drug problem'. Take a look at the clip for yourself, and take note of the sign that appears at about the 3:00 mark...
Harmless, really. Right?
I mean, writing DRUGS on a bit of paper couldn't hurt that much, could it?
But why, of all the signs and words he might become 'hooked on', did it have to become this one?
J's been asking us to help him with DRUGS. He's been looking for his DRUGS. He left his DRUGS in the bedroom. He really likes DRUGS.
Oh sure, laugh it up if you will... I found it mildly amusing until he brought home a picture he'd done at school, and there in immaculate writing in the corner was the word DRUGS.
I saw the scene...
"Oh, what's that you're drawing, J... and -- oh. J, do you know what this word is?"
"Sure, Mrs. K. It's DRUGS."
"Right, yes... Well, why did you write that, J?"
(Shrugs casually). "I just like DRUGS."
"Yes, okay then... Do your mum and dad know about this?"
"DRUGS? Yes, of course they do. They give it [meaning "spell it for"] to me."
"They do, do they? Okay, just wait here for a minute, J. I need to make a few phone calls... Got some extra clothes in your bag? Good -- might be staying with some new friends tonight, that sounds like fun, doesn't it...?"
With this sort of exchange in my head, when J wanted to make another DRUGS card tonight, I thought I better tackle this and do something about it.
So how in the name of all that is holy do you explain to a five-year-old that, even though the word came from one of your favourite cartoon shows, you want them to stop using it? Especially at school!?
My approach was to be honest all the way and not attempt too many shortcuts.
"J, those Donald Duck movies were made a very, very long time ago, and that word DRUGS meant something different then."
"What did it mean?"
"Medicine? Okay... Drugs is medicine?"
"Well, yes, they are... but these days it kind of means something different. Something that is often bad."
"Bad? ... Bad medicine?"
"Exactly! That's exactly it! It now means bad medicine that can do bad things to people."
"So why does Donald Duck like it?"
"Because, as I told you, it was a very long time ago and the word just meant medicine then. Now it kind of means bad medicine. People don't really like to hear that word."
"Oh.... What about... RUGS?"
"Yes, RUGS. If DRUGS is bad medicine, maybe RUGS is good medicine?"
"Erm, ah, right. Why don't we just say medicine?"
"It's a really loooong word, I think. It will take me all day to write that..."
(Strangled noises come from father)
Anyway, we're getting there.
And in the meantime, I need your advice...
Should I try to explain all this to his school teacher?
And what about the parents of all his friends???
I mean, if J came home one day and said his best mate T spent all day talking about doing drugs...
You catch my drfit, I hope!
P.S. I'm sure anyone out there familiar with the old Disney cartoons would raise a flag of warning about letting today's children see some of them. But that's another topic for another day, perhaps...
Time, time, time.
If only it were that easy to drum up more of it.
We never have enough of it, of course, when it comes to time for our kids, but I'm one of those parents who has (time and time again) fallen prey to the perilously easy trap of assuming that dedication of some specific attention to my kids just isn't possible. It'll take too long to do that. Maybe tomorrow. Or on the weekend. Or next week sometime...
The funny thing is, on those occasions that I've just thought "to hell with it, let's do that (thing you'd like to try)", it has rarely taken much time at all.
I'll share two quick examples with you.
After the upteenth time reading the fabulous story of Billy Bilby's Barbecue (by Colin Thiele), Master J decided he was rather taken with the bettongs in the story (don't worry, I didn't know what bilbies or bettongs were either before reading this story!). Evidently, Billy managed to get bettongs to come visit him by putting a nice sign up to show where he lived.
If we made a sign showing where J's place was (reasoned J), maybe the bettongs would come to visit his house as well?
Goodness, sighed dad. A whole bloody sign? I mean, nice idea and all, but a quick cardboard one would turn to muck the first time it rained outside, and a real McCoy wooden sign would involve visit to a hardware store, etc., etc.
I choked back that response and said, "Okay, tomorrow let's do it!"
All up, it took one hour. To drive down to the hardware store, select some wood, and pick up a hammer, nails and hand saw (some basic tools we didn't have at the time). To come home, cut the wood, nail it together, paint "Jamie's Place" on it, blow up some balloons and tie them to the sign. J helped out at every stage in that process.
And did the bettongs come that night?
Of course they did! They saw J's sign, bounded right onto it and accidentally popped the balloons attached (as you can see in the picture).
And the sign's still there in the back yard now, making it a handy tool for other 'secret' Australian animals J thinks of inviting over to his place from time to time.
The next little idea came courtesy of the amazing Mr. Maker, who demonstrated on his program one day how to make a pretty cool-looking pencil holder.
Again, when J decided he'd like to make this, the first thought I had was that there just wouldn't be time this week.
But again, I shoved that aside and -- just like Mr. Maker likes to say -- said, "Okay, let's make it!"
Again, this took all of about one hour.
To head down to the local art shop to pick up the basic supplies needed (with J directing the kind shop attendant around to help find the necessary items, brandishing his little list), then head home and put it all together. The list was a fun (and educational) little addition, given J decided on what was needed in the morning and wrote the list himself with some oral help from dad with the spelling. Gave him a real sense of ownership for the project.
So there's a whole two hours of my time, that resulted in a whole lot of magic and fun for Master J - experience that is timeless and priceless. I am, to be quite honest, a real dud when it comes to arty-crafty stuff, but J appears to tolerate my clumsiness... Maybe the time means more to him than any of the tangible products that come out of it.
If only I could do this more often: stop assuming things will take longer than they actually do and instinctively figuring I have less time for my children than I actually do.
I'm working on it!
Starting kindergarten is hard for a lot of children, but for Master J it was an experience that started out very rough and quickly descended into a perfect example of pretty poor (and, dare I say it, ignorant) teaching.
We had been in Australia for about 10 months and J was four at the time he started kindergarten. Living in a small coastal town, most of the other children already knew each other and had formed little cliques based on the socialising preferences and patterns of their parents.
The first full day started badly, to put it mildly. Parents had escorted their kids into the playground as a sort of warm up, and the kids were let loose. J was keen on the idea of kindergarten and looking forward to playing with other children.
He approached some of the kids and told them about something he'd seen in a Diego cartoon (a baby jaguar, I think it was) and how he thought there might be a baby jaguar trapped on the kindergarten roof! That's our J, full of imagination...
A not-so-little boy walked up to him, told him he was "stupid", said "what are you talking about?", slapped one of his hands and shoved past him, bumping him with his shoulder. A girl followed up with a pouting sneer, hands on hips with eyes rolling, then shoved J with both hands, landing him on his backside.
Standing about four metres away, I gaped. The parents and teacher, standing right next to the tussle (if you could call it that) watched it happen and just went right on with their chinwag (everyone being "locals" here, they all knew each other socially outside the kindergarten).
I was beside myself, but had to clamp my jaws shut. I figured at the time that if there was anything worse than a bit of introductory bullying and teacher neglect, it was having a parent making a big scene about it in front of all and sundry right there on the first day of kindergarten. I'm still not sure I made the right decision there.
I helped J up, let him know everything was okay, and said that not all kids were going to be kind and friendly (which was rather heart-breaking news to him). We talked about it later that night and on subsequent days, when it appeared this sort of rough treatment and later even psychological games of exclusion were taking place -- and teachers didn't appear to give a fig about it.
Bullying is a fact of life in schools. I hadn't expected to see it so blatantly on the first day and months of kindergarten, but I did want J to face the reality and start developing some strategies in terms of how to respond to it appropriately.
The 'strategies' (and they were rushed ones, mind -- because I truly hadn't expected to have to deal with the bullying issue so early in J's education) were:
- If somebody pushes you, tell them very loudly not to (hopefully so the teacher will hear as well);
- If they push you again, bloody well push them back (but never do it first, and remember to tell the teacher who pushed who first);
- Tell the teacher about it when it happens, calmly, without wailing and crying (if possible);
- Tell your mum and dad about it, so we can help you find ways to fix the problem;
- Avoid the children who want to push or say bad things to you -- don't give them any of your time or attention because that's why they bully others (attention). Look around for other friends and/or don't be afraid to play a little by yourself for a while.
I'm not sure what you think of those strategies, but they seemed to work pretty well for J.
For a while at least.
Until the next problem cropped up. A conservative and somewhat aggressive kindergarten teacher who thought it was okay to physically coerce children.
A teacher who also came to the conclusion that a bilingual child had the sort of development problems that warranted excluding him from the broader group and isolating him to play with another child with genuine (and diagnosed) special needs issues.
I'll save that for a future blog post...
For now, however, I want to stress that J's kindergarten journey quickly took a turn for the vastly better. When his hands and legs started shaking while waiting outside the kindergarten door, following a mind-baffling telephone conversation with a teacher who thought he had development issues, and following the day he came home with bruises and scratches on his face from his "special friend", I packed him up and took him to a new kindergarten.
Where a very special kindergarten teacher named Jo not only revealed his previous kindergarten experiences to be a sham and a shame, but took him on an amazing journey that resulted in a very creative, very social, very confident and very caring little boy heading off to his first day of school with stars in his eyes.
I guess it would be fair to say that a defining part of childhood is working up the bravery to explore beyond the immediate horizons. Through this children hopefully come to realise that first appearances can be deceiving. Some things look scary and ugly when in fact they are something else, and some of the things that glitter aren't actually golden. How we choose to interact with things can play a huge part in what happens later down the line, and the subsequent choices we need to make.
Beyond that, I think it would also be fair to say that getting children to read and think about their world(s) is helped along mightily when you have a stupendously brilliant story to experience!
I felt this on several levels when I read Graeme Base's The Legend of the Golden Snail to Master J last night.
How about I let the author himself introduce it to you?
Mrs. R picked up our golden-shelled friend at a local bookstore here in Geelong, on the enthusiastic recommendation of one of the staff.
The book and story exceeded any of the most enthusiastic recommendations possible! Master J was fascinated with it from the outset, and quickly began to make connections, guesses and -- dare I say it -- some pretty profound hypotheses and conclusions. It's been a while since I saw him so involved in and animated about a story. Gosh, it's been a while since I've been as taken in and wonderstruck by a story!
I also have to admit that it helped to read this book after reading Master J's school reader set for homework that night. I mean, there's only so much joy and interest that can be generated from a 10-page book called This is a Puddle (with every single-sentence page in the book oriented around something else in the vicinity of said puddle)...
For Master J, it was like handing him a fully-fledged garden after letting him look at a collection of tiny nondescript artificial leaves.
I'll also include here the more Hollywood movie trailer style promotion of The Legend of the Golden Snail (although it doesn't do a lot for me, especially in comparison to the author-led introduction above).
Gotta admire a person with talent, too. Graeme not only wrote and illustrated this story (and other ones like Animalia), he also wrote and performed all the music featured in the promotional clips above!
If you can get a hold of it, Master J and I thoroughly recommend The Legend of the Golden Snail. An absolutely beautiful story for children.
And, erm, parents too!
Worlds of wisdom on parenting? Image: Sarah Gilbert
No. It's not a new app from Apple catering to golfing enthusiasts based in Korea.
IAGOLP stands for Imaginary Authoritative Guidelines On Laudable Parenting.
You see IAGOLP everywhere these days. Whole sections of mass-market bookstores are dedicated to them. They're a regular fixture in newspapers, magazines and on those plasticky hosted morning television shows. And sure, you can find them all over the Internet these days in the form of sites and blogs.
Apparently, the act of parenting has been such a colossal mass failure over the past 40,000 years or so that we need a constant stream of authoritative experts (many with impressive tertiary qualifications, and many whose children have already in fact grown up and left home) to help rectify this sad situation.
I'll be referring to IAGOLP in many of the posts I add to this blog.
To me they're like a set of standards that are fuzzed enough to apply to everyone (and therefore, nobody in particular), and make parents feel like they're doing something noble and dedicated by being willing to buy a book on the subject. There are of course the occasional highly relevant tips and tricks, but IAGOLP can also be brilliant for stoking the guilt you already feel about certain aspects of your parenting, and turning you into a paranoid parenting android.
It can, of course, be a very positive and proactive thing to read around and listen to advice. But not, I think, at the automatic expense of drawing on your own common sense and just applying eyes, ears, heart and grey matter to the context only you and your family can ever really hope to understand.
Besides that, I don't think I've ever seen anything in a self-help book or on a talk show that came remotely close to the accuracy and relevance of advice or anecdotes from everyday friends and acquaintances. People who weren't trying to sell it to me, basically.
What do you think? Am I giving the voluminous parenting 'self-help' industry (and our collective infatuation with it) an unfair rap?
I mean, book sales don't lie, do they?
My name's Jason, and I am a dad.
Simple as that, really, and hopefully it sidesteps the awkwardness associated with trying to write your very first post on a new blog!
I'm looking to explore what it means to be a parent, and share what a parent means to be.
Tall order? Of course it is. And a basket full of stardust, dewdrops and all sorts of strangely shaped blocks besides...
Master J and Miss H (5 and 2 respectively at the time I kick off this blog) will be joining me for the ride, of course, and I daresay Mrs. R will be making regular appearances as well.
I hope you'll drop in from time to time as well, and share aspects of your own interstellar voyages through parenthood.
So, as Leo from the Little Einsteins likes to chant at the beginning of another adventure, let the mission... begin!