Monday, June 29

The Hermitage

Nope, nothin' to do with Andrew Jackson. Or Russia. It's just that I'm thinking it's better if I just don't leave the house anymore. No, it's not agoraphobia either (I've got my list of issues, but thankfully, that isn't one of 'em). At the risk of appearing to have turned into a sour old lady (which is about as far from how I see myself as possible), it's crappy out there.

I'm talkin' about parenting. I'm talkin' about kids. I'm talkin' about technology. I'm talkin' about culture. I'm talkin' about thinking. I'm talkin' about what we have done. I'm talkin' about what I'm always talkin' about except it seems like no one's listening (and by no one, I don't mean you, I mean them). Oy.

I think it all started a couple of weeks ago. My daughter's school has an event called Field Day on one of the final days of school. The kids play games out on the fields, and then there's a school-wide barbeque. A call went out for parents with strong arms to scoop ice cream. That was me, natch (clearly they didn't tell me about the atomic freezer the damn ice cream was going to come out of that kept it frozen as hard as a rock in 80 degree temperatures...I mean, I have strong arms, but you gotta be kidding.) Anyhow, I showed up, I scooped, I conducted a scientific observation of the combined effect of air temperature and overzealous children on a large black (qualities of variables can be important) bowl of sprinkles or jimmies or whatever it is you call them in your neck o' the woods.

I don't know what I call them. I don't care for them. I would share my research conclusions but they're coming out, complete with chi-squares and everything, in an upcoming journal of the American Association of Allied Associates of Dairy Confections, and I know you read that every month--silly me, I mean every couple of months, we all know it's a quarterly publication (snort)--and I don't want to spoil it for you. I'll give you a teaser though: Globulous.

So anyhow, back to scooping, which I did for longer than expected because that damn 1:30 shift didn't show up, or if they did, they didn't make themselves known. Suddenly, horror of all horrors, I was serving 4th and 5th graders (I thought they looked big) and I'm thinkin' wait a darn minute, what's happening here, and then a dad apparently noticed my apparently highly visible outrage at serving other than my homies (I think that is the one and only time I will ever be able to use that word in this blog, so I thought I should jump on it), which is kinda strange since I wasn't really outraged, it was really fine, I'm just making a big deal of it now because that's the fun of writing: elaboration. And he offered to step in and I handed him the messy scoop and went inside to wash off my hands for 20 minutes except I still had chocolate on my arm at 6:00 that evening, or so my observant child pointed out. It was fun.

Speaking of ice cream, have you tried the new Ben & Jerry's Flipped Out Ice Cream Sundae thingies? No? Well then let me report in. You see, I tried them not because I love ice cream, and not because in my semi-quasi-loving-or-not-loving-of-ice-cream I particularly like Ben & Jerry's over and above others (though that New York Super Fudge Chunk is really good. I mean, if I really liked ice cream a lot, it would be really good. Phew, that was close). No, my friends. I tried it because I am (occasionally) but a mere pawn in the world of corporate marketing. Have you seen the ad for this product? Well, here it is (this one taken in the Harvard Square subway station):

They rock. You listening, Snickers? This is advertising. You see, I'm a fairness and equity kinda gal. I don't buy stuff that exploits or objectifies women in their advertising, I don't buy stuff whose advertising is sexist or homophobic or racist or ageist. So it's only fair to buy stuff on purpose when someone does something kickass like this. So I did. It's pretty good. Go buy yourself some--reward them for their coolness of advertising. Report in.

Okay, back to kids and parenting and oy. So, there I was, scooping ice cream, my sore (but strong) arm struggling against the frozen mass, gazing out at a line of children that extended into the next state. And I learned something (yes, in addition to my ground-breaking research on sprinkles). Actually, I learned a couple of things. First, I got a good deal of insight into how children treat the cafeteria and food service workers at their school, which is probably a whole lot like how they treat them at any school, which is probably a whole lot like how most adults treat waitstaff and cashiers. What a thankless job. And I mean that literally. In the probably 150 kids--or more--that I served, I think there were two thank yous. But hey, it beat out the pleases by 200%, so that's something. As each child stepped up, they said something along the lines of "I'll have chocolate" or sometimes (and this is WAY polite) "Can I have some of both flavors?". Wait. One kid said "May I...". I remember him, because I almost kissed him. Not a please in the bunch. Not a single one. Not even an outlier (that whole sprinkles thing threw me right back into my graduate stats classes, sorry). I don't know about you. I was surprised. I was also surprised that I was the only parent who told kids that cut the line to go to the back---it's the teacher in me.

But here's the kicker: I was even more surprised that I was the only one who was surprised. I'm not gonna get up on my high horse here and insist that my daughter would have been the sole kid to say please and thank you (or either of em). I'm not delusional. She wouldn't. She'd be just like all the rest of them. But here I was writing that off to the fact that she is not the most social kid, imagining she would be one of the few not one of the many. And now apparently I have only myself to blame. Shoot.

This is one of those things I can't discuss with other parents. No one seems to be interested. Or surprised. Or distressed (even slightly--I'm not saying this is hissyfit-worthy). And it's got me wondering why that is. And what that means. And what it will mean in the future, not only for me, but for all of us. And it turns me into a sour old lady ("kids these days..."). Am I the only one who is surprised? Even a teeny bit?

I was gonna write about it that very day, but then I didn't, and then I thought well, Robin, let it fade, you'll get over it, it isn't that big a deal. And it kinda did fade. And, as you might have guessed by now, being the sharp cookies that you are, it kinda didn't. But I was okay, no great loss, not compelling enough to go back and write about that day--that's just not how I approach blogging. So...I let it go (sorta). Until yesterday.

Yesterday, Phoebe and I went on a an expotition (shame on you if you don't know that reference without clicking) to the Museum of Science in Boston (or is it in Cambridge? Whatever), which I have to say is a really crappy science museum, especially for its proximity to MIT and its sitting smack dab in the middle of a huge community of scientists and creative people, but I always forget that and decide to give it another chance, and I was glad I did because they have a cool exhibit right now on Crittercam, which some friends of mine in Hawaii worked on, but still, for all it could be, it's a lousy museum. And it's summer (even though you'd never know it here), so there are a lot of people there. And I learned something. Actually, I learned a couple of things.

I learned that, even in the face of a lot (and I mean a LOT, even a LOT A LOT) of hints, parents (with only one exception, or two counting me) do not encourage, tell, or in any way suggest to their children that they take turns or allow the next child who has been waiting patiently in line for 10 minutes to have their chance. If their child wants to have the only turn at that exhibit, they can damn well do it until the museum closes, if that's what their little heart desires. They also do not comment or interfere in any way if their children run (okay, barge) into an activity, running blindly past the kid or kids who are quietly waiting their turn. Yes, even with hints. Hints, hints, and more hints. Parents also do not seem to give a whit about signs, like, say, the one on the exhibit where you're supposed to try to see if distance offers more power to lift a 500 lb postal sack with a pulley (there are three ropes, at different distances, on pulleys). The sign on that exhibit says in large letters "ONE PERSON ONLY". Because, you know (duh) it's an experiment. Because, you know (duh), it's a science museum. Because, you know (duh) it's supposed to be about trying things out and learning something (duh). We tried to do that pulley experiment seven different times, trying to come back when it was less crowded in that section. Every time, some kid ran over and threw himself (which would be a sexist thing to say, except it was only boys) on one of the ropes while Phoebe was trying another of them. One kid, grinning, showed that he could climb to the top of the rope, with his mother beaming with pride next to him, because of course it was a science experiment to see who could climb to the top of the rope.
No, I'm not surprised at the kids. Kids are kids. But the parents? You know, "parents", as in the ones who are supposed to teach their children manners and how to behave? You remember them. It was all I could do to not model for my daughter the very finest in curse words under my breath.

The second thing that I learned (yeah, I said there were two things and I know you're dying for more)--it is my lesson number two which is the second lesson that I learned--(sorry about that link, I couldn't help it, it's a legacy)--is not really something new, but is a reemergence of something I learned and talked about a lot when I was in school. It has to do with Sesame Street. And MTV. And ADHD. And about those of us who grew up in the 60's. To get to the point (hey, now there's something new) I learned that the expectations that I carry about children and museums and science museums and experimentation and learning are just...well, apparently archaic. At least 90% of the kids (mine included) run (and I mean run) from exhibit to exhibit, basically looking for something they can push (usually repeatedly like pressing an elevator button a hundred times), something they can climb, something they can swing back and forth. On some exhibits, there were trackballs to move to the different questions on the screen. Most of the kids I saw barely noticed what was on the screen, but raced their hands along the trackball as if they were trying to beat the clock on a video version of Nascar or trying to have their little character move the fastest in a race in order to win more tickets, like the arcade game at Chuck E. Cheese (aka Hades). The signs on the exhibits are absolutely superfluous. The static exhibits, like the optical illusions, forget about it. The crittercams (fascinating stuff, by the way) were about how many kids could fit into the plastic bubble that makes them look as if they are inside an observation tube watching penguins, and how many faces they can make by smashing their faces up agains the plexiglass and how many noises they can made by banging their hands on the inside of the plexiglass dome as hard as they could. I won't go on (though I could at some length, and you know it). You get the idea.

We have done this. We have created this. And we must shift with it. Which I get means that I need to completely shift my expectations. But it also means that we need to shift our activities. Get rid of science museums like this. What a waste of time. I'm sad. Very sad, about the shift, about the actual changes in brain functioning and chemistry and synaptic connections and neuron firings and pathways that has taken place. Maybe that's just me, having difficulty with the transition. I can accept that. But I'm aware that it's not just me, because nothing has shifted. Education hasn't shifted. Museums haven't shifted. Lots of things haven't shifted. We're still harping about how kids don't like to read as much and how we have to stay on them to get them to follow directions and how upsetting it is that they are glued to their nintendos or why don't kids invent things the way we did when we were kids. Oh. Maybe we aren't harping on those things. Maybe just I am. Is it only me? Maybe it's just that we don't have kids (or parents, far more importantly) who are suited for this anymore. And it's agonizing for people like me, who are either living unevolved in the dark ages or under some sort of illusion that we are still invested in kids having observation and methodical scientific inquiry skills. So I guess it's selfish, but I wish we'd cut it out. You know, it's like that great Far Side cartoon: Fish or Cut Bait. Because it's making me effin' nuts.

Oh, maybe you want to know what I was saying about Sesame Street and MTV (in case you don't). There has been quite a bit of research that has suggested, for children who watch a lot of TV in early childhood, that the rapid fire of Sesame Street (how the skit changes once a minute or less) rewires children's brains (especially since it's early childhood, a time of a lot of development and plasticity) so that they're only really able to deal easily with short bits of information with fast movement, and exciting visual images (movement and color). Is this related to ADHD? Maybe, but it need not be that dramatic. MTV and the expansion of video games emerged when the first generation of Sesame Street watchers grew up, succeeding massively because in essence, they're exactly the same thing as Sesame Street, only for teenagers and young adults. You could say the same thing about Google (have you seen those new ads for Bing? I love 'em, they illustrate the point perfectly...oh no, more corporate pawning), about Twitter, about Facebook. They're all a variation on the same medium. I can even observe the effect in myself, as disturbing as that is, and am wondering if others have as well.

I'm willing to accept that this is just my lot, a consequence of being an educator for too many years. And of course, a consequence of being a sour old lady. Shoot.


Camlin said...

Hundreds and Thousands. That's what I call them.

I've noticed the same thing. In the classroom at the lunch table, where the best and worst of children's manners reside, I seldom here a please or thank you that I have not surreptitiously solicited through direct requests or by ignoring the child in question until they remember their "polite words." Kids don't often say "excuse me" anymore.

Television. We hardly watch it anymore, but I remember the Sesame Street/ADHD connection - I recall that the producers started to air longer segments because of the results of the research. The problem is, it's still television, a medium that's one step removed from reality. A medium that dulls children's senses instead of sharpening them. Why take them out to play anymore?

Aludra said...

I grew up watching Sesame Street. I am not ADHD. My mother didn't rant and nag about saying please and thank you, but i still do to this day. It's amusing as hell to watch the waitstaff's utterly confused response when i say "can i please have a glass of water, also?" I'm not sure 50% of them even hear the please, but the ones that do get a confused look then a smile.
My point is there's parenting, and there's people. A good parent doesn't always get blessed with a kid who cares about being a good person.
Also, if something works, why fix it? Kids learn really well with interactive lessons. That is not new. The Dallas Museum of Art has been taking advantage of the programmers at the University of Texas at Dallas and have been making video games that you can use to learn about ancient cultures.
Not everyone has stopped shifting. It just helps to live in a techie area. Between TI, SMU and UTD, Dallas has a shot at actual education change.

Also, there's tons of tutoring games on the DS now, and they're actually fun. So if you see a kid playing a video game, you can't assume that they're 'rotting their brain'.

Robin said...

Absolutely. I wasn't implying that it was cause and effect. There are tons of people who watch and watched Sesame Street who don't have ADHD. There are also tons more people who have attention problems than there used to be.

I'm gonna have to disagree with you about kids "caring about being a good person". While inborn temperament is definitely a real thing, kids are not born caring or not caring about being a good person--for the most part, they do, in fact, get that from their parents (and from the media). It doesn't have to come from nagging or ranting--I was never suggesting that those were good or desirable strategies. Clearly, your mom modeled something, maybe just saying it herself (or whatever). That's what I'm talking about.

I wish you luck in Dallas. I live in Boston, which is one of the two techiest places in the country (the other is Silicon Valley, which is where I was raised), and I don't see any sign of improvement in education. But maybe that's just me.

And just for the record, I don't in any way assume that kids who are playing a DS are rotting their brains. I just assume that they are not engaging socially with anyone while they're using it (which does not mean they don't engage socially at all), and that their brains are--for better OR for worse--adapting in ways that we don't fully understand.

Anonymous said...

You're right on with the lack of manners being taught today. Went to dinner w/ one of Sue's siblings and his kids (boy, 14 & girl, 8) the other night. Appetizers ordered and arrived, and kids picked up the plates and dumped all the food onto their plates without asking. The father & mother said nothing; I sat there wondering if I should say something, but didn't. When my own plate arrived, the 14 year old boy took some french fries off my plate without asking - that was the last straw! I picked up my steak knife and told him if he did that again without asking permission I'd cut his hand off. I don't know if he learned anything, but no more food was taken. I really was in shock with the total lack of manners and disrespect - and the fact the parents said nothing at all!


Robin said...

I know what you mean, Elaine.

A steak knife, eh? Very subtle choice!

This Eclectic Life said...

First, I love the ad you showed, and I must support the Ben & Jerry cause (weren't you carping at me about mentioning bacon?).
Second, here in the south, kids were once "strongly encouraged" to use "please, thank you, ma'am and sir." I don't see that often these days except in smaller towns.
Again, I think it's in large part due to "the media". Do you see television shows or movies where kids are respectful? I haven't seen one lately.

But, if there is "blame," it sits squarely on the parents shoulders. We use television and computer games as babysitters, rewards, and pacifiers for our kids, instead of engaging them in positive interaction.

You don't need to become a hermit, though. Get out there and make some noise. Maybe some other parents will join you to start a "politeness" movement. Maybe some other parents will join you with telling stories to kids or engaging them in activities that make them use their brains.

Sounds like more fun than shoveling ice cream, anyway :-).