Category Archives: raising children

The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre (Joe Pinsker)

Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education. This article appeared December 26, 2018.

The practice of paying children an allowance kicked off in earnest about 100 years ago. “The motivation was twofold,” says Steven Mintz, a historian of childhood at the University of Texas at Austin. “First, to provide kids with the money that they needed to participate in the emerging commercial culture—allowing them to buy candy, cheap toys, and other inexpensive products—and second, to teach them the value of money.”

These days, American children on average receive about $800 per year in allowance, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Kids, though, are usually not receiving money for nothing—the vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.

Parents’ preference for this setup has spawned an array of apps that let them dole out allowance money once chores are completed, and even pay for an individual chore. Homey, an app that’s effectively a digital chore chart, allows parents to issue payouts upon visual confirmation of finished chores and is used by 100,000 families. A similar app called BusyKid, which launched earlier this year and is used by 25,000 families, also lets children invest in the stock market with their allowance money. (These apps are just two of many new digital tools, including RoosterMoney, Current, and goHenry, for managing children’s money and teaching them about personal finance.)

Recently in The Washington Post, a writer distilled the argument for per-chore compensation in an article headlined “I Pay My Kids to Get Dressed, Do Homework and More. It’s the Best Decision I Ever Made.” A mother of two children with ADHD, she found it tremendously effective to induce her kids to stay on task with small payments of a dime or a quarter; she suggested other parents might find it effective to do the same. “In behavioral psychology, this is called positive reinforcement,” she wrote. “And it works.”

Does it? A range of experts I consulted expressed concern that tying allowance very closely to chores, whatever its apparent short-term effectiveness, can send kids unintentionally counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility. In fact, the way chores work in many households worldwide point to another way, in which kids get involved earlier, feel better about their contributions, and don’t need money as an enticement.

Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Arizona State University who studies families, is skeptical of the idea of paying kids on a per-chore basis. “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks up his clothes off the floor?” she says. “What are you saying—that you’re owed something for taking care of your stuff?”

Luthar is not opposed to giving allowances, but she thinks it’s important to establish that certain core chores are done not because they’ll lead to payment, but because they keep the household running. “It’s part of what you do as a family,” Luthar says. “In a family, no one’s going to pay you to tie your own shoes or to put your clothes away.” Whatever the approach, she adds, it’s important to acknowledge that parenting is confusing and exhausting work, and it can be difficult to broker household labor agreements without ever resorting to bribery of some sort.

Luthar’s suggested approach to allowance is compatible with the regimen that the New York Times personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber outlines in his book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart

About Money. He advises that allowance be used as a means of showing children how to save, give, and spend on things they care about. Kids should do chores, he writes, “for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation … Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

This argument has its critics. Many parents may scoff at a system that tells kids the world will spit money out at them on a regular basis in exchange for nothing at all; in households that aren’t upper-middle-class or wealthier, such an arrangement might offend. (Lieber does account for this in his book, suggesting that parents who object to his methods might consider paying kids only for chores that solve problems they themselves identify in the household, or for periodic one-off tasks like washing a car or painting a room.)

Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who studies families and wealth inequality, aligns more with the Lieber school of chore compensation (or lack thereof). “When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families,” she says, “it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things,” as opposed to a message that they’re part of a household team and should contribute accordingly.Johnson considers the chores-for-allowance agreement to be of a piece with a broader custom in upper-middle-class households of paying children for things like doing well in school or taking care of siblings. She says that this sort of compensation can give kids the sense that they’re entitled to rewards for fulfilling basic responsibilities. “This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”Johnson’s children—14-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—do not get an allowance. But they do get spending money from their mother as needed, as well as regular conversations about the work it takes to run a house. “Maybe my kids are just really strange,” she says, “but I really don’t have to say it more than once—I say, ‘Empty the trash,’ and they do it.”

But considering the way chores are undertaken around the world, it might be the allowance-earners who are the strange ones. David Lancy, a former professor of anthropology at Utah State University, has studied how families around the world handle chores, and he has observed a development of responsibilities in less well-off societies that looks little like the American way.

After about 18 months on the Earth, Lancy explained to me, children almost universally become eager to help their parents, and in many cultures, they’re brought in to the processes of doing housework. They may be incompetent little things, but they can learn quickly by watching. “Praise is rare,” Lancy says, “as the principal reward is to be welcomed and included in the flow of family activity.” Gradually, their responsibilities get ratcheted up according to their abilities and strength; they may start by carrying messages or small objects, and work their way up to food preparation or caring for siblings. “In effect, they ‘own’ a suite of chores which they carry out routinely without being told,” Lancy says. And they don’t assume they’ll be paid an allowance.

In an email, he made clear how this contrasts with American norms: “In our society—and I’d extend this to most modern, post-industrial nations—we actually deny our children’s bids to help. We distract them with other activities, we do our chores (meal prep) when they’re napping, we convey that their ‘helping’ is burdensome and, not surprisingly, the helping instinct is extinguished. Hence, at 6 or 7 when we think they’re ready to start doing chores or at least taking care of themselves and their ‘stuff,’ they’ve lost all desire to help out.”


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“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See”

David Kirp wrote the following review in the Washington Post of a recently published book by Milbrey McLaughlin–“You Can’t Be What You Can’t See.” Full disclosure: McLaughlin has been an admired colleague and friend of mine for decades. She  is Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University. 

David Kirp is Emeritus Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley,

A dozen years ago, while taking a walk with a friend on the miles-long beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, I learned a valuable lesson — two lessons, actually — about how research ought to be conducted.

“There’s this amazing study about the effects of preschool,” my friend told me, but I was dismissive. “The effects fade out quickly,” I responded, recalling the devastating 1969 Westinghouse study of Head Start.

My friend was having none of it. “These kids have been followed into their 20s, and the impact has persisted — significantly more kids graduating from high school, going to college, staying out of jail and off welfare, earning more.”

As you’ve probably figured out, my friend was talking about the iconic Perry Preschool study. A few months later, a follow-up analysis found that these gains persisted into middle age, and when economists converted those life results into dollars-and-cents terms, they found a benefit-cost ratio that would turn Warren Buffett’s head. (In fact, it did turn the heads of Buffett’s children, who, when tasked by their father to identify a social investment comparable to his private-sector investments, zeroed in on early education.)

Lesson one — take a broad view of impact. Research on the effects of an education initiative typically looks only at later educational outcomes, but these investigators examined the impact of preschool on the totality of these children’s lives. What they found has transformed our understanding of why early education matters.

Lesson two — take the long view. Most education research adopts a short time horizon, rarely looking at the impact of a program beyond two or three years. But the Perry study lasted decades, and that made all the difference. Had the researchers ended the study after third grade, as so many studies of preschool do these days, they would have concluded that the Westinghouse report was right and that preschool’s effects dissipate. Only later — sometimes decades later — did the full significance of the program emerge.

It’s a long way from down-and-out Ypsilanti, Mich., in the mid-1960s to a violence-ridden Chicago neighborhood in the early 1980s. It’s also a long way from an iconic preschool program to a model out-of-school venture. But the big lesson to be gleaned from “You Can’t Be What You Can’t See,” Stanford emeritus professor Milbrey W. McLaughlin’s important new book about a K-12 program called CYCLE, which operated in Chicago from the 1980s to the mid-1990s, is much the same.

The book describes how a program that places a heavy emphasis on academics, if designed carefully and carried out thoughtfully, as CYCLE was, carries the prospect of rewriting the script of children’s lives, not just improving their grades or test scores. What’s more, the ripple effects from this experience persist for a lifetime, as accomplishments lead to more accomplishments, altering not only the lives of the participants but affecting their children’s fortunes as well.

CYCLE pitched its tent in the Cabrini-Green housing project. This was one of those high-rise war zones, plagued by gangs, that Alex Kotlowitz wrote about so memorably in “There Are No Children Here.” Jobs were scarce in this almost entirely black community. So were men; it was the women, mothers and grandmothers and aunts, who assumed responsibility for raising the children.

The public schools operated as dropout factories, graduating fewer than 30 percent of their students. Educators had bottom-of-the-barrel expectations for their charges, blaming the neighborhood for these dismal outcomes. Students who later transferred to better schools were jolted by the realization that they were years behind their classmates. When William Bennett, then the U.S. secretary of education, pronounced Chicago’s public schools to be the worst in the nation, these schools were the worst of the worst.

Out-of-school ventures have a decidedly mixed track record, especially those in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage like Cabrini-Green. How could it be otherwise? How could a program that filled a couple of hours of a child’s daily life make any difference in such an inhospitable world? But CYCLE bucked the odds.

Here’s why attention should be paid: About 90 percent of the youngsters who participated in its scholarship programs and mentoring activities graduated from high school, and about a third went to college. That’s astonishing, but what’s more astonishing still are the long-term reverberations.

The CYCLE alumni are now middle-aged, and the impact of the program continues to be felt. Among the alumni are two medical doctors, 11 with doctorates and a host of master’s degree holders. Most of the alums, McLaughlin noted, “live middle-class lives; they are teachers, social workers, small business owners, administrators, coaches.”

“The impressive accomplishments … show that the negative outcomes predicted for kids who grow up in concentrated poverty like Cabrini-Green … are not inevitable,” she wrote. “They result not from a so-called ‘culture of poverty’ but from a poverty of opportunities.”

Why did CYCLE succeed when so many programs with similar aspirations fail? And what are the broader implications of the CYCLE story for policy and practice?

Ask any professional who works with kids what has probably the most memorable impact on their lives and you invariably hear the same answer — what’s needed most is a caring, stable adult. When researching “Kids First: Five Big Ideas for Changing Children’s Lives and America’s Future,” I visited youth-oriented organizations with a solid track record such as YouthBuild and Diplomas Now. The refrain from the teens with whom I talked was the same: “They have our back.”

The core of the CYCLE program was its after-school tutoring program, and the volunteer tutors definitely “had their back.” There was no cookbook for them to follow, no set curriculum for them to inflict. Rather than trying to “fix” the students’ deficiencies, as so many social-service programs see their mission, the tutors took young people where they were and encouraged them to aim high. They became mentors as well as tutors, developing close ties to the students they spent time with, figuring out what would be most helpful, not to the group generally but to each individual.

Those relationships reached far beyond the realm of academic improvement. The tutors took the youngsters into their lives, introducing them to worlds they hadn’t imagined, making connections for them, building up what sociologists call social capital, giving them a dose of what middle-class parents provide for their own offspring. As one youth said, they became “our experienced friends.” When the kids’ lives took a wrong turn, CYCLE stood by them. “Never give up on a kid” was the program’s mantra.

“Dead or in prison by 21” is the fatalistic way many inner-city youths describe their future. But when adolescents are shown alternative pathways — summer jobs, college scholarships and the like — and given a solid chance to follow those pathways, they can seize the day. The corollary to “you can’t be what you can’t see” is that growing up in a place such as Cabrini Green need not be a life sentence.

Some of the CYCLE kids were part of an “I Have a Dream”-type program that guaranteed that, if they graduated from high school, they wouldn’t have to pay college tuition. This pledge mattered, of course, for it brought higher education within financial reach, but it was the encouragement from all sides, the constancy of adult support, that made the possibility of going to college seem real.

After spending a few years in the program, many of the CYCLE youngsters became junior staff, role models to the younger participants — “our gang of excellence,” a staffer called them. The kids they spent time with benefited from this attention, and the newly minted mentors benefited at least as much. They took their responsibilities seriously, collaborating on activities that would pique the kids’ interest and building a tight network of support. Three decades later, friendships among those staffers continue.

These relationships are what altered people’s lives. They are the “secret sauce.” But evaluators who are interested only in statistics — what percent of students graduated from high school or what percent enrolled in college? — miss this “soft” data.

As McLaughlin pointed out, “Without this long-term perspective, it is impossible to decide whether a life course has been transformed or only temporarily modified.” That vantage shows how graduating from college isn’t the only outcome that matters. Many of the program’s alumni who didn’t earn a college degree have built strong families and economically productive lives. Conversely, one college graduate, on paper a success story, became the consigliere to a Chicago gang.

CYCLE isn’t a model in the “replicate the model” sense. Rather, it’s a strategy. The core values are essential, but the specifics must vary with the needs of the community — what works in Chicago wouldn’t necessarily go over in Little Rock.

Community schools, which serve up an array of activities such as art and sports before and after school and during the summer, represent the next generation of out-of-school-time programs. Their number has increased rapidly in recent years, and the National Center for Community Schools estimates that there are 5,000 such schools nationwide.

Studies of community schools show that this strategy, when well executed, improves how students fare in school. To gauge the full effects of this strategy we need a long view, following the students in a program such as the New York City Children’s Aid Society’s community schools well beyond their school years.

Like CYCLE, these programs may well be changing the trajectory of children’s lives.


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Our Staggering Class Divide Starts With Childrearing (Joan Williams)


This article appeared November 30, 2017.

“Joan Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. William’s work includes What Works for Women at Work and Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It. “

Children learn class at their mothers’ knee. Childrearing, like so many other aspects of daily life, is demarcated by class. Working-class and low-income families follow what Annette Lareau, in her important book Unequal Childhoods, called the “accomplishment of natural growth.” They view “children’s development as unfolding spontaneously, as long as they [are] provided with comfort, food, shelter” and other basics. Providing these represents a challenge and is held to be a considerable achievement.

Clear boundaries exist between parents and children, with prompt obedience expected: crucial training for working- class jobs. Class migrants often note with shock the disrespectful way professional elite children talk of and to their parents. Noted bell hooks, whose father worked for 30 years as a janitor, “we were taught to value our parents and their care, to understand that they were not obligated to give us care.”

The ideology of natural growth prevalent among the poor and the working class contrasts with the “concerted cultivation” of the professional elite. “[T]he older children’s schedules set the pace of life for all family members,” notes Lareau, and that pace was intense. Elite children do far more organized activities (4.6 for white children, 5.2 for black children) than do nonelite kids (2.3 and 2.8, respectively). Elite kids’ taylorized leisure time helps them develop the skills required for white-collar jobs: how to “set priorities, manage an itinerary, shake hands with strangers, and work on a team,” “work smoothly with acquaintances,” and handle both victory and defeat “in a gracious way.” Everything is scheduled by adults, and the schedule is intense: “Tomorrow is really nuts. We have a soccer game, then a baseball game, then another soccer game,” said one dad. Unlike in nonelite families, children of the elite are taught not to prioritize family: Lareau describes a child who decides to skip an important family gathering because soccer is “more of a priority.”

Concerted cultivation is the rehearsal for a life of work devotion: the time pressure, the intense competition, the exhaustion with it all, the ethic of putting work before family. The pressure-cooker environment in elite homes often strikes the working class as off. “I just kept thinking these kids don’t know how to play,” said a class migrant from a self-described “hillbilly” family. “I think he doesn’t enjoy doing what he’s doing half the time [light laughter],” one woman told sociologist Annette Lareau. Others acknowledged that the busy schedules might pay off “job-wise” but expressed serious reservations: “I think he is a sad kid;” “He must be dead-dog tired.”

Elite college admissions officers agree. A group convened at Harvard asked admissions officers to allow space on applications for no more than four extracurricular activities, and “Applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities.” Pretty weak sauce, but evidence that performance pressure on elite kids has gotten out of hand.

The all-consuming nature of elite parenting—typically synonymous with “elite mothering”—comes back to bite women of the professional class, and not just in the form of exhaustion. A study of elite law firms found that elite men are vastly more preferred for jobs than nonelite men. The same study found that the reverse is true for women. While the female job applicants in their study didn’t get nearly as many callbacks as the elite men, the nonelite women got more callbacks than the elite women. Class privilege helps men at work; it seems to hold women back. Why? Because elite women are seen as a “flight risk,” people who will opt out of work to engage in the all-or-nothing elite battle to get their kids into a top college, to start the cycle of competition and achievement over again.

Concerted cultivation is a strikingly recent phenomenon. Both my mother (b. 1918) and my mother-in-law (b. 1923)—one affluent, one working class—thought my generation was truly crazy. My childhood is captured by the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books published in the late 1940s and 1950s. These charming books tell the story of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, an expert at curing children’s misbehavior. Mothers focus their attention on adult things while kids engage in unstructured play. No mother is ever depicted playing with her children. Nor do children expect to be entertained; they do an endless stream of errands and chores for adults and are sent outside to entertain themselves. Only one, a spoiled rich kid, has any organized activities: a piano lesson.

That’s how I was raised, and how nonelite kids are raised today. In contrast, Lareau found that in the elite families she interviewed, kids expected adults to schedule their time and spent “a significant amount of time simply waiting for the next event.” Lareau concludes that Tyrec, a nonelite child she featured in her study “needs no adult assistance to pursue the great majority of his plans.” Because his group of neighborhood friends “functions without adult monitoring, he learns how to construct and sustain friendships on his own,” something elite kids rarely do. The informal play allowed nonelite kids “to develop skills in peer mediation, conflict management, personal responsibility, and strategizing.”

As a result of his greater independence, “Tyrec learned important life skills not available to [elite] Garrett. He and his friends found numerous ways of entertaining themselves, showing creativity and independence.” Even sibling relationships differed. The intense focus on competition in elite families fueled intense sibling rivalry of a type rarely found in nonelite ones.

Too often, in comparisons of elites to nonelites, the assumption is that nonelites should get with it and emulate their betters. That’s not always true, and parenting is a case in point. Concerted cultivation and work devotion, perhaps the two central institutions of life in the professional elite, each deserves a closer look. What’s the unspoken message of helicopter parenting—that if you don’t knock everyone’s socks off, you’re a failure? What’s the better message: that the key is to be a good kid, or that every child needs to be above average?


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Some Technology Leaders Worry about Children and Digital Devices: They Should

We don’t have cellphones at the table when we are having a meal, we didn’t give our kids cellphones until they were 14 and they complained other kids got them earlier.

Bill Gates interview, 2017

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that.

Eric Schmidt, Google CEO, Interview with Charlie Rose, 2009*


They haven’t used [the iPad]. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.

Steve Jobs, Apple, 2010 in reply to reporter about  his children using newly-released iPads


I do not know whether these high-tech leaders feel that way today (Jobs died in 2011) but there are other Silicon Valley dads and moms who work for Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook and start-ups who wrestle with dilemma of valuing highly technology access and use but see the negatives of overuse of devices by their children. Listen to a manager for a Silicon Valley firm who limits his 12- and 10-year old daughters’ device time to 30 minutes a day yet he uses devices for hours:

“I’d give myself a B-minus or C-plus — and that’s up from a solid F at one point….The kids have called me out on it, for which I was grateful.”

The sting of parents considering themselves hypocritical in setting limits for their sons and daughters in using tablets, cell phones, and laptops at home while they are on the devices for long stretches of day and night-time (average daily use of mobile devices for adults was five hours while awake) is an ever-present issue in Silicon Valley and across the country. It pinches San Francisco Bay area parents  with devices even more so.

Sharael Kolberg says she was one of those parents. A Silicon Valley writer (her husband worked in marketing) describes an experiment they did with their daughter in A Year Unplugged: A Family’s Life Without Technology. She recalls: “We went back to the ‘80s, basically. I got out my record player and typewriter, we used the phone book and paper maps. It enhanced our relationships with our friends and family. Technology takes that away from us.”

Few parents and their children are going to go cold-turkey for a year regardless of what Kolberg writes and medical associations recommend. But many parents will try to reduce use of their devices and the ones they buy for their children because it cuts down on family face-to-face communication particularly when both (or single) parents use devices daily (and nightly) for their work (see here).

And other parents will avoid conflicts with their kids in trying to limit use.

But conflict is inevitable since the spread of devices has also swallowed schools. Although largely poor and minority schools have fewer devices than their suburban cousins, overall, nearly half of public schools now distribute one-to-one devices to students beginning in primary grades through high school. Screen time for children and youth has leaped ahead dramatically (see here and here).

Can parents do anything about schools doubling the screen time for their sons and daughters?

Schools can restrict use. There are a few schools that see the overall picture of home and classroom screen use and restrict use of devices. Google executive Alan Eagle whose children attend a Waldorf school spoke to a reporter:

[H]e says his daughter, a fifth grader, “doesn’t know how to use Google,” and his son is just learning. (Starting in eighth grade, the school endorses the limited use of gadgets.)

High tuition private schools with a clear ideology about teaching and learning and the place high-tech devices should and should not play in both have that latitude to reduce use of computers in elementary and middle school grades. That Waldorf school caters to affluent offspring of Silicon Valley parents, many of whom work at nearby companies.

Except for school policies banning cell phone use in classrooms–a policy that administrators and teachers are often ambivalent about and enforce erratically–few public schools have the luxury of restricting use of digital devices in lessons. In a society that loves technology and sees it as the solution to problems both private and public, school officials who raise questions risk strong backlash from parents, vendors, and students. Unless, of course, they are pressured by parents concerned about use of public funds for technology and increased screen time for children and youth.

Parents can raise questions with district and school administrators about use of digital tools for classroom lessons. There are straightforward questions such as why is the school adopting devices for all students (see here)? Then there are the questions that often don’t get asked: Is use of computers effective in increasing academic achievement? After the novelty effect of new tablets and laptops wear off, as it inevitably does, are devices used in daily lessons and in what ways? Can ever-rising expenditures for school technologies be re-directed to research-based options such as hiring trained and experienced teachers?

Such parent/school cooperation around screen time is rare although a few parents and school officials do raise such questions (see here, here, and here).

Those top leaders who founded and run high-tech organizations talk about how they reduced use of technology for their own children have yet to make the connection of total screen time now that schools have thoroughly embraced digital devices as must-have tools for daily lessons. Combined time watching screens at school and home for the young mirrors the work world where employees are always on call and boundaries between private and work lives are disappearing.








*Interview with Charlie Rose, March 6, 2009–quote begins at 42.00



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Toddlers and Touchscreens: What Does the Research Actually Say? (Marnie Kaplan)

“Prior to joining Bellwether, Marnie [Kaplan] worked as a policy analyst at Success Academy Charter Schools, where she analyzed local, state, and federal education policies. Previously she worked as a program manager at the District of Columbia Public Schools, where she tracked and analyzed special education compliance, and as a Stoneleigh Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Education Law Center, where she proposed solutions to reform Pennsylvania’s alternative education system and improve the accountability of cyber charter schools. Marnie began her career as a middle school English and social studies teacher in New York City. She went on to earn her M.P.P. and J.D. from Georgetown University. While in graduate school, Marnie interned at the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the DC Public Schools’ Urban Education Leaders Internship Program; taught street law to high school students; worked in a day care center; volunteered with 826DC; and served as a research assistant to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality. Marnie also holds a master’s in the science of teaching from Pace University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania” (Bio taken from Bellwether staff descriptions)

This post appeared December 8, 2016 in Ahead of the Heard, A Bellwether blog.





You walk by an outdoor restaurant and see a toddler watching a movie on an iPad while his parents eat dinner. Your first thought is:

  • a) those parents deserve a break
  • b) screens don’t belong at meal time
  • c) is the video educational?
  • d) alert: bad parenting

Is there an app to help us decide how to respond? No. But a quorum of pediatricians might be able to help.

From 1999 till 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discouraged the use of screen media by children under two (which might have led an informed passerby to loosely circle answer d while feeling slightly judgmental). But just last month, the AAP departed from its previous strict restriction on screen exposure for this age group.

There was a lot of media attention heralding the departure from the “no screens under two rule.” Some celebrated the beginning of the end of the “screen wars.” In reality, while the new guidelines offer a more nuanced view of screen exposure, the debate will likely rage on. Screens continue to pervade modern life so rapidly that research can’t keep up.

Let me fill in some background on why the AAP changed its recommendations. The “no screens before two” rule was first issued in 1999 as a response to interactive videos for infants such as Baby Einstein. Research showed these videos decreased children’s executive functioning and cognitive development. In October 2011, the AAP reaffirmed its original statement regarding infants and toddlers and media. The AAP’s statement cited three reasons: a lack of evidence on children learning from television or video before age two, studies showing a link between the amount of TV that toddlers watch and later attention problems, and studies pointing to how parents and playtime are affected by always-on TV. Since this statement was developed through  a lengthy internal review process, it was drafted before the iPad was first introduced to the market in April of 2010. So for the last five years, the strict restriction on screen time included touch screens even though the committee hadn’t evaluated the emerging research on this media.

In the intervening years, many doctors and scientists urged the AAP committee on children and media to revisit their recommendations and take a more balanced approach to media. In 2014, Dr. Michael Rich, the director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, urged experts to base their recommendations on evidence-based decision making instead of values or opinions. He criticized pediatricians for focusing too much on negative effects and overlooking the positive effects of media on children. Later that year, Dr. Dimitri Christikas, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior, and Development at University of Washington, suggested rethinking the guidelines to distinguish between TV and interactive screens. Dr. Christikas was one of the first researchers to determine that the time babies and toddlers spend in front of the TV was detrimental to their health and development. He posited that the time young children spend interacting with touch screens is more analogous to time playing with blocks than time passively watching a television. In 2015, a trio of pediatricians published an article offering further support for the idea that interactive media necessitated different guidelines than television. In the same article, they recognizing the need for further research and argued that doctors should emphasize the benefits of parents and children using interactive media together.

So what are a quorum of pediatricians saying in 2016?

The new AAP guidelines still set rather strict restrictions for children under eighteen months. The AAP recommends that infants and toddlers only be exposed to screens for the purpose of video chatting with family members. This squares with some emerging observational research but likely also displays pediatricians’ understanding of modern life. The new AAP guidelines say parents can introduce children between 18 and 24 months to education shows. For children between the ages of two and five, the AAP recommends a max of one hour per day of “high-quality programs,” which they define as PBS and Sesame Network.

But there remains a lot that pediatricians, neuroscientists, and developmental psychologists cannot say conclusively. How does a small child clamoring to watch videos of herself affect a child’s conception of self?  Does the sensory experience of interactive screens have negative effects on small children’s brains?

Scientists continue to approach the research regarding long-term effects of this exposure from different perspectives. In fact, earlier this month, at the annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, new research was presented which hinted at the possible detrimental effects of touch screens on young brains. Dr. Jan Marino Ramirez, from the Center for Integrative Brain Research at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, presented new research which revealed that excessive exposure to sensory stimulation early in life had significant effects on the behavior and brain circuits of mice. The mice acted like they had attention deficit disorder (ADD), showed signs of learning problems, and engaged in risky behavior. Ramirez therefore recommends minimizing screen time for young children. In a recent interview, Dr. Leah Krubitzer, an evolutionary neurobiologist at University of California, Davis, was less concerned about the detrimental impacts of screen time. She believes the benefits may outweigh the negative effects. Krubitzer argues that fast-moving interactive touch screens may prepare children for our increasingly fast-paced world.

So, parents of young children can now feel less guilty encouraging their toddlers to video chat with family across the country. And possibly we have a more clear answer for the scenario above (e.g., If the child is at least two years old, the appropriate response is c, at least for now).


Filed under preschool, raising children, research, technology

Teaching 8th Grade Science: Technology Integration

The hour-long science class at Jordan Middle School* that I observed October 13, 2016 began with the daily video announcements produced by Jordan students about the weather, upcoming events, and a segment on the new bike lanes around the school including an interview with an adult crossing guard. I looked around the room and saw that most students were attentive and enjoyed seeing classmates doing announcements.

After the announcements, Erica Goldsworthy launched the lesson for the day. She has taught six years at Jordan and, as she told me, “ I have the hang of it now.”

There are 24 eighth graders sitting four to five students at joined tables facing one another. On each combined table sits a cup filled with markers, colored pencils, and rulers.

erica room.jpgerica agenda.jpg

erica poster.jpg

Wearing a gray sweater over knitted white blouse and dark slacks, Goldsworthy directs students’ attention to the slide on the interactive whiteboard (IWB):

Bell work: day 3

1.Do you think gas molecules move differently if they are cold or hot? Explain your answer.

  1. What is the phase change from solid to gas called?
  1. When does thermal apply in our phase change cartoons/story?

As I scan the class, I see most students writing answers to the questions in their notebooks. A special education teacher is also in the room for the half-dozen students with disabilities. She goes from table to table to see how these mainstreamed students are doing on the questions.

After five minutes, Goldsworthy begins review of student answers to questions, calling on students who raise their hands by name.

On the first question about hot and cold molecules moving differently, one 8th grader says hot molecules move faster and gives as his reason kinetic energy. Teacher explains difference between thermal and kinetic energies and compliments student—“great answer, Michael.”

After finishing the Bell Work questions, teacher says:

“I am going to segue into our storyboard conversation—I checked off your storyboards—you need to double-check—look at your rubrics that I passed out on your tables”

Goldsworthy and her next-door colleague have teamed up in designing a “Phase Change Project” to understand how a solid changes into a liquid and then into a gas (e.g., ice, water, vapor). Concepts of thermal and kinetic energy are central in explaining how solids go to liquids and then gases (see here for slides that elaborate on the project).

The project requires each student to:

Create a cartoon or story about a substance going through a series of phase changes (solid to liquid to gas) to show how energy affects the phase that substance is in.

They are into day 3 of the project. The teachers have each day’s work broken down into a series of activities in which students work. The class has been working on drafting their storyboards and cartoons by hand and today they will complete a draft of storyboard, decide whether to do a final copy by hand, use a computer to type their text and add cartoon panels and even go further by making a video out of cartoon they have created. These student decisions are governed, in part, by the categories in the rubric called “above and beyond.”  See below.**

Above and Beyond

Meeting Requirement – Computer generated cartoons.

Above – Paper or computer generated cartoons with YOUR OWN pictures (either computer generated or hand-drawn).

Beyond – Creating a video that includes voice and your own pictures.

*All categories must meet all requirements listed*

Goldsworthy is ready to have the class working for the rest of the period on the project. Students vary in what stage they are in completing the project; some are drafting their storyboard; others are typing in text and putting their cartoon on the computer and some are figuring out how to do a video.

Before launching into a work session, Goldsworthy says: “Be mindful how you are completing your work” She gives example of how to make project look professional by using a ruler. She gives another example by pointing to student and saying if “Leo wanted to make a stop/motion video of his cartoon, he can do it on the computer.” She finishes by saying: “If you are not sure of what meets a standard check with us. Tomorrow we have Science Friday.

“OK, get started,” Goldsworthy says.

Students go to cart to get a iPad or laptop and return to their table. Students confer with one another and look at each other’s draft of storyboard, cartoon figures in each box and after a bit of shushing from teacher, get down to work. Teacher circulates through room asking and answering questions from individual students.

I look around the room and see all students writing, showing their storyboard to table-mates, or tapping away on their device. Low-level murmuring envelops the class. I do not see anyone off-task.

I go around to various tables asking students to see their storyboards. One student showed me her storyboard cooking with coconut oil . Then she showed me the final product of cartoon panels that she was typing into her iPad. After she finished, she told me, she would compare her cartoon of cooking oil as it went from one phase to another, to the standards in the rubric in assessing her work to see what she needs to add or amend before turning it in.

Another student is working on final storyboard that he will turn in. It is a one-foot square white laminated board showing how a solid—ice—turns to water and then evaporates. He is going to go “above and beyond” by making a video. He has looked at the rubric and wants the highest grade the teacher can give.

As I look around the room, there is a noticeable quiet, a purposeful silence with a few murmurs from students showing one another what they are doing. Many students have pencils and colored markers in hand; others are tapping away on devices (at least half of the class is working in laptops or tablets. Here is a combination of low- and high tools in use for this teacher-chosen project. Students easily shift back and forth between paper, iPads, and storyboards. I see one 8th grader holding an iPad in his left hand and with the right hand draws with colored markers on his laminated story board what he sees on the device.

The teacher announces that: “You have 20 more minutes left in class.”

Both Goldsworthy and the special education teacher move from table to table inquiring of each student if he or she needs help or materials and answering questions.

Some students confer with one another, others laugh and speak softly in showing their storyboards. A few go to Goldsworthy to ask questions.

I see one student working on an iPad and ask him what his storyboard is. He shows me a series of cartoon panels of a man—solid—who goes to a sauna and turns into a liquid. He then goes to a doctor who lowers his temperature to zero degrees so that the man can return to his solid state.

At this point, Goldsworthy tells the class, “we have 3 minutes so it is time to clean up. Put away your rulers, colored pencils. We will work on this tomorrow.

Students with devices return them to the cart. Others pick up paper off the floor and put rulers back into cups on the table. In a few moments the whispering turns into open talking among students. The teacher says “if you are cleaned up please be quiet in your seats.

Buzzer sounds but the teacher doesn’t release students. They wait until she looks around to see that chairs have been returned to their places at the tables and the floors under the table are clean. Teacher lets students go to their 15-minute brunch recess and wishes them a good rest of the day.


* Jordan Middle School is one of three 6th through 8th grade schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District. The school (2015) has over 1100 students of whom 52 percent are white. The largest minority is Asian (30 percent); Latino (9); African American (3); multi-racial (5). Seven percent of the school is classified as “disadvantaged”, meaning that they are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Five percent are English Language Learners and 11 percent are classified as special education.

On state test in language arts, Jordan students score almost twice as high as students across the state in meeting or exceeding state standards and in math, nearly two and half times more that state figure in meeting state standards (see here)

** I asked Goldsworthy about the rubric and the “above and beyond” category. She told me that her students felt that if they completed the work as assigned they should get an A+ . The teacher felt that completing the work minimally was satisfactory, a C. So she developed in the rubric that meeting the standards was adequate but not “above and beyond,” work that merited the highest grades. She then laid out those specifications.


Filed under how teachers teach, raising children, technology, technology use, Uncategorized

10 ways parenting has changed in 10 years (Jamie Davis Smith)

Jamie Davis Smith is a Washington, D.C. based mother of four. This Washington Post article appeared March 18, 2016. She can be reached at

“10 Ways Parenting Has Changed in 10 Years”

With nearly 10 years between my first and last child (and two in between), I often feel more like a grandmother telling first-time mothers with children my baby’s age about what it was like “back then.”  These are 10 of the biggest differences I have found between parenting a young child 10 years ago and today.

Strollers only faced one way. With the exception of a single stroller on the market that cost upwards of four figures, the baby faced out. Little did I know then that I was endangering my child’s language acquisition, social skills and overall development by allowing her to look out into the world — instead of at me — while in her stroller.

Cribs were deathtraps. When I purchased a crib for my oldest child, a drop-down side was a must to allow easy access when I was putting her down to sleep and getting her up for diaper changes. Choosing crib bumpers was a process that took weeks, while I searched for just the right shade of pink and the perfect visually stimulating pattern. Now, both drop-side cribs and crib bumpers are considered too dangerous to be sold in many states.

Infant seats were for infants. Things were simple back then when it came to car seats — babies stayed in their rear-facing infant seats until they were a year old. After their first birthday, newly-minted toddlers were turned around to gain a view of something other than the seat. Now, children are relegated to face the back of the car for at least two years — three if they still fit.

Baths were a necessity. My first child was given a bath within an hour of birth. Anyone who has given birth or seen a brand-new baby might think this is sensible, as being born is messy business. Once she came home, I bathed her every day or two. Now, many hospitals and midwives ask mothers if they would like to delay baths after birth, because there is some evidence that newborns benefit from staying a little messy for a while. There is also new thinking that kids don’t need to bathe multiple times a week unless they have spent some time jumping in mud puddles.

There were no smartphones. Ten years ago my phone was not touchscreen. I did not have Siri to help me figure out where to go, or what my baby’s cough might mean. This was both good and bad. While I did not have to resist the temptation to check my email or post to Facebook while I was with my baby, I also could not pull up’s appearance on Sesame Street to calm my baby after his shots, or simply ask my phone to text a friend when I am running late.

Photos were a big to-do. Ten years ago, good cell phone cameras were still a few years away and there were no editing apps. You had to take out a camera to capture a moment, and I rarely made the effort. This means that, unlike past generations, there are more photos of my younger children than there are of the older children.

I panicked a lot more. Without easy access to multiple parenting blogs and Facebook forums to get reassurance that what my baby was going through was normal, I worried and called the doctor more often. With my youngest, I was able to check online development charts and hear from other moms in Facebook groups that it was perfectly normal that he wasn’t walking at 14 months.

Explaining marriage was a lot harder. With my older children I had to answer complex questions about whether boys could marry boys or girls could marry girls. Now it’s a simple answer: Yes.

Screen time was a lot easier. Ten years ago, screen time meant watching TV or a DVD.  There were no smartphones or tablets to stream videos and allow kids to play video games anyplace, anytime. The American Academy of Pediatrics had clear-cut guidelines on screen time. With my older children, we made it a point to be home when Sesame Street came on. Now, the question of “what time does your favorite TV show air?” makes no sense to kids who are used to immediate access to nearly any show they like. The American Academy of Pediatrics has revised its strict no-more-than-two-hours-a-day of screen time recommendation to recognize the changing nature of interactive and educational programming and apps.

Families didn’t have as many choices. Ten years ago stay-at-home-Dads were almost nonexistent. Now they are a staple at story times and school pickups. Telecommuting was not as common and many mothers had to choose between going to an office or being at home. Now it’s more common for parents to be able to work flexible schedules and part-time jobs. Paid family leave was not even something being discussed; now Washington, D.C. is considering offering 16 weeks of paid leave to families to care for a new baby or sick child.


Has parenting really changed in the decade, as she claims for the four children she bore within the past decade? I think not. Why? At least six of the 10 items that Davis listed involve changes in technology (e.g., electronic devices, new strollers, infant seats)—but, most importantly, the rest do not (e.g., uncertainty over how best to raise child).

Three points occurred to me as I read the article: (1) These 10 items mirror what an educated U.S. middle-class white mother notes over a decade in raising a child. Were a low-income Latino or African American Mom who had dropped out of high school and had also raised a family over the same time span to have been asked about her experiences, I am unsure she would have listed similar items. That socioeconomic status and culture influence child rearing practices is commonly known and too often unnoticed in appraisals of changes in parenting. (2) Historically, differences in traditional and non-traditional child rearing practices across income, education, and ethnicity have been contested and commented upon in manuals for parents and the media of the day (see here). (3) Some essential behaviors and practices have not changed in parenting. Experts in psychology and child-rearing practices and non-experts such as grandparents know how crucial core practices are in any family be it the two-parent working family, single Mom or Dad, grand-parent or any mixes of these. They persist across income, ethnic, and ideological differences in child rearing and changes in technology (see here, here, and here.)

*Loving the child

*Setting boundaries for behavior and holding kids to those boundaries

*Helping the child grow up proud of who he or she is, self-confident, and minding others.



Filed under raising children