Technology is a blessing… and a curse… and a blessing. It’s the Promethean story updated to the 21st century. We can’t do without our smart phones even though they sometimes make us crazy. Switching from landline phone to VOIP caused the school much grief but now that it works well we’re happy with the cost savings. When we switched—involuntarily, by the way—from a provider who stopped providing email support—to G-Suite for Education it took us months to get it right, but now we’re there we’re discovering that it offers more possibilities than we knew and we hope to deploy them to our advantage.
Technology helps parents, too. But it can be a curse as well. Take Alexa. I have one at home and love it. My technological helper saves me walking across the house, acts as a memory aid, and gives me information to settle arguments or simply bring information instantly to hand. “Alexa: Turn off the porch light.” “Alexa: time 15 minutes.” “Alexa: How far is it from Camden to Washington?” But it can also be a problem. I address myself to this question because this morning as I drove to work I heard an ad on the radio that included, “Alexa: Read a bedtime story to Billy.” I almost wrecked the car.
When my children—now age 38 and 40—were very young we didn’t have Alexa and I read them bedtime stories every evening, usually from a series of books about a cheese-tasting French mouse named Anatole. I read these stories with a French accent (sounding, I admit, more like the Warner Bros. cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew than a real Frenchman). The children loved these stories then and imitated my accent when they read these same stories to my grandchildren. Had Alexa been available she could not have read the stories with my silly accent. She couldn’t have snuggled with the children as they slowly closed their eyes with visions of Camembert dancing in their heads. Alexa has more facts at her fingertips than I can command. But I still have some flesh-and-blood advantages she doesn’t.
Alexa isn’t the only culprit. Two other pet peeves come to mind, and as long as I’m on the subject of the dangers of technology I’ll move on to them. The first is the television screens I see on the back of the front seats of cars at the drop off points. The advantage of these devices is that the children stay quiet and Mom can listen to the radio or chat with a front-seat passenger. But using the device also wastes a golden opportunity for one-on-one time with a child. Mom has a rare captive audience—which is an opportunity to practice a Pepé Le Pew accent or whatever else will become part of family lore as the children become adults. It’s sad to see parents not take advantage of it.
The second is a parent using a smart phone as an electronic babysitter for a very young child to keep him quiet. (It works, by the way.) Children younger than age 2 should never use two-dimensional objects (like a computer screen) without direct adult interaction because it interferes with optimal brain development. Rather, children need to be taught at home to be able to exercise rudimentary self-control—at least long enough to avoid embarrassing parents during adult conversation. This is possible, by the way, and I see it enough every day to know when a child learns respect at home and when he doesn’t. If parents address normal behaviors at home—lovingly but firmly—the “terrible 2s” don’t have to be. Interestingly, I see this disturbing trend far more from prospective parents who are visiting the school than from actual Montessori parents. My working hypotheses are (a) parents select Montessori because they already recognize the value of self-regulation (weeding out those who don’t from our parent group), or (b) Montessori parents evolve as their children develop self-regulation in the classroom, or both.
I recommend that parents ask themselves (and I plan to follow this advice as well) to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of any technological device or application before introducing them to their children. The critical questions need to be “How will this device help my child grow?” and “Do I want my child to grow in this direction?” If we answer these questions honestly, we can make great decisions. Having written about the dangers, I don’t want to sound extreme about it. An occasional piece of candy won’t rot the teeth. But a bag of chocolate might.