My Phone is Way More Engaging Than My Kid!

Imagine for a moment that you are little and your parents spend all day staring at a screen rather than talking to you.

Is that the parent you would like to have?

Everywhere I look, I see subtle, insidious child neglect - parents around this city ignoring their young children, those snuggly tots with minds bursting with imagination. These cuties are living in a colorful universe where oceans are strawberry smoothies, a magical touch can have the power to grow wings and a table is really a fort, castle or underwater paradise. Within five minutes, a youngster can be an airline pilot, royal highness or an orangutan rummaging for golden crumbs. You say the word and our young people can talk to you about their vision of life on the moon or beneath the blue sea. They speak in superlatives and joyful glee about their cultivated universes. Their minds are alive and thrive - but only when engaged.

But what are the parents doing? Are they partners and coaches in fostering this emergence of human beauty?

Nope. Moms and dads are occupied by their cell phones. They ignore their children. I see it everywhere, every day and, like a witness to abuse, I feel a contraction of pain in my heart.

Here’s the scene on every New York City block:

Parents on cell phones. Their kids stare into the distance. Sitting quietly. The little lovies are accustomed to being ignored. After all, their parents were on their cell phones from the day they were born until today. That’s normal for them.

And why are the children being ignored? The uncaring parental unit favors the screen to having a conversation with their young. Our kids have absorbed the message that the screen is way more engaging than they could ever be. 

And these kids have inured themselves to this reality. They’re way used to this. But it does not mean it’s acceptable.

Please, get off your cell phone and engage with your child. You are cheating them of your presence in their lives.

So why bother turning away from your smartphone? Because, oh yes, parents have a solution.  When children whine and try to speak to you, when they fight mightily for their right to be a presence in your life, what do you do? What I see is that the parents solve the demand for attention by giving the child a screen to stare into. Hand that kid a device, not you. A tablet, smartphone, or computer can be their friend.

But sadly, nothing steals the imagination quicker than a screen. Nothing except an occupied, disinterested and distracted parent, that is.

Shepherds for our Sweeties

     Both mentors and protégés are elevated by their symbiotic relationship. We have a whole treasure trove of nostalgic images of elders schooling youngsters.  In children’s stories, the cobbler teaches the young lad to sew a shoe. Ben Franklin was trained by his brother’s side on how exactly to operate a printing press.  In the modern world, we can picture a weathered orchestra conductor standing with an inspired and grateful student, demonstrating just how to swirl her arms into a grand arch.

     But in the rushed years we are living in, the culture of mentoring has been replaced by outstanding TED talks, School of Life videos and other words of wisdom from sources like the internet that may be brilliant but lack the warmth and encouragement of a real human relationship.

      How can we reconnect young people with mentors, those sources of support, skills and wisdom?

     We have a giant pool of mentors to draw from, if we were recruiting. So many people, from those in their twenties to retirees have so much to give. Their humanitarian impulses strongly want to make the world a better place. These potential mentors are resourceful, independent and full of love. What could we accomplish if we harness that strength and connection? We could channel this to make the lives of our young people better.

     While the young offer enthusiasm and relatability, the elders can share their warm hearts, accumulated knowledge and determination. Our young people need shepherds to guide them over the course of years. Both our young people and those seasoned with years could become the guiding shepherds for our young people.

    On a high school level, the programs like I-Mentor or Mentor USA match working college graduates with individual students.

    This week, I am training to become an I-Mentor. For the next four years, I will email weekly and meet monthly with a high school student. This is an excellent program that serves the needs of older students.

    However, high school is often too late. The mentoring should begin in kindergarten. The program “I Have a Dream” matches wealthy donors with kindergarten classes. The promise is that the students will have their college paid for by the wealthy person. Students who are fortunate enough to participate in this program have a 60% success rate of pursuing higher education. The national rate is 22%. But millionaires who want to pay for students to go to college are scarce.

     The key years for development are the early years. How about creating a program that supports every low income kindergartener? The mentors could work in male and female pairs to support an entire class of kindergarteners over the course of their elementary school career.

    Where are the adults who should are currently paid to mentor our children like school counselors and principals? School counselors are overwhelmed with paperwork, and the turnover is tremendous. The student to counselor ratio nationally is 500 to 1. In the words of one of my students, “We are not going to talk to the counselor about anything important. She doesn’t even know our names.” Most of the principals I have worked with are locked up in their offices or out at meetings. They are nearly never seen in the school hallways or classrooms. They may discipline, but they rarely inspire.

    These days, it seems like no one closely monitors, motivates or cares about our young students over the course of time. A child may have a warm, responsive teacher one year and a cold-hearted screamer the next year. A shepherd could provide kindness and consistency by getting to know families, hosting social events, providing inspiration to succeed in school and life.

    The goodwill and kindness of individual citizens is an abundant resource. Let’s create a program for people to support our youngest and most vulnerable who, with a shepherd’s support, will have limitless possibilities.

Arts Malnutrition

Growing up, we awaited the grand entrance of our art teacher’s magical cart. Into the class it would roll. The assortment of pencils in cans, rainbows of papers stacked up high, watercolors nestled in the corners, they all seemed like a Willie Wonka’s factory of colorful possibilities.

“Art from the Cart” was what the art teacher called it.

Art projects could be completed on our desks that faced the front in neat, alphabetical rows.

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During most classroom time, except for those magical art class moments of coloring, folding and sliding that brush across the paper, we were called upon to sit with our hands neatly folded, unless they were filling out worksheets.

Marching in straight, silent lines, we also had the chance to visit the music room once a week to sing and beat on the bongos.

Our music teacher had a conductor’s baton that curved through the air as she lead us in songs. One time, she even let us sing “The Sound of Silence” that we thought was as thrilling as a sneaky, unscheduled recess.

My small town, public elementary school was anything but arty and progressive. The beloved principal had a crew cut and stood at the door to shake our hands hello and wave us farewell in the afternoon. We sported seventies fashion like fringed plaid vests and rust colored corduroys. Except for our wardrobes, we had few opportunities aside from our music and art classes to express ourselves.

This year, I taught over 480 public school elementary school students about nutrition in four schools in impoverished neighborhoods in Harlem, Crown Heights and the South Bronx. The kids were as eager to learn and sharp as those students I taught at a $45,000 a year private school in Manhattan or at the American International School of Budapest that catered to the progeny of the wealthy.

All of my 480 students spent the majority of their days preparing for state and city tests by taking graded pre-tests, filling out endless sheets and suffering through the actual tests that could determine if their teachers get fired or rehired. My students do not study social studies or science because those subjects are not tested.

To be clear, this is test prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner throughout the year. How deadening to the mind and the soul!

None of my students had art or music teachers. None of them.

One principal described how students pour into the nurse’s office complaining of head and stomach aches in the days leading up to the tests. The principal became emotional as she talked about her students breaking down in tears and begging to go home during the dreadful two weeks of testing each spring.

Teachers pressure their students so intensely because their jobs are on the line if the students do not demonstrate progress with improved scores every single year.

Billions of dollars are spent on testing and there’s no time or money left for the arts.

This is testing instead of teaching. Public education has been replaced with a relentless focus on the useless skill of how to fill in A, B, C or D on the test. Creativity is not valued. Get it right, or you are wrong.

What is the purpose? To prepare our young people for simple factory jobs, the kind that no longer exist in our country?

It seems like our current education system has been designed by faceless bureaucrats who know nothing about the value of instilling the expressive arts into life. Even the Soviet Union had an extensive arts program in schools.

What are the goals of these test-obsessed leaders? One thing I’m sure of is that none of their own children attend schools with no arts programs. By eliminating arts from schools, these policymakers have demonstrated their hatred for poor children. 

Arts education advances our thinking in all subject areas. The arts are our conduit for recognizing, enjoying and creating beauty as well as fostering individual expression.

The arts make life worth living. But the arts are now a privilege that belong only to the wealthy. All other children live without the arts.

In the classrooms of my students, the only paper they see is lined paper. Many of them had no access to even white paper. No markers, paints or colored paper could ever be found.

The few times I brought in colored pencils and paper to do art projects, the students lit up with excitement and asked if they were allowed to keep what they created. Our society’s talented sweeties who have the misfortune of being born poor are suffering from arts malnutrition.

 

ExtraCurriculars that Suffocate Kids

The mind cannot freely wander when kids are staring at the bottom of the pool during swim practice, reading musical notes or repetitively doing drills.  These tasks require the imagination to shut down. Instead, it’s time to follow the rules.  Forbid the freedom of your mind.  Do not daydream.  Do not create something of your own.  Practice your Beethoven.  Score a goal.  The pressure is on to achieve and, kid, you have to satisfy the adults and produce according to the rules.

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