Cuddles and Cursors: Parents as Teachers in Our Digital World

Parenting has never been easy. The pace of change and its related complexities and unknowns increase the challenge. The nature of education itself, as well as trends in the job market, even in the short-term, present huge question marks. A dizzying, unprecedented array of apparent options can add to the vertigo. Parents want to instill skills for learning, life and work, but how best to do that?

Perhaps lovingly nurturing children’s natural curiosity remains the gold standard. Yes, we are moving from knowledge environments centered on print texts to a multimedia landscape where digital literacy begins early. Yes, fluency in multiple digital “languages” will become a lifelong requirement. Yet we also know that parents’ interaction with children is paramount. That reality remains unchanged.

As technology closes the distance between far-flung corners of the globe, concerns about best practices are shared worldwide. Some results are surprisingly consistent. For example, the Scottish government cites UK research suggesting that “the home learning environment in the early years is the largest factor in attainment and achievement at age 10, bigger even than the effect of pre-school and primary school.”

Could it be so simple? Consider the panoply of electronics many if not most children encounter within the first months and years of their lives: TVs and CD, DVD, and MP3 players, desktop computers, laptops, notebooks and tablets, game consoles, handheld games, mobile phones with camera capabilities, and more. Kids can frequently “read” and interact with onscreen menus and directions long before they know how to string letters into words.

And yet new benefits of time-tested toys and techniques continue to emerge. Take, for example, a Nov. 27, 2011, New York Times article. Wooden blocks, those classic childhood playthings, beloved across generations, have new cachet. The article reported on waiting lists for block workshops conducted by block consultants at block centers and block labs, intended to help parents help their children make the most of building with blocks. That’s right, blocks. As we’ve long known, blocks create unstructured play time, build fine motor skills and spatial abilities, and offer near-limitless creative possibilities.

Concerned about their children’s college admission long before kindergarten, parents can easily get tangled up in anxiety and overscheduling. It’s important that we remember it’s not an all-or-nothing equation. It isn’t perfection vs. failure or technology vs. paper (or wooden blocks).

Twenty-five years ago, James Hoffman, Ed.D., wrote that “First and most importantly, you must realize that everyone and everything teaches. And your child is already naturally equipped with the senses that interpret the world. You can’t stop your child from seeing, touching, tasting, hearing and smelling. But these senses can be guided. You don’t have to understand how the brain works to teach well. Good drivers don’t have to know how the engine works.”

No one has a GPS device with coordinates for every future destination. So cuddle up with your child to read a good book. Whether that book has a flashing cursor or small, sticky finger tracing the storyline, it’s your presence and engagement that make the biggest difference.