Nurturing a habit (1 of 7)

Most of my friends know what it’s like to worry at night for a child, even if it’s not their own.

Awake, restless. Revisiting something said or seen. Unsettled by a gnawing intuition.

Three questions worry away at us. For good reason. What are they viewing? Who are they with? Where are they?

The first question, what are they viewing? not only keeps parents awake, but also educators. Particularly anyone in curriculum design and software/app development. The question of content creates more heat in education debate than anything else. I have seen curriculum writers white with anger, arguing over content that will spill into books, apps, images and videos. One time, I thought a colleague would die over the matter.

Why? Because several very powerful narratives with roots needling back hundreds of years dominate the learning space. Two lock together wrestling. And people make absolute commitments to either one of them.

The first of these educational narratives is about personal development. Self-potential (or self-potentiation). Self-discovery. Self-directed learning, ‘journeying’ and ‘exploration’.

The second is about passing on the best that has been thought and said, or produced. Its basic position is self-directed learning won’t yield another Michelangelo or Herman Melville, and that some things simply need to be taught to us. Time’s a factor, too. It might take quite a while for any of us to get to where Isaac Newton got. If ever. So teach the concept and the formula. It saves time.

Looking through a range of local, state, national and international curricula you can see their authors favour one of the two views. I think a judicious curriculum makes room for both: children need to be able to experiment, test and question, but they also need to be taught certain things. Handing on things of value is a mark of respect for the dead and a matter of trust for those to come.

The difficulty is deciding what things are worth passing on and how to prioritise these.

The same tension is there for parents. Let kids do what they want or try to teach them something, and if so, what?

Figuratively speaking, this is like having a drink on the patio and leaving the kids to do whatever they want, or, conversely, ’Helicopter’ parenting—hovering 24/7 beside, over, around and about our children, hemming them in against every possible threat, and restricting their self-expression and self-direction.

Wise parents seem to achieve a wise balance. It’s less about ‘hovering’ and ‘smothering’ and more about ‘nurturing’. There are some things children need help with. A bit like sheltering a seedling from withering winds or supporting a sapling until its roots and stem are strong enough for it to endure. Building a habit or capability.

This is true of ‘parental controls’ and their use in technology. (A better phrase might be ‘parental nurturing’.) Either way, the beauty of parental controls on a TV, a browser, or the operating environment of a desktop or a mobile device, is that they aid self-regulation for a child until it becomes a habit.

Right through curricula across different cultures and throughout history a series of values persist. And one of these—one of the famous seven—is self-regulation. It used to be called temperance (Latin. temperāntia—moderation). And it means ‘The practice or habit of restraining oneself in provocation, passion, desire, etc.; rational self-restraint.’ (Oxford English Dictionary). As a life skill it is universally regarded as being essential.

Parental controls create a safe place for kids to explore and grow. A place with boundaries where they learn good communication and social interaction skills. In the long run this means they are more likely to become decent citizens (let alone decent digital ones).

It’s worth noting some of the concerns around global digital citizenship relate to questions of patriotism and belonging. And with belonging, the adoption of an acceptable set of values. Digital citizens are rootless (so the charge goes). Parental controls in technology can counter this and foster a series of values—self-regulation, courtesy and respect for others, and decency in communication, to mention four. And these can become the basis for other positive habits. In this way, technology in early childhood years and in relation to personal formation is a benefit.

Take away point: Wise parents foster in their kids a love of enquiry. They also don’t back away from teaching them specific values and literacies. Helicoptering parenting is hopeless. But monitoring and input in a child’s life will help it. Technology with parental controls offers personal value.

Research: There are three people in educational theory who have had an enormous impact in the field of self-potentiation (for better and for worse): Jean Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and John Dewey. Joy Palmer provides an excellent introduction to each (and many others) in Fifty Major Thinkers on Education: From Confucius to Dewey (London: Routledge, 2001).

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