The New Child
Every day we read in the media about the crisis of contemporary childhood: today's kids are out of control - too fat, too indulged, too knowing, and too quick to grow up.
But is the crisis real or invented? In this fascinating book Don Edgar and Patricia Edgar argue that the crisis is real and has its roots in recent changes in the way we live. Ordinary family life has transformed. Online media technologies in which children are immersed from an early age have proliferated. The growth of individualism, an 'it's all about me' culture, together with the exploitation of children as consumers, have changed childhood dramatically.
Between them the Edgars have a wealth of expertise about childhood - as teachers, researchers, policy advisors and in children's media production. In The New Child they offer both parents and policy makers a positive action plan that addresses the whole problem, not just parts of it.
This up-to-the-moment book also discusses what parents need to know about new media such as video games, and introduces the latest ideas in early childhood development - the sort of ideas that are guiding the Rudd government in its 'education revolution' and its plan to introduce co-located children's services.
"While certain aspects of childhood endure, every era, and especially a rapidly changing one, needs to monitor changes in family, media, and life opportunities. With a welcome blend of social science, common sense, cultural observations and personal reflection, Don Edgar and Patricia Edgar help us to understand the children of today, and of tomorrow."
(Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard University)
Kidslife questions and responses
Who and what is The New Child?
The New Child is every child born in the last decade, often referred to as 'TechnoKids' or 'Millennial Kids'. We define him/her as the child of older parents, probably both in paid work, with few or no brothers and sisters, living in a neighbourhood often empty of peers to play with and developing new brain power from the array of media technology now readily available to them. The New Child is brought up to feel important, as a 'friend' to parents trying both to do the best for their child and to compensate for the lack of time available. In many cases this leads to a narrowing of the gap between parents and child, confusion about the proper role of parenting, lack of guidance and an over-indulgence which fails to teach children other-directed social skills and the realities of conflict and cooperation in a post-modern world.
How does family structure today differ to a generation ago?
Most couples marry and have children later, in their thirties, when careers and job demands are well-established. Many will never marry nor have children. The couple-with-child family is now less than a third of all families, and children under 17 comprise less than 20% of the total population. This makes for a very different family and community context for the New Child, with fewer siblings, greater pressure on them to 'succeed' as a sign of good parenting, and more 'investment' (both emotional and financial) in their upbringing. At the same time, pressures of work and higher expectations on the part of both men and women about quality relationships make marriage and family stability less predictable, with 12.5% living in single-parent families, another 12% of couples with children cohabiting, another 12% of children living in poverty, some 30,000 children living with grandparents, and close to half of all parents saying their job detracts from their ability to be a good parent. Family relationships are thus very different from a generation ago: there is great ethnic variety and a growing poverty gap which makes life prospects for Australian children very unequal.
Does your book look at parenting strategies for raising children in a commercial culture?
Yes, we spend a lot of time in the book describing how television and film-makers suddenly 'discovered' the child was a lucrative market, whereas in the 1970s and 80s they resisted the idea of making programs specifically for kids because they claimed there was no profit to be made from them. Kids have become a 'super-sized market' in every sense. First, following the Clintons' White House Conference of 1997, the pre-schoolers were targeted as Mums bought the dubious claims of educational games and videos such as 'Baby Einstein'. Then the advertisers discovered 'Tweens', another lucrative niche group that were turned into mini-adults, buying make-up, saucy clothes and targeted magazines. Babies and toddlers have become the newest market, with mothers sitting their kids in front of mindless programs such as Teletubbies and High Five. We urge parents to carefully evaluate what the media offer for children, watch programs with their children, help children be critical of false claims and advertising and understand the cost of what they might want but not need. Our message is not to be naively negative, not to 'ban' TV watching or playing computer games, but rather to teach good media skills and an analytical approach to commercial appeals. We spend a lot of time in the book on values, on the need for tolerance and respect, on stimulating a whole range of intelligences in kids so they are equipped to become contributing citizens in a future that is hard to predict.
What five tips would you give to help parents ensure their children are 'connected kids'?
There are many more than five, but basically we would say to parents:
1. Participate and interact with your children in the whole variety of media-technology experiences – watching TV with them, playing computer games with them, discussing what they see with them. Media literacy is now as important as verbal and mathematical literacy and they learn most rapidly in those early years while they're still at home. Be discerning in the products you buy for young children. Don't be fooled by the promises of education on the edutainment products that flood the market.
2. Value the positive potential of new media technology, don't be negative about it all, because if your kids fail to engage with it they will be seriously disadvantaged in their learning and overall development, let alone in their capacity to do school work and get a decent job in the future.
3. Take a strong interest in your children's media activities. Get them to show you what they are doing, what they find on YouTube, the media their friends are sharing with them at school. Keep the television and the computer out of the bedroom.
4. Insist that schools and teachers are better equipped and trained for the new learning technology. The old days of chalk and talk, follow my lips teaching are gone and kids themselves (through technology) have new learning power. A computer on every desk is not enough; they have to be shown how to use that computer (and other media) to their greatest advantage.
5. Become activists on behalf of your children, by demanding better children's media services, quality TV programs designed specifically for Australian kids, protesting about commercial exploitation of children, demanding better regulation of all media, with children's interests in mind, and computer games designed with educational purposes in mind. If parents don't speak up, their children will watch the crap anyway and become 'connected' in ways that are undesirable.
Is it the case that certain values are becoming secondary to the pursuit of a material lifestyle?
We think there has been great confusion about values in both family life and in the schools. No man is an island and no society can survive on selfishness and greed alone (the recent economic crash is final proof of that). So children need to learn values of tolerance and respect for others (not just mateship and national pride), other-directedness as well as self-understanding (empathy and self-management rather than the misleading mantra of self-esteem). In the context of global warming, environmental disaster, financial collapse and the likely huge shifts in refugee displacement, the New Child needs to understand the value of global human cooperation instead of mindless competition, the need for self-restraint and the essential difference between 'wants' and 'needs'. None of this is political correctness – it is simply the nature of social life if it is to be led well. In addition, children have to learn the value of effort instead of just being praised for being 'smart', learn that the easy buck is not value for effort, that a material lifestyle of self-indulgence is the pathway to economic meltdown and global disarray. They won't get this message without sound political leadership and a consistent critique of materialism as the guiding philosophy of today's marketplace economy.
In what ways do you feel the media is manipulating and redefining childhood?
In our book, we detail how the mass media have pushed down the age range an adult-oriented image of childhood – via clothing, behaviour (copying Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, et al), having money to buy anything you want and demanding parents comply with your every wish. They have helped redefine childhood as almost equal to adulthood, mocking good adult role models, lauding bad adult role models through media adulation, a lack of criticism, lifestyle programs aimed at greater consumption and mindless entertainment. In particular, the media push unhealthy food and lifestyles, the sexualisation of children too emotionally immature to handle the consequences, and a resistance to regulatory controls aimed at reducing the excesses. Adults have been complicit in this because we have enjoyed unparalleled affluence, are confused about how parents should behave, have become fearful of being seen as ogres by our kids and think our kids should be prepared for the same consumerist world we have grown up in. The fact is they should not be: the world they face will require vastly different values and skills if we are to survive.
What sorts of pressures is technology putting on today's families?
First, it costs quite a bit to be connected, to have mobile phones, cable access, the latest ipod, etc. The digital divide is exacerbating inequalities in access to good schooling and other children's services.
Second, many parents are pulled in two ways by the new technology – they fear its negative impacts (passivity, physical inactivity, pornography, cyber-bullying), yet they sense that without adequate exposure and skill acquisition their children will be disadvantaged, that the Internet and social networking sites may well be a tool for modern learning, as they are. There is very little guidance from government or the schools about this, because they too are confused.
Third, many parents lack the time to properly supervise their kids' media activities, so households have several TV sets and computers, kids have them in their bedrooms, there is conflict about what they can watch and for how long, and there is insufficient choice of quality programs that would make parents feel more secure.
You talk about new learning styles. How will tomorrow's children be learning?
The New Child is already learning more from the new technology than they learn at school. Unless schools embrace its potential, they will be totally left behind. Far from having less attention span, kids who play computer games have longer attention spans; they pursue the scientific method in every game they play; they learn to persist, fail but try again; mastery is the goal, not just mindless fun. Their brains are being rewired because of these new ways of learning – they can multi-task, sift and sort information from multiple sources, express their ideas in ways we never imagined when we were children. They learn visual and spatial skills, fine motor skills and (more importantly) more sophisticated social interaction skills (self-presentation, mutual respect, tolerance for difference, helping others to learn) than any previous generation. So, when we say in the book that too many kids today are becoming self-centred, we don't attribute this to the new technology, but to the failure of grown-ups to guide their children sensibly towards competent adulthood. Tomorrow's child will be more self- directed in their learning, more carefully judgmental about the reliability of different sources, less dependent on the narrow abilities and attitudes of teachers. And thus they will need teachers trained to be technology and knowledge guides, mentors, task designers whose wisdom is truly greater than the child's, fully aware of the pitfalls but also vast potential for learning of the new media technology and the Internet.
Do you feel education is keeping pace with The New Child?
Clearly no, from what we've already been saying. Teachers ignored for years the learning potential of television, seeing it as a waste of time, just 'entertainment'. Now they have the same attitude to computer games and interactive technology. The kids know better and scorn teachers who haven't kept up to date. They know how to hide 'illicit' content, even in classrooms where the teachers use interactive screens and the kids do their work on laptop computer screens that can be swivelled round and changed in an instant. There's virtually no media education in the school curriculum, and what's there is pretty basic, stuff the kids have already learned at home and for themselves. It's still too middle-class in its orientation: there's little understanding that use of the new media is valuable as fun, as an emotional experience, not just for boring 'educational' purposes. The schools have to embrace 'fun' and 'entertainment' as tools of learning.
We also argue in the book that the school curriculum fails to take account of the new family context of the New Child. Teachers refuse to act as 'social workers', even though the life their students live demands greater sensitivity on the part of teachers. Recent moves to co-locate children's and family support services with the schools, to form 'Children's Hubs', are to be applauded, because education, learning, happens not just in the school, but across the whole community, and policies at every level should be examined for the impact they are likely to have on the quality of children's lives.
As parents and grandparents, are you optimistic about the future for our children?
Yes, we are, because we think today's children are incredibly bright, curious, engaged in the new technology and ready to learn. We now know how significant the early years are for brain development: there is increasing awareness of the need for better investment in those early years, and today's parents are determined to do the best they can for their (precious few) children. If they can be made more aware of the pitfalls of false consumerism and of the phoney individualism pushed by the commercial world, there is every chance this new generation will be well equipped to face the global challenges of this century. Our own grandchildren are a constant source of delight, surprise and wonder in their enthusiasm for learning, their thirst for knowledge, their openness in asking adults for better answers than any previous generation would have dared ask their parents. So the greater self-confidence of the New Child can have its down-side in self-centredness, but it also has its up-side in a readiness to learn everything they can about the world around them. It is our aim in the book to exhort parents everywhere to encourage the same zest for learning, within a caring, socially-aware framework for life.
Review: Adrian Mills, Former Head CBC Children's Television; Media Consultant London
THE NEW CHILD: In Search of Smarter Grown-Ups
With the United Kingdom ranked by the UN as the least child-friendly of 21 wealthy nations, Britain awaits the Spring 2009 release of what is billed as the country's first national inquiry into childhood. The Good Childhood Inquiry was triggered by the “toxic childhood” lobby, who proclaim a crisis in childhood, with the 21st century poisoning, commercialising, sexualising and depressing Britain's children. The media are portrayed as particularly toxic, neglecting children's social, emotional and developmental needs, and displacing “real” play with a cocktail of “sedentary, screen-based entertainment” which is stifling children's creativity, and making them unmanageable, indolent, violent and fat.
Before making their recommendations, the people behind the Inquiry would do well to consult Australians Don and Patricia Edgar, who address these concerns in their latest book, The New Child: in search of smarter grown-ups. (Wilkinson Publishing 2008).
Drawing on their combined experience as parents, grandparents, academics, policy advisers and children's media producers, the Doctors Edgar argue that Western society is at a tipping point, and that the crisis in childhood is an inevitable consequence of changes in family life, of a culture which promotes individualism at the expense of collective social responsibility, of children's new and embedded relationship with technologies, and of a media industry whose prime interest in children is as consumers.
But while they may share an analysis, the Edgars part company with the toxic childhood lobby, and articulate a more progressive roadmap for the 21st century; one which educates adults, harnesses technology, and equips children for a future full of potential, rather than one which decontaminates to recapture a familiar but lost past. They pull together existing and new research into family life and societal structure, into neuroscience and learning theory, and into how children are using new technologies. They combine this research with personal experience to paint a contemporary portrait of childhood in Australia; a portrait that is instantly recognisable and relevant to those of us in the UK.
At the heart of the Edgars' book is the New Child - alert, thoughtful, creative, active and motivated to learn. Technologically agile and connected, the New Child spends more time with technology than they do at school - socialising, listening to music, watching video and playing interactive games - on computers, mobile phones, games consoles and iPods. They know more about technology than their confused parents or their bewildered teachers, and are exposed to infinitely more questionable content and subject to greater commercial pressures than any preceding generation.
This new relationship with technology presents both opportunity and risk, say the Edgars, and in order to maximise one and minimise the other, the New Child has a greater need for smarter grown-ups who make smarter decisions: smarter parents, smarter politicians, smarter teachers, and smarter media producers. The Edgars go further to propose a “new deal” for kids, who for the first time in Australia's history, are now a minority, their population exceeded by the over-60s. They argue that Australia needs a coherent and comprehensive children's social policy with a Ministerial champion; one which addresses parents, government, schools, healthcare, business and the media. They recommend a more joined-up approach to policy development and implementation, one which supports, protects and nurtures the adults of tomorrow, rather than abandoning them to the marketplace, an unknown online world, or to bureaucratic dysfunction.
The New Child… takes a swift trip through the institutions, people and processes that touch children's lives, and the Edgars mince no words as they share observations, develop critique, and dispense a wealth of advice and guidance en route. Unsurprisingly, given their backgrounds as media producers, they have a lot to say about the media, and their many calls to action are clear responses to the complexity of issues that surround children and the technologies they love. Sceptical of the media's ability to manage itself responsibly, they support government regulation to protect children from voracious marketers, online predators and cyber bullies. They insist that broadcasters and content providers have obligations to provide appropriate educational, informative and entertaining, high-quality content for children, and that these obligations should be enforced through legislation. They call for media literacy to become compulsory for children of all ages, and to be a core part of the national curriculum. In a bold move, they call for the appointment of a national Children's Media Commissioner to advise government on research and policy, to liaise between government, industry, regulators and audience groups.
The New Child… is an ambitious and forthright book which makes the case for a massive programme of social reform. As the Edgars say at the end of their book, we have to recognise the shifting nature of childhood and invent new ways of meeting children's needs more effectively. If we don't rise to the challenge, we are all in trouble. Yet what could be a heavy book is leavened with a rich personal narrative which spans the Edgars' own childhoods in the 1940s, and those of their 21st century grandchildren; fascinating insights and wry observation make for a very enjoyable as well as stimulating read. Let's hope the people behind the UK's Good Childhood Inquiry get copies in their Christmas stockings…