Tech Wise Family: 5&6. Learning and Working & The Good News about Boredom

5. Learning and Working

WE AIM FOR “NO SCREENS BEFORE DOUBLE DIGITS” AT SCHOOL AND AT HOME

The best and richest experiences of learning, it turns out, are embodied ones. Physically taking notes with a pen or pencil on paper –the act of forming physical letters by hand, with the twists and turns of the letter forms and the accumulating fatigue and need for rest- turns out to aid memorization and learning, even if we never consult the notes again.

All human thought requires embodiment, and without bodies we could not think. We can have a faint idea or hunch in our mind, but it is only when we speak or write it that it becomes clear, not just to others but to ourselves as well.

 

Dangerously Easy

The last thing you need when you are learning, at any age but especially in childhood, is to have things made too easy. Difficulty and resistance, as long as they are age appropriate and not too discouraging, are actually what press our brains and bodies to adapt and learn. We are designed to thrive on complex, embodied tasks that require the engagement of many senses at once.

The biggest problem with most screen-based activities is that they ask too little of us and make the world too simple. When our children could be making candy, they are playing Candy Crush.

 

Difficult and Rewarding

We most often give our children screens not to make their lives easier but to make our lives easier.

The truth is that our children, just like us, will spend far too much of their lives tethered to glowing rectangles. We owe them, at the very minimum, early years of real, embodied, difficult, rewarding learning, the kind that screens cannot provide. And that is why a family that cares about developing wisdom and courage will exert every effort to avoid the thin simplicity of screens in the first years of life.

What applies to children can apply to us adults as well. Our screen based work will be far more productive if we balance it with plunges back into the complex, three-dimensional physical world that reawakens both our brains and our minds, both our bodies and our souls.

 

6. The Good News about Boredom

WE USE SCREENS FOR A PURPOSE, AND WE USE THEM TOGETHER, RATHER THAN USING THEM AIMLESSLY ALONE.

In the history of the human race, boredom is practically brand new –less than three hundred years old. The English word does not appear until the 1850’s. Boredom –for children and for adults- is a perfectly modern condition. I’ve come to the conclusion that the more you entertain children, the more bored they will get.

The problem, as with many short-term solutions, is that solving the immediate problem requires leaving a bigger problem unsolved –and actually makes the bigger problem worse.

 

How Videos Bewitch

The entertainment we serve up to our children, and ourselves, constantly fills the screen with movement as swift as the meteor’s and colors as brilliant as the cardinal’s. It is purposefully edited to never require too much concentration or contemplation; instead, it grabs our attention and constantly stimulates our desire and delight in novelty. But in doing so, it gradually desensitizes us as well.

A world in which The Sopranos can seem innocent is a world ratcheting its way toward being unable to be shocked by anything –which is to say, a world completely full of boredom.

The very analog world is itself charged with beauty and surprise.

And the ones who used to be able to see this ordinary abundance in all its glory, in all its full capacity to delight and transfix our attention, were children. Children were the ones who simply went out to play in the ordinary world, even with no toys at all, because they had something far better than toys: grass and dirt, worms and beetles, trees and fields. The world they played in was rich, substantial, and rewarding of attention: the closer you looked, the more you saw; the more you listened, the more you heard.

Technology does little do develop our abilities to wait, pay attention, contemplate, and explore –all needed to discover the abundance of the ordinary.

The first people people to be bored were the people who did not do manual work, who did not cook their own food, whose lives were served by others. They were also, by the way, the very first people to have lawns.

 

Distraction and Delight

Boredom is actually a crucial warning sign –as important in its own way as physical pain. It’s a sign that our capacity for wonder and delight, contemplation and attention, real play and fruitful work, has been dangerously depleted.

We are not bored, exactly, just as someone eating potato chips is not hungry, exactly. But overconsumption of distraction is just as unsatisfying, and ultimately sickening, as overconsumption of junk food.

They have left me, as the ring left Bilbo, feeling “all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

 

Screens on Purpose

The problem isn’t with our devices themselves –it’s with the way we use them. We simply have to turn off the easy fixes and make media something we use on purpose and rarely rather than aimlessly and frequently.

So when we do sit down in front of a TV screen, it will be for a specific purpose and with a specific hope, not just of entertainment or distraction but of wonder and exploration.

The good news is that the more often we resist the easy solution, the easier the solution will be to find –because our children (and we ourselves) will start to develop capacities to explore and discover that will make them less prone to be bored in the first place.

When we do put on a video or otherwise fire up a screen for a purpose, we’ll follow another principle: never entertain your children with anything you find unsatisfying, just like you shouldn’t feed your children anything you don’t enjoy eating yourself.

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