Should Children’s Books Have a Rating System?

September 27, 2008

A recent article has me wondering if we should be taking a closer look at what we qualify as “children’s books.”

A recent article said that a bookstore in Shanghai is pulling the children’s book “Book of Bunny Suicides:  Little Fluffy Rabbits Who Just Don’t Want to Live Anymore’ after a rash of suicides by children and teens.

I had mixed emotions when I read this article.  In general, I’m against book banning.  Authors should be free to express their opinions.

And I don’t really believe that a normal, healthy kid read this book and then suddenly wanted to commit suicide.  I’m not even sure it even really gives a kid ideas for how to commit suicide since some of these illustrations are unrealistic — head in a DVD player for instance.

But what I am wondering is how this book got classified as a children’s book.  It’s definitely not age appropriate for young kids.

Suicide is a very sensitive subject that kids – and many adults, myself included – don’t entirely understand.  I can understand why there might be a book in the children’s section explaining to a child how to deal with it when a friend, family member or other loved one commits suicide.

But why would a book mocking suicide be considered a children’s book?  Because it has cute little bunnies in it?  If that’s the qualification, then we really need to look at how a book gets classified as a children’s book.

I recently read The Golden Compass.  When I went to buy the book, I found it in the children’s section.  Sure the story deals with the adventure of a little girl, but the book itself is a fantasy that deals with some pretty dark themes. 

While I wouldn’t call the book scary, I did have some very gloomy dreams when I read it.  And I wondered how it would affect a young reader.

After reading this book, I wouldn’t let my child read this book until they were well into their teens.  How did this book get classified in the children’s section?

So my question is do we need to be more diligently in accurately classifying books (i.e just because it had cute little bunnies in it doesn’t mean it’s meant for children) or do we need to take it a step further? Do we need a rating system (like we have for movies, video games, music) for children’s books?


New College Course: Learn to Be a Jedi

September 16, 2008

I’ve always been amazed at the courses available in college.  But even this class surprised me.

The great thing about college is that it gives you a chance to explore.  And I’m thankful that colleges are offering more and more course options for students.  But sometimes it amazing me at what is available.

My husband once took a course in hiking – complete with a lesson in scat.

But I’ve found a new class that tops that and will send sci fi fans running for the college book store with light sabers in hand.

It seems Queens College in Belfast is offering a new course this fall as part of its Open Learning Program – “Feel the Force:  How to Train in the Jedi Way.”  This one-day course is being offered on November 15 and is open to anyone.

Here’s what the course description (page 101) says:

Jedi might not be your religion, but you’re still a fan. Learn the real-life psychological techniques behind Jedi mind-tricks – mindfulness, instinct, serenity, empathy, influence, flow. Examine the larger philosophical issues behind the Star Wars universe – balance, destiny, dualism, fatherhood, fascism and bureaucracy. Discover the academic mythologist who inspired George Lucas’ story.  Battle your dark side fear and aggression. Begin your own heroquest.  Light sabers not provided!

If Star Wars is half as popular in Belfast as it is here in the U.S. then this class will be standing room only. 

But I have to wonder what the final is like.  Do you have to go to a swamp to face your own fear in an obstacle course with a Yoda lookalike proctoring?

What’s the strangest college course you’ve every taken?

New Trend Not About How Much, But What TV Children Watch

September 16, 2008

I have long been a proponent for television.  While the party line has been that it will rot your brain, I have always thought that it could be a useful tool in childhood development when applied correctly.  Finally, the experts have come around to my way of thinking.

The recent New York Times article “Limiting, and Watching, What Children Watch” talks about the vast media smorgasboard available to children today.

Is there any hope for a balanced meal?

Yes, say experts on children and the media, as long as parents teach children to make good choices. Instead of talking only about time limits – the pediatricians’ academy recommends limiting screen time to one to two hours a day – researchers are zeroing in on trouble spots and taking content into account. New guidelines are taking shape: Keep the television and computer out of the child’s bedroom, don’t be afraid to set limits, pay attention to what appears on screen and how different ages respond to it, and encourage children to think critically about what they see.

I couldn’t have said it better. I have long argued it’s not how much TV children watch, but watch they watches and what else they do.

As a big TV addict myself, I’ve never been good at limiting the number of hours my kids watch TV.

Instead I’m a strict about what they watch – educational television.  They spend most of their TV time on shows on Disney Playhouse and Noggin.  

We have lots of discussions and activities around their favorite shows.  If it’s a show with questionable content or a delicate issue (we watch one show about the race riots in the 60s), we watch it together and then talk about the issue. 

Here’s an article I wrote how you can reinforce what these shows teach with additional activities and conversations.  And how these actions also teach your children there is more to their world of interest that what’s on the television.

And finally we balance our TV time with lots of other activities that don’t involve the TV at all like gym class, art class, play dates and field trips.

The same can be said of the Internet.  Don’t be afraid to let your children get on it.  Instead teach the how useful it can be and monitor their usage.  Sites like Disney, PBS and others offer educational games. 

I recently discovered a website called Kids Off the Couch that incorporates television and the Internet with educational activities.

So instead of banning television or the net, use it to your advantage.

Is it Really ADHD or Just Too Much Pressure?

September 15, 2008

I’ve always contented that we, as a society, are too quick to label our kids with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, pump them full of meds and forget about the issue.  I’ve read two articles recently that support my theory.

I’m not saying that ADHD doesn’t really exist or that there are indeed extreme cases in which medications are needed to moderate behavior.

However, I feel that society finds it easier to tack on the ADHD label than to work on a development issue.

The article “Who is to blame for boys struggling at school?” talks about how boys are more often targeted for ADHD.

“According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2003, 14 percent of boys across the nation were identified as having ADHD by the time they reached their sixteenth birthday. And the percentage is continuing to grow.”

It went on further to add.

“Either we are witnessing the largest pandemic in our country since influenza struck in the United States in 1918, or school-age boys are being overidentified and overdiagnosed.”

But if you read the article, the offending behaviors are just typical boy behavior.  C’mon we all did that kind of stuff as a kid.  But because it disrupts the classroom, it must be a medical issue.

Let’s look at why it’s disrupting the classroom.  What are we asking our kids to do in the classroom these days?  The list is getting bigger and bigger by the day.

When I was a kid, kindergarten was more about learning how to behave in school.  We had play time and nap time and we might learn our letters, colors and numbers.

But these days, the pressure is on.  Preschool is now where kids learn the basics – and sometimes even more.  And by kindergarten they are already learning to read.  Some people are even holding their kids out of kindergarten until they are six so they know more going in.

School days are filled with a variety of work and little time to play.  Then the kids come home and have more work to do.  Some schools don’t even allow kids to talk during lunch to keep lunch time to a minimum and get the students back in the classroom.

Kids are kids, they have lots of energy. We must allow them some time to be a kid, to have fun, to goof off.

If they are in school all day and aren’t allowed to talk during lunch, when are they allowed to be themselves? If we don’t give them some time to express themselves and be a kid, they will make their own.

I think it’s unrealistic of a teacher to think (especially with the younger ones) kids are going to sit still and pay attention for 6-8 hours a day. Heck, I know most adults that can’t do that.

It doesn’t mean we should start medicating everyone.

The solution is two-part. Parents need to work with their children on appropriate behavior and offer them an alternative activity during non-school hours to exert some of that energy. Teachers must be willing to teach in a method most conducive to the child rather than what’s easiest for them.

The New York Times article “Training Young Brains to Behave” talks about why kids are so quick to move from one topic to another.  A short-attention span is natural.

“One reason is that an area of the brain that is critical to inhibiting urges, the prefrontal cortex, is still a work in progress.”

It’s not ADHD, it’s a development issue. .

“Some children’s brains adapt quickly, while others’ take time.”

The article goes on further to discuss how much this erratic behavior changed when teachers and parents took time to work with the child on self-control, memory and flexibility.

When this behavior is shaped “it is more strongly associated with school success than I.Q.” 

Imagine that – long-term results without any drugs and all it required was a little effort on the part of parents and teachers.

Finally, the study also said “Although play is often thought frivolous, it may be essential.”

I think as adults we often overlook this very key piece in children’s development. I know for myself, I have to do a mental check to make I’m not overscheduling my kids, that I’m allowing time for them to just play.

What do you think?  Is ADHD overdiagnosed?  Are we putting too much pressure on our youth to succeed?

The Anxiety of the First Day of School

September 10, 2008

My kids started school this week.  Okay, so it was just preschool and they only go for ½ a day two days a week, but for me it was still this big milestone in their lives.

The twins didn’t seem to give the idea of going to school to school a second thought.  But then they have been going to some type of class (gym, art or music) by themselves for more than a year.  And they even went to camp for three hours once a week this summer.

But even so, I got to thinking about the idea of the first day of school.  I remember it being a big point of anxiety for me, but maybe that’s because I grew up a military brat who changed schools quite a bit.  For me, the first day of school each year often meant a new school with new people.  And as a child I was extraordinarily shy.

While I never remember separation anxiety – could be why my kids showed no signs of it – I do remember having butterflies in my stomach and dreading the thought of entering a school where everyone already had their friends established.

But I made it through it.  And apparently my kids did too.  They are lucky in that they got to share this experience with each other.

I remember my first day of school.  I didn’t go to preschool.  My first day was for kindergarten and I had to ride the bus – a really big deal when you are smaller (and younger) than all the other “more experienced” school kids.

I remember standing at the bus stop with my mom waiting for the bus to arrive.  She was telling me how to remember my bus stop so that I could get off in the afternoon.  My bus stop was at the corner of a baseball field.  I was to look for the backstop to know when to get off the bus.

I don’t remember much about that day at school, but I remember the bus ride home.  I sat diligently at the window looking for that backstop.  The idea of missing my bus stop scared me silly.

Then I saw it – the backstop.  I didn’t expect it so soon.  But I got up and got off the bus.  The bus pulled away just as I realized my mom wasn’t there.  Now what do I do.

I’m five.  I’m not allowed to cross a street by myself and here I am at the wrong bus stop.  Who do I go to for help?

While I’m internalizing all this information, the bus has gone on to my correct bus stop a block away.  My mom realized I wasn’t on the bus and realized (I don’t know if another parent or some kids told her) that the previous bus stop also had a baseball field.  And before I know it my mom was there to meet me.

The next day, the parents tied some kind of ribbon to the backstop at my bus stop and I never got off at the wrong bus stop again.

It amazes me that after all these years (really, it hasn’t been that many), that that bus stop tidbit is what I remember about my first day at school.

It wasn’t what outfit I wore or who I met or – God forbid – what I learned that day that stood out.  It was the bus ride.

I wonder what my kids will remember about their first day.  They didn’t ride a bus so that can’t be it.  But I’d love to know what they remember 20 or 30 years from now.

What do you remember from your first day of school?

Schools Paying Students to Learn is a Mistake

March 5, 2008

It’s a sad day when we have to pay our children to learn.  But even more distressing is what they are learning from this experience.

MoneyThe New York Times recently reported on how the school systems in the city are paying kids to do well on each test and exam, with some kids earning as much a $50 per exam.

I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this article.  It’s one thing for parents to reward their kids for doing a good job.  I got a little pocket change on report card day for any As and Bs I brought home.  A little incentive never hurts.

It’s an entirely different thing for the school to bribe students to do their work.  This concept is absurd – on so many levels.

Firstly, the obvious financial impact on the school system must be considered.  We have schools in this country that can’t afford to buy the books and other supplies they need to properly teach our kids, let alone afford to pay students.

I understand that some school districts are better off than others, but surely they can find a better use for the money – more advanced classes, extracurricular programs, or tutors for the students doing poorly.  How about a class in managing finances?  Anything, but bribing the kids.

Secondly, we are setting up a precedent to teach these kids that they don’t have to do anything in life unless there’s something in it for them. 

Learning is fundamental for succeeding in life, in my opinion.  And learning is not something you do just in grade school – it’s a lifelong process.  If children don’t realize the value of learning for the pure fact that knowledge will make their life better, then they will never value learning.

What kind of world would we live in if we all stopped learning unless we were paid to do so?  How will these children deal with other tasks in their life – marriage, parenting – when they find out that they are “paid” to do them?

Next, we aren’t talking about pocket change here.  The article mentioned $50 a test for fourth graders.  What is a fourth grader going to do with 50 plus bucks?  Are they financially savvy enough to handle this kind of money?

The article mentions a school in a low-income district.  While I sure the families in this district can use the extra cash, when did fourth graders become breadwinners?  And who says this money makes it home?  Are we just financing vices – drugs, gambling, gang-related activities – with this extra cash?

It is one thing to reward a student that goes above and beyond, who does something outstanding.  It’s another when that incentive is expected and if everyone gets it all the time.

Give out certificates, the occasional gift card.  Make a big deal out of extraordinary events.  I believe it positive feedback.  But let’s not set up our kids to fail in the future by setting up unrealistic expectations of how the world works.

Photo by [Flickr User]. (License: Creative Commons Attribution)

WVA’s Idea To Teach Gun Training is Schools has Merit

February 1, 2008

Apparently, in an effort to fix a hole in the budget, West Virginia is contemplating teaching gun training in its schools, particularly 7th through 9th grade.

I’m not going to go into how a gun class can fix a budget.  You can read the AP article for that.

Instead I’ll like to comment on why I think that, budget crisis or not, gun training is not a bad idea, especially in a state with a lot of teens that hunt.

If a person decides they are going to handle and fire a gun, then they are going to handle and fire a gun.

Wouldn’t you rather that person knew what they were doing when they did?

How many deaths or injuries are related to people, in particularly kids, handling guns without knowing what they are doing?

You wouldn’t let a teenager drive without some training first.

In my opinion, one of the best forms of gun control is requiring people that want to own guns to go through the proper training before they can own one.  This training can talk about and discourage inappropriate uses of guns.

In fact I think people in a home where there is a gun should take a course in gun safety and learn to use it properly even if they never plan to use the gun.

West Virginia has a lot of hunters. These kids are going to be around guns.  Let’s make sure they understand that it’s not a toy. Let’s face it hunting is a life skill in West Virginia.

My father kept guns in the house when I was growing up. I was taught about gun safety since I could remember.  He could leave that gun on the table and I wouldn’t touch it because I was taught and understood that it was a weapon, not a toy. When he thought I was old enough, he taught me to shoot. I could shoot skeet at 12.

Teaching someone to shoot will not necessarily encourage them to own a gun.  In fact, it might discourage some of them — getting knocked on your ass with a little kickback can do that.

Today, I don’t own a gun. I’m not opposed to them; I just don’t have a need.  But you can be assured that I damn well know how to use one.  And when my kids are old enough, I will make sure that they can too.

I think if they understand what guns are, guns will lose their mystery.

In light of Columbine and other school tragedies, the idea of guns in school bothers some.  On the surface I can see where the idea might be difficult to digest.

But let’s think about it. The guns that are coming into schools and killing kids are coming there illegally from the street or without permission from home.

They are being held by gang members or by mentally unstable or emotionally stressed kids or by kids that have never fired a gun and think that it’s this cool, hip accessory that will get them some cred.

I don’t know how to stop the first two categories, but if a little training will prevent that third group, than it’s worth a shot.

And if a little training in school will help to ensure an increase in the number of adults (because after all that’s who these students will become) who own guns and can safely use them, then I’m for it.

Besides these aren’t mandatory classes.  And then guns will be loaded with blanks or disabled altogether.

Personally, I think it’s about time we start doing something to prevent these accidental deaths by firearms