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 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 MSNBC.com 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?


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


Letter to Yourself at 17

January 25, 2008

I had the radio on the other day when Brad Paisley’s new song “Letter to Me” came on and as I listened to the song I contemplated the merits of a letter like Brad’s.

For those of you not familiar with the song, Brad contemplates what he would say to his 17-year-old self if he could send a letter back in time.

Can you imagine how your life might have changed if your youthful self could benefit from the knowledge and experience the older, wiser you has?

So I’ve got a couple questions for you.

  1. If you could send a letter back in time to yourself, would you?  Why or why not?  And what age would you send it to?
  2. Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your teenage self?  Advice, warnings, reminders, encouragement, something else?
  3. Do you think that if you gave yourself advice that changed a regret that it might change other circumstances and a good thing in your life might not then happen?

For instance, I was married and divorced in college.  Not exactly the proudest moment of my youth, but going through the experience made me a stronger person.  What if by preventing that marriage, I actually remained the shy, timid person I was before the divorce?  And would I have still eventually met my husband now?

I’m not actually sure if I would send myself a letter if it was possible.  But if I did, 17 or 18 would be a good age.

I was a very determined girl who was focused on the future and always doing the “right” thing, so I would have told myself to not be in a hurry to grow up.  I would have told myself that I should take time to enjoy life and live a little.

And no I wouldn’t have warned myself about my first marriage.  Despite the downsides of the divorce, there were a lot of things I gained and learned from that experience.  I think it not only helped me grow as a person, but it also prepared me to meet and appreciate my husband and be in a healthy relationship.  Sometimes the benefits of going through a painful experience far out weigh the pain in the end.


The Challenges of ‘Growing Up Online’

January 23, 2008

I tuned into the PBS documentary “Growing Up Online” last night on Frontline for two reasons.  As a member of Generation X, I’m just on the outskirts of this technologically suave generation and am striving to keep up with them.  And as a mother of toddlers, I will be faced with raising children smack in the middle of this generation.

When the Internet came out and everyone wanted to regulate it, I remember thinking why?  It’s a form a free speech.  Let people say what they want and if I don’t want to hear it, I won’t visit their site.

But now the thought of my twins venturing online has me freaking out.  How can I ensure their safety?  How can I control/monitor what they see and do?  How can I prevent them from making stupid mistakes that become a permanent part of the World Wide Web for all to see and mock?

But I think the show described it best when it talked about the Internet as a social network for kids.  When I was a kid, we hung out at the mall or the rec center.  My parents hung out at the malt shop (I’m guessing).  For this generation, the hang out is electronic.

According to the documentary, kids go online to express them, to complain about parents and to communicate with each other.  All the things I did at my favorite hang out.

And just like my parents had concerned about me at the mall, I’ll have concerns about my children on the Internet.  But instead of blowing these fears out of proportion, parents need to adjust with the times to appropriately address the issues.

And to do so, parents need to understand the terminology and the reason for their child’s interest in the Internet.

The documentary showed some teenage girls defining “friends.”  They would have contests to see who had the most friends, numbering in the thousands, on MySpace.  But according to these girls, they understood that they only “really knew” about 200 of these so-called friends and only about 50 of them were “best friends.”

I don’t know about you, but growing up I had one, maybe two, best friends.  And I’m not sure that I’ve ever really known 200 people. 

In addition, according to the show, these kids are more comfortable being more public with their lives.  Since we live in a world where anyone’s private live could end up on the nightly news and the escapades of the latest pop princess is headline material, it’s no surprise to me that today’s kids aren’t shying away from the spotlight.

The times have changed since I was a kid and the Internet is new territory for us all. 

The documentary called the Internet “the new wild West,” adding that no one is really in charge. 

Therefore we as parents, family members, friends and teachers of today’s youth need to help guide them through this new terrain.

I think that stay-at-home-mom Evan Skinner expressed my fears the best when she said that she wasn’t afraid that the Internet would make her kids bad, but that her good kids would make a bad decision on the Internet and would have to pay for it permanently.

Kids don’t realize the impact of their decisions, the consequences of their actions and the overall permanence of the Internet.

If as a teen I had decided to flash a group of friends, once the act was over it was done.  There was no digital photography, no camera phones and no YouTube.  I could do something stupid and the knowledge of my act was limited to who was ever in proximity of me and lasted only until somebody else did the next stupid stunt.

Today, if a teenage girl flashes a group of friends, photos and YouTube videos are on the net before she can pull her shirt down.  And while it might seem like fun and games when she’s 16, how will she feel when that photo or video is still being viewed when she’s trying to run for Congress 10 years later?  Will she still be happy when her future husband stumbles across her hijinks on the Internet?  Or her own children?

Once it’s on the Internet there is no turning back.

Aside from this big lesson, the other issues facing teens and their parents on the Internet are the same issues that have faced them in the past, but just with a twist.

Cheating

The Internet offers another way for students to take the easy road when doing homework.  While Spark Notes might be the latest craze among those behind in their literature class, the concept is not new.  We had Cliff Notes when I was in school.

But schools are adapting and adjusting to the newest way to cheat.  According to the documentary, some teachers are requiring writing assignments be done in class to ensure its original work.  Others accept assignments through turnitin.com, a site that scans for plagiarism

Image Issues

The documentary gave several examples of teens who escaped the feeling of not fitting in by recreating themselves with online alter egos.

One father who had made his daughter delete her online site later let her put it back up after he discovered that she created that online identity because it’s where she felt comfortable.  I’m not sure I agreed with his decision entirely, but I do support the idea that we need to talk to our kids to find out why they are doing it.

The Internet also lets some teens bond with others in support of an addiction.  The example given was a girl battling anorexia.  Rather than finding help she dove deeper into the obsession getting encouragement and tips from other pro-anas.

My mother recently told me about a teen who was gambling big money on ball games through the Internet.

Bullying

The last story of the documentary was the sad story of Ryan Halligan.  Ryan was not only a victim of school yard bullying, but of cyber bullying.  Other kids would start online rumors about his sexuality.  Some mocked and threatened him online.  One girl flirted with him and then told him it was all a big joke.

I can’t even imagine how psychologically defeating that had to be, especially for tween caught in that awkward age of adolescence.

But the bullying isn’t the sadist part of the story.  Without his parents’ knowledge, Ryan began an online friendship with another boy where they talked about suicide.  He visited “how to” sites and one site that let you plug in your personality traits and it told you the best way to kill yourself.

This story was the scariest of all.  But his parents openly admitted and obviously regretted that they didn’t know, or try to know, what he was doing online.

I think that’s the best thing a parent can do – get involved in a child’s Internet experience and teach them how to use it responsibly.  Skinner suggested putting the computer out in the open so that you could monitor their use.

Predators

According to the survey done for this show, one is seven kids reported being sexually solicited online.  But most of these were discounted as teenage boys saying “hey baby” as opposed to a real predator.

The show also said that most kids that got email messages from people they didn’t know just deleted them.

It reported that most online meetings were when the kids went looking for them, adding that if a child is engaging in risky behavior online, they are probably engaging in even riskier behavior offline.

Kids don’t see the internet as something separate they go to.  Instead it’s just a continuation of their life, according to the documentary.

The show called the Internet “the greatest generation gap since the advent of rock ‘n roll.”

And as parents, teachers, friends and families it is our responsibility to bridge that gap.

What ways do you suggest doing so?

You can watch “Growing up Online” at PBS.com.