Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Why You Should NOT Let Alexa Read Your Child A Bedtime Story

“Alexa, read my child a bedtime story.”

Last week I heard a radio ad gushing about the option to have Amazon’s Alexa read children bedtime stories.  In the brief ad, the presumably exhausted mother is relieved to let Alexa take over this onerous duty so that she, the parent, can just relax.

Please don’t let Alexa read your child bedtime stories.

There’s no disputing the advantages of reading aloud to children.  Studies show that read-aloud sessions improve cognitive development, build language skills and vocabulary, increase concentration, and cultivate imagination and creativity.  Brain scans of young children listening to stories show vigorous brain activity, and scientists believe these reading sessions improve neuroconnectivity.  Certainly any parent who wants to improve their child’s chances for academic success should read to their offspring early and often.

But there’s more to those read-aloud sessions than pure academics.  Holding a baby or toddler on your lap while you read fulfills that essential human need for physical contact, and even older children may snuggle next to Mom or Dad while hearing a story.  Parents may subtly teach reading and language skills as a child “listens and looks” at books with both pictures and text, but also often interact in ways that promote bonding.  “Live” parent readings allow pauses for questions and discussion that further enhance understanding of the story as well as parent-child communication.  These are the elements of read-aloud time that Alexa simply cannot duplicate.

To be fair, using Alexa to call up a professionally narrated audio book might be an option for older children and adults. While the thought of Alexa reading Goodnight Moon in her cold electronic voice sounds like something from dystopian sci-fiction, recordings featuring talented narrators can enhance a more complex story.  Our family has listened to at least 50 such audiobooks on road trips, and many are beyond delightful.  (If you’ve not heard Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol read by his great-great grandson, you’ve missed a spectacular treat.)  But for your younger children, nothing beats a live human reader and real human interactions.

As a family, some of our happiest shared memories include reading together.  Yes, sometimes we were tired out at the end of the day, and yes, on occasion we may have hidden our copy of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things that Go so as to maintain our sanity.  But the benefits were well worth the effort; our kids learned to read at an early age, they still read often, and both are academically successful.

So at bedtime, turn off the electronics, snuggle with your little ones, and share a good story.  You’ll be building little brains, but more importantly, you’ll be creating memories and strengthening relationships that will long outlast Alexa.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Gut Instincts

As I shook his hand, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end and a peculiar vibration ran down my spine.
He was a respected member of the community: an elected school board trustee who had served intermittently for eight years.  He was visiting various civic groups to promote a school bond.  The wife of a city council member walked him through the crowded room and introduced him to an array of political activists where he seemed well-received.  In my growing sense of unease, I remarked to another woman, “There’s something creepy about that guy.”  She expressed surprise and said that he seemed nice enough.
A month or so later, the same man was arrested and charged with prostitution and trading legal services for sex.  He resigned from the school board in disgrace and soon disappeared from the public eye.
So what was it that made me dislike him so much at that first meeting?  Gut instinct?  Intuition?
Although an imperfect metric, the kinds of nonverbal cues we receive during a face-to-face meeting often can tell us much more than a resume or a campaign mailer.
According to some scientists, what we call intuition or gut instinct, can be explained by the presence of non-verbal clues.  We often subconsciously read body language, tone of voice, and even possibly biochemical odors that warn us about a situation or person.
Not everyone experiences these strong gut feelings, and studies indicate that women are more likely than men to report intuitive events.  Also, some researchers note that while intuition can alert us to danger, certain experiences can suppress our intuitive abilities.
“A childhood hijacked by abusive or neglectful parents or guardians can create excessive self-doubt, irrational fear, or a clouded thought process, making it difficult to filter traumatic past experiences from actual gut intuition. Overwhelming stimuli can also make it difficult for a person to see the decision in front of them with clarity.”*
Unfortunately, some activists would like to intentionally suppress any reliance on intuition or gut instinct.  When an employment recruiter on a jobs-oriented social media site recently posted about how much she learns from in-person meetings with potential clients, a few discussion participants took issue with her for what they interpreted as bias, and one man wrote, “Intuition is driven by confirmation bias and isn’t real…”  (emphasis added.)
Some comments in the ensuing thread made valid points; nervousness in an interview could cause “quirky” behavior that does not necessarily predict success or failure in certain jobs.  Another observed that sometimes our gut instincts or first impressions can be wrong, and anyone responsible for hiring should rely heavily on hard data like resumes and references.  Of course a good human resource manager would have already screened potential candidates via hard data prior to any face-to face meeting.  And all employers should strenuously reject any tendencies towards racial or gender bias in hiring decisions.
Although an over-reliance on gut instinct can be problematic, complete rejection of intuition is a dangerous attitude.  In addition to scientific evidence regarding various non-verbal cues, the great metaphysical traditions refer to the power of “discernment,” an ability to differentiate between good and evil on a spiritual level.  Whether materially or metaphysically based, ignoring gut instincts could be detrimental to our safety, health, and well-being. So when evaluating another person either for hire or any other relationship where trust is paramount, our intuitive senses can be a useful tool in our decision-making toolbox.
While admittedly I have a preference for hard data and statistics, my experience with the aforementioned school board trustee taught me that sometimes our intuition has an urgent message that would be foolhardy to ignore.

*Olson, S. (2015, March 12). Your Gut Feeling Is Way More Than Just A Feeling: The Science Of Intuition. Retrieved March 15, 2018, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/your-gut-feeling-way-more-just-feeling-science-intuition-325338

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Are Your Kids too Fragile?

At a recent presentation in Northwest Harris County, marriage and family therapist Keith McCurdy shared some stunning statistics:  while in 1986 the ratio of children taking prescribed psychotropic medications was 1 in 400, by 2000 the figure had risen to 1 in 40, and by 2013 it was 1 in 13.  McCurdy suggested new figures coming out this year will indicate that the ratio is now about 1 in 8. 
But McCurdy does not advocate abruptly removing these medications from the population, and notes that there are legitimate applications.  Instead, he suggests that the rise is a symptom of other societal issues, including the problem of raising our children to be “fragile.”

As the mental health field has progressed from Freudian-ism, to Behaviorism, and most recently to an emphasis on cultivating self-esteem, according to McCurdy our family dynamics have evolved as well.  Over the last 50 years family structure has transformed from recognizing parents as authorities, to a kind of loose ‘democracy,’ to a new ‘therapeutic’ model, in which the most important aspect of parenting is to protect the emotional state of the children.

The problem with emphasizing emotions is that emotions do not necessarily reflect reality.  “Emotions are not a reliable means for discovering truth,” said McCurdy.  He pointed out that while we might experience fear when approached in a dark alley, on awakening from a nightmare, or during a scary movie, our fear reflects actual danger in only one of those situations. 

Modern Parents Over-Provide and Under-Require
The remedy for fragility McCurdy recommends is a multi-faceted effort to raise sturdy children.  While in the past most American children contributed to the running of a household, farm, or other family business, parents now tend to “over-provide and under-require.”  Consequently, children and teens do not see themselves as capable and valued contributors to the household.  Their self-esteem may have been artificially stoked by participation trophies and lavish praise, but they lack the self-confidence that comes from actual contributions and accomplishments.
McCurdy offered parents four guidelines for raising sturdy kids:

Establish boundaries by clearly communicating what your family does and does not do.  For example, “We do eat dinner together without the television on,” or “We do not allow phones or electronic devices at meals.”  When formulating family culture rules, McCurdy reminded parents that nothing in life is actually neutral.

Do Less and Require More.  McCurdy noted that adults who had done chores as children reported the highest ratings of life satisfaction as adults.  There is nothing you do to maintain your home that your teenage children cannot also do, and hiring maid or lawn services is depriving your children of opportunities to learn and grow into sturdy adults. 
Connect Cause and Effect.  While you cannot force your child to complete homework, you can allow the consequences of their choices to play out.  Once homework is done, children should then provide ‘service to the home,’ and then they are free to enjoy other activities such as playing outside or with toys. But…

Limit Technology.  Some sources report that modern children have as much as 7 hours a day of “screen-time” and most pediatricians recommend limiting technology use to 1-2 hours per day.  McCurdy suggests further limits and video games are completely off limits in his home.  He notes that modern games, as well as smart phones, stimulate the brain in the “cocaine model,” and promote addiction.  Furthermore, first-person-player games may increase our attentiveness to random stimulus, but dramatically reduce our ability to stay on task in the absence of game-like stimulation.
McCurdy assured parents of teens that it is never too late to implement changes.  If your kids already own gaming systems, he suggested setting a moratorium on any new systems or games.  For all kids, parents should set expectations for children centered on showing respect, and fulfilling responsibilities related to home and school.  When those are met, kids may enjoy in-home freedom and privileges (sans technology hopefully,) and then expand to reasonable out-of-home freedom & privileges. 
Rather than protecting our children from unpleasant emotions and misguided attempts to build self-esteem, McCurdy asserts our target should be mature, functional adults, who are sturdy enough to withstand the realities of life. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Education and the "Inwardly Compelling"

One of the most memorable ideas I encountered while reading Rod Dreher’sThe Benedict Option” comes from sociologist Philip Rieff:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling…

I immediately recognized the concept as something I have been struggling to articulate for some time regarding most K-12 education.  With the rise of self-destructive behavior and suicide rates among youth, the usual response is for some individual or group to create a new educational program promoting better outcomes.  There seems to be an endless supply of new anti-bullying or anti-substance abuse campaigns, and the debate rages about the best ways to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.  (Teach “abstinence” or “everything you never imagined” about sex?) 
But in most of these programs, I see little that is “inwardly compelling,” and often much that is contradictory to what is taught elsewhere in the same school.  If a child is taught that humans are merely carbon-based life forms that accidentally came into being, what is the compelling reason to “be nice” to the other accidental beings?  If a student is taught that humans are merely animals and that sexual acts are just bodily functions, what does it matter if another human is a forced participant? 
Although a number of philosophers and thinkers have attempted to create viable “ethical” systems for materialists, (e.g. Camus,) for most people such systems fail to provide any “inwardly compelling” motivations.  That is not to say that moral systems based on transcendent realities yield perfect results (and adherents do not expect them to do so,) but the spiritual aspect seems to create more inwardly compelling reasons than “be nice because the teacher said so.” 

As such, most of the efforts I’ve seen to end bullying, or reduce consequences of promiscuity, or even just promote civil discourse, are merely band aids on flesh wounds; the wounds themselves are much deeper.  And much more deadly.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Remembering Jerrell Shofner and the Study of History

Flipping through the latest issue of my University of Central Florida alum magazine, I was surprised to see a small notice that Jerrell Shofner had died.  When a UCF history major back in the early 1990’s, I had thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Shoffner’s Florida History class.  He was one of those professors who presented history with contagious enthusiasm, like a master storyteller.  In addition to teaching at UCF, Shofner published 16 books and served as president of the Florida Historical Society.  He was gracious and polite in the classroom, but a demanding instructor, and I know many students found his class challenging.  Shofner’s obituary in the Orlando Sentinel includes this quote from a former colleague, “He did not suffer fools lightly.”  True, but he also recognized and encouraged sincere effort.  Although he often returned essay exams with stern lectures lamenting some of the more dismal results, one day as he handed me my exam he smiled and said, “I so enjoy reading what you write!” It was an encouragement I needed and cherished.

I loved studying History at UCF and attended graduate school on scholarship in another state.  Sadly, my graduate school experience was not a happy one and I left after one year.  Although there are a multitude of reasons I abandoned my studies, one is that I found a much less compelling approach to history in my new environment.  Trying to interpret everything that ever happened anywhere and at any time in terms of class warfare is not only tedious, but a denial of the nature of humanity.  I learned that many modern historians have discarded the “story” element in favor of a dry, materialist, and cynical science.  What’s compelling about that?  

Dr. Shofner, along with instructors like Thomas Greenhaw, John Evans, and E. B. Fetscher, made studying history at UCF a great experience, and I remember those years with fondness.  I did not have knowledge of their personal beliefs, but my memory is that they presented history as a compelling story: neither overly heroic nor overly dismal, but one that reflects the complexity of what it means to be human.  For this I am ever grateful.  

R.I.P. Jerrell Shofner, and thanks for sharing your love of history with so many.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Holly Hansen Blogs

Political blogging at