Parenting: newborns to toddlers

Why Hong Kong’s coding classes and tutorials will not nurture the next Steve Jobs, but engaged parenting might

Robert Badal says contrary to the myth of the ‘digital native’, today’s children, like their predecessors, learn best from interactions with their parents

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 8:12pm

Hong Kong parents are educational spending champions. This is manifested in “delegated parenting”: sending children to tuition schools. Family time that involves shared learning experiences is rare, arguably, due to long working hours. However, they spend more than anyone else in the world, so this argument seems circular.

Hong Kong’s tuition school spending is not guided by knowledge about education or parenting, only trendy marketing: last year, English drama, this year, coding classes

The latter is a mystery to me, given that Hong Kong’s information technology workers are facing lay-offs. I get constant emails offering “Lowest Price!” on coding. Recently I needed some HTML work done. I sent off replies to see what the “lowest price” would be. What was it? Free! Three of the desperate firms offered to do it gratis to “show me what they could do”. 

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Part of the coding school pitch is the ever-present “digital native” narrative, that the post-80s birth generation possesses some mental gift. Child psychologist Dr Richard Freed’s book Wired Child: Reclaiming Childhood in a Digital Age, reveals the term was actually coined by video game developer Marc Prensky as part of the industry’s “enthusiasm for technology” marketing strategy – with zero factual basis. 

Becoming a ‘digital native’ is easy because the content and devices are addictive by design: grandmas game, texting, and sharing obsessively, too

“The younger generation uses technology in the same ways as older people – and is no better at multitasking,” leads an editorial entitled “The Digital Native is a Myth” in the science journal Nature in July 2017. A core tenet of the “digital native” mythology is that growing up amid omnipresent digital content imparts special ability to “multitask”. Research proves this to be nonsense. In the October 2017 edition of  Teaching and Teacher Education , Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere, at the Netherlands Open University, say that cognitive multitasking does not exist. What happens is “task switching”, a break in concentration – a distraction – which hinders learning.

People born post-80s had electronic input as their childhood norm, whereas older folks got it later, but they really aren’t different. Human cognition can’t change in 10 years. We process information by converting short-term learning to long term. Interrupting that process simply produces poorer thinking. Becoming a “digital native” is easy because the content and devices are addictive by design: grandmas game, texting, and sharing obsessively, too. 

“Digital natives” are distinguished not by their abilities but by their deficits. 

Less is more when it comes to early childhood education

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Study after study, and my own experience, overwhelmingly show that children with heavy screen time have reduced focus and attention, comprehension, vocabularies, patience and empathy for others, and increased anxiety and issues such as ADHD

The other touted coding-class benefit is that it ‘teaches teamwork’. But is that how a child’s social skills are formed, in tuition schools?

Child psychiatrist Dr Victoria L. Dunckley, author of Reset Your Child's Brain, has treated over 500 children with special needs, issues and diagnosed conditions, with an “electronic fast” – a one-month, family-based, screen-time abstention – and achieved remarkable, documented successes. 

Citing the measurable negative neurological and behavioural effects of excessive screen time, she points out how “tech enthusiasm” marketing makes us feel “we can’t possibly survive” without it. Like the tobacco industry, children are targeted and health concerns dismissed with relentless marketing. Unquestioned, because we don’t want to believe it’s harmful. 

The other touted coding-class benefit is that it “teaches teamwork”. But is that how a child’s social skills are formed, in tuition schools? 

No. Children are shaped by their parents, as evinced by the person often held up as the example parents dream their child could become, Steve Jobs. 

The ‘father of the iPod’ says tech addiction would worry Steve Jobs

Job’s biography, by Walter Isaacson, relates how the Apple founder’s father spent time with him doing projects, repairing cars and building household things, teaching him to take care of tools, share workbench space and work together. “When he built our fence, he gave me a hammer so I could work with him … I wasn’t that into fixing cars, but I was eager to hang out with my dad,” Jobs said. 

The Apple founder’s father spent time with him doing projects, repairing cars and building household things

His dad taught him more than how to fix cars: he taught him teamwork – and parenting. When Isaacson was spending time with the adult Steve Jobs and his family, he noted that “no one pulled out an iPad”. Jobs was careful to limit his children’s screen time. 

Can this work in Hong Kong? That’s challenging. Hong Kong parents rarely build anything with their children. When I try to convince them to share in their children’s learning experiences, some reply they are “too tired” after work. 

Some do understand that they must try. These I involve in their child’s learning activities, such as reading aloud together. 

Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal’s “Work & Family” columnist, commented in a July 12, 2016 video “How Can Parents Teach Teamwork?” that shared family pursuits must be planned. These will engender healthy child development. 

Switch off the smartphones, to save your children from tech addiction

Hong Kong children become experts at fooling their absent parents (and at Tik Tok posting), rather than developing socially and cognitively. I push students to get interested in creative projects that they commit to and finish. Some get it, some don’t. 

 A team leader for one of Hong Kong’s biggest banks, currently writing a memo about work integrity and how some employees consistently avoid doing anything extra, agreed it was something they had learned as children. When a child lacks parental guidance, is crippled by excess screen time and instead of holidays gets endless classes, the main skills he or she learns are avoidance and self-preservation. Hong Kong parents need to stop delegating parenting and spend more time sharing positive activities with their children.

Robert Badal is on Facebook at Ba Lao Shi Perfect English