- Challenges of entertaining children
- Solutions including reading, recreation and learning new skills
One of the most interesting phenomena of our world is that every type of lifestyle has its own major challenges. Many people living outside Australia face problems like poverty, starvation, epidemics of disease and war. We live in an affluent society largely free from these challenges. However, affluence brings with it its own, different, challenges.
From a medical perspective, affluent societies are afflicted with a different set of diseases than those plaguing the poorer societies. The advances in medicine have succeeded in dramatically reducing death from infective causes (which are the biggest killers worldwide) but have been less successful in treating a different type of disease that has emerged in affluent societies. Auto-immune and allergic disease (such as Multiple Sclerosis and Asthma), certain types of cancers and of course obesity and ischemic heart disease generally have higher rates in affluent countries. In many instances, these diseases are a by-product of an affluent lifestyle. For example, one of the theories for the development of an over-sensitive immune system is that children are growing up in environments that are ‘too clean’ and thus not being exposed to enough organisms to develop their immune system. A more obvious example is obesity, a direct result of over-eating and a sedentary lifestyle, both hallmarks of affluence.
The above phenomenon also exists when it comes to problem relating to the psychology of a society. An affluent society develops its own set of psychological problems, both collectively and also in individuals reflecting the environment around them. Clinical depression is on the rise (and is alarmingly high) in affluent societies such as Australia and the rate of illicit drug-related disease is also rising. This includes the high prevalence of alcohol-related disease.
These are the more obvious physical and psychological problems faced by our society, however are the subtler problems often hidden beneath the veils of affluence and technology. One phenomenon afflicting our children is more often called ‘boredom’. As parents become busier and busier in a society that eats up time, children spend more and more time alone. They become ‘bored’ and expect to be entertained.
Parents, either out of guilt or compassion, try to provide their children with solutions to boredom. Unfortunately, many of these solutions are harmful.
The internet, with its now endless avenues of time-wasting such as ‘Facebook’, ‘Twitter’, ‘WhatsApp” etc…keeps our children entertained in the emptiest manner. They spend hours on the computer having archive little of substantive value. Unfortunately, the need to ‘fill the time’ or ‘kill time’ brings them back again and again. With the internet comes exposure to inappropriate music, inappropriate images and so on, all a poison to the psyche of the young, developing mind.
It is rare in this day and age find a child who gives full attention to homework. Most children open their homework book or file in front of them and then open ‘MSN’, ‘facebook’, play some music and then attempt to begin their homework while all this is going on around them. This problem extends even to university students. The potential for distraction is so much greater, and so the act of focusing attention, which requires great discipline sometimes, becomes even more difficult, and most children simply give up. This affects their learning abilities and often leads to poorer academic results. Of course, this form of entertainment- added to gaming consoles- encourages a sedentary lifestyle with less exposure to the natural environment, leading to many of the above physical problems discussed already.
Furthermore, in such an environment, children expect and demand to be entertained. This has reached the extent that educators feel they must compete with television and the internet for the attention of these children, and the only way to do this is to entertain, entertain, entertain. Of course, life is not so easy, and usually we must endure some hardship before gaining valuable things such as knowledge or a new life skill.
It is this very principle that is being eroded by the media-controlled environment around us today. We all know, through experience and intuition, that to attain something of good quality, we need significant time or effort or both. However, the society we live in today gives people the false promise of being able to reach something of good quality without time or effort. A child or teenager, when distracted by so many things, will almost always choose the quick pleasure of these empty forms of entertainment over the long-term pleasure of achievement and self-improvement which requires some initial hardship. The least that can be said is that such an environment offers something of poor quality that has been cheaply decorated and this distracts people from their eventual goal of attaining a life that is of truly good quality-something we call happiness- rather than a life based on the weak foundations of one quick pleasure after another.
In this second part, we hope to discuss some of the possible solutions that have been suggested in order to counteract the effects of this entertainment technology and to help children grow in a healthier environment.
Sports & recreational activities
One obvious and important solution is physical activity. Physical activity, in the form of casual exercise (riding a bicycle around the neighborhood), organized team sports (joining the local football team) or a family activity (a family bushwalk) can have many benefits. The first benefit of course is that regularly physical activity decreases the likelihood of obesity and the numerous and dangerous sequelae of obesity. The second benefit is psychological. Physical activity can increase self-confidence, facilitate social interaction and allow children and adolescents to express themselves in a health way. It is the far better alternative to sitting at home in front of the television or the internet, where physical inactivity, idleness and boredom can combine to produce dangerous consequences.
Another important part of the solution is reading books. In the past, before technology developed, children would spend their time reading books as a leisure activity. This has decreased dramatically among children and adolescents today. Reading, even when it is purely a leisure activity, can have great educational and psychological benefits. It improves grammar, writing skills, vocabulary, verbal self-expression and comprehension. There is also evidence that reading improves memory and raises intelligence. While reading, children and adolescents can pick up a variety of skills without ever feeling that they are ‘learning’. Reading is also important because it opens children’s and adolescents’ minds and exposes them to different perspectives on life.
Reading is particularly important for our children, many of whom have learnt English as a second language, or who at least have parents who learnt English as a second language. Unfortunately, the children of the first generation of migrants are often ‘language-less’. They speak the language of their country of origin poorly and also speak English poorly. Whilst they are in some way bilingual, they are at the same time without a language in which they can appreciate literature or communicate complex or deep thought processes. We need to encourage our children to read in either or both the languages that they use to communicate in their everyday life, because this can help them develop skills that may become invaluable in their adult life.
Of course, faced with a choice between reading and television or the internet, the child is unlikely to choose reading. One way around this is to set up a bargaining system, in which the child can earn the right to use ‘entertainment technology’ only if they read a certain amount of a certain book. This relates to the discussion of discipline mentioned in the first part of the article. Children need to understand that good things in life do not come cheap and that something of good quality comes only after effort and time. This strategy of making children earn time that they can use for entertainment purposes will not only bring about a healthy balance between work and play, but will also allow the children to appreciate the free time they have from a much younger age.
Learning new skills
Finally, childhood is a wonderful time to learn. Children, and even adolescents, have time that they will never have as adults. They also have the capability to learn more easily and in a shorter period of time. Therefore, once parents feel children are ready, childhood can be a great time to learn new skills. Children can learn a second (or third language), martial arts, public speaking or any other specific skill or set of skills. There are so many skills and abilities that we as adults wish we had, but which we can no longer make time to learn. Children have a unique opportunity to learn these skills without the constraints of time or other pressures. This does not mean that children will have no free time, all it means is that children will enjoy their free time more if they have to earn it, and if they do not have so much of it that they do not know what to use it for.
Of course, the conditions for parents and educators are usually far from ideal and what has been suggested above may be difficult to implement. However, these are suggestions that are useful to keep in mind, and even implementing them to a small degree can go some way to helping our children grow into healthier, happier adults.