I think I’m more tuned in to the ways of elementary school-age children than most geezers. Before the lockdown, I spent several days each week visiting their classrooms. Most of their teachers were my former students in the Urban Teacher Education Program at the University of Chicago. Almost all the classrooms would be real eye-openers for people who have never borne witness to the amazing things kids can do, say and write when given the opportunity and the guidance of gifted and dedicated teachers. Researchers have documented the increased quality of what students produce when they are exposed to “ambitious instruction.” I’ve heard discussions in a third-grade classroom about a book their teacher has been reading aloud that would put many adult book groups to shame.
It’s all about expectations. If you think kids are capable of a lot, lo and behold, their performance mirrors those expectations. Conversely low expectations depress how students perform. In the long overdue public conversations about the pervasive presence of racism in all our institutions, it’s clear that a largely white teacher population too often approaches children of color with low expectations. At the other end of the spectrum, our local classical music station has a weekly show where young students perform pieces at a staggering level of professional competence. Imagine the high expectations that put these young people in a position to make music so sublime.
All of this is sounding very academic, while what got me headed in this direction is, in fact, very personal. A few weeks ago, my nine-year-old granddaughter Dalia’s parents installed on the tablet she uses an app called Messenger Kids. The app was launched by Facebook in 2017 to provide chatting opportunities for children that are somewhat monitored by parents. It feels like the waiting room for kids whose parents aren’t quite ready to trust them with unmonitored cell phones. In the couple of weeks she’s been on it, Dalia has sent us numerous messages consisting of photos of herself “enhanced” by stickers of small reptiles perched on her head, mustaches and oversize glasses, beards and bulging eyeballs. There are also lists of prepared questions for us to answer: Would you rather live in a tree or in a cave? Would you rather jump high or run fast? Etc. There are also many close-up photos of her beloved dog Peach.
Let me offer some background before I voice my questions and concerns. Dalia is a terrific kid. She’s smart, funny, curious and able to apply herself with great concentration to projects, particularly if they involve art. She did a wonderful job during that period between mid-March and early June that was a nightmare time in many households. She applied herself to the dazzling creative work her parents designed for her and to the more pedestrian work her school district sent. She is blessed with marvelous parents, both of whom have spent a lot of their work lives serving kids at many age levels. We’ve had little occasion to take issue with the way they’ve raised Dalia who has presented challenges we never had to contend with in raising her mother and aunt. She feels things deeply and responds dramatically, qualities that will likely make her a great adult, but which also contain the potential for stormy times ahead. None of what follows is intended as a critique of her parents’ decision to make Messenger Kids available to her.
This has been a trying time for all kids, including Dalia. She’s just come off a summer day camp experience which provided the first contact she’s had with other kids in many months. One of the benefits of the app was the opportunity to chat with some of the new friends she made at camp. She had done a bit of that with schoolmates on FaceTime during the months of isolation, but Messenger Kids added some bells and whistles to what could be done visually in these exchanges. Almost immediately she also created a chat group called HoffTisch4ever, a mashing together of the family names of her parents. Dalia is very family oriented. She’s particularly attached to both sets of grandparents and to her father’s older brother and to his family. I find that a touching use of the technology.
So, what’s the Issue? It comes down to this. The brains of kids Dalia’s age are ripe for absorbing learning at a level that will never be matched again. How should we be taking advantage of that fertility? Should they be scarfing down books, learning to play instruments, learning foreign languages. Is every hour posting face shots of yourself with a lizard on your head stealing time that could be used more productively? By asking these questions I feel the unfamiliar picture of a Tiger Grandpa taking shape on the screen. If someone were posing these questions to me about their children or grandchildren, I would be quick to remind them that we’re talking about a nine-year-old who deserves the space to be silly, particularly in a time when she and her agemates have had their lives turned upside down. When I asked her mother how Dalia uses the app with her new camp friends, she reports that she has overheard them arguing about what to name the club they have formed. Once that’s settled, they will undoubtedly resume exchanging silly pictures and those ubiquitous emojis. That’s what nine-year-olds do.
And what of great value and import was I doing at Dalia’s age? How many hours I spent on my front stoop listening to the Brooklyn Dodgers breaking my heart yet again or having endless arguments with the other kids on the block on the relative merits of various baseball players or cars or radio shows. I was also playing a lot of sidewalk games, some invented, others inherited, that involved a rubber ball, some chalk and the cracks on the sidewalk. Sadly, that option is not available to kids living in some degree of quarantine. In fact, except for kids still living in densely populated neighborhoods, those options had disappeared long ago.
So, I’ve got to get a grip and invite that Tiger Grandpa in me to relax, learn to enjoy the silliness for what it is, a stop on the way to growing up into a world that will be all too full of the more serious business of life. I know Dalia’s parents have plans for introducing other new learning opportunities that satisfy my Tiger instincts. She’s expressed an interest in voice lessons, a natural outgrowth of the powerful experience of singing in a county-wide children’s chorus and having a father whom she’s observed fulfilling his cantorial duties since she was very young. I just wish for her and for all children the chance to find their passion, something they want to throw themselves into. Those passions won’t be found in time logged on Messenger Kids, which is clearly serving other needs right now.
My friend Devorah Heitner spends her time writing and speaking about kids’ use of social media. You can check her out at www.raisingdigitalnatives.com. When I queried her about Messenger Kids, she reminded me that “Nothing is normal” at the moment, so people are making allowances for their kids that they might not consider in more normal times. So, I’m going to give my Tiger some time off and, for the sake of modeling, turn to some growth-oriented mind-expanding activities. Are the Cubs playing today?