A contemporary complaint by parents is that their children have too many distractions at study time. Images are conjured of the typical student: exiled to their room, they skim over their assignments; their ears microphoned; their eyes on the lookout for text messages from smart phones and Facebook posts. It becomes a fool’s errand: children thinking they can study adequately in the midst of so many distractions.
For their part, children, when they deign to address adult queries on the subject, are often adamant that study is impossible without the accompanying counter reality created by their devices. This, they argue, is where they live; where they prefer to operate. To suggest, even for study sake, that they exist without the companionship of their smart phone would be akin to demanding that they should labour in an environment without enough air.
The kids have a point. In the main, it has been hard for children of every generation to study alone. Yet parents continue to expect that, without instruction, children will be sufficient company for themselves as they try to make sense of home work that seems often to be unintelligible and, if not unintelligible, then so lacking in interest as to be pointless. As well, it is too often the case that the children who do master the art of individual study are those who are driven to seek in their school books and work a refuge from home environments too insensitive, punitive, neglectful or rejecting to bear.
So, yes, if our children comfort themselves with the manufactured stimuli provided by their favourite version(s) of reality, they do so out of the very natural desire to escape feelings of loneliness and abandonment as well as from their own limitations as thinkers and learners. At least, then, children can bear themselves long enough to get some homework done.
Having graded and commented on thousands of assignments, I have come to see study under current conditions of persistent distraction as a problem. The work it produces is almost always, at best, sloppy; at worst, totally incoherent. Teacher feedback indicating suggestions for improvement is often met with incredulity, the type best articulated in the question: “what do you want from me!?” I cannot think, however, that there is any point in “taking the kiddies’ toys away”, unless they are to be replaced with some palpable instruction/education in the art of getting along productively with oneself. I am also convinced that there are better teachers of independent study than the caustic home environments mentioned above. So, what are they?
Like any good schooling, education in independent study requires good teachers and, here, we have reason for optimism. Initially, at least, parents and family members can be effective in this role. In upcoming entries, I will be writing about positive ways of helping your children with homework. Such help, if it is to be worthy of the name, is often not a matter of you, the parent, explaining or correcting child’s work but simply an expression of your interest (and enjoyment) at being with your child when they study. To that end, you can be most helpful if you let your child know you are there because you want them to show you what they are doing or have to do. Take an interest in what they show you by asking questions that will get them to talk about it. Listen carefully to what they say. Say that you appreciate their effort and, when you say it, mean it.
I’ll also be writing about how it takes an entire family to teach a child to study. But this is something the family can do, only if study time is spent at the dining room or kitchen table as opposed to the bedroom with the door closed. It is in the midst of family bustle, the ordinary comings and goings of family members who, while not on tiptoe, conduct their business in a manner that is respectful of what other family members are doing, that children start to experience study as a way of being in the family’s supportive company. As such, surrounding family activity becomes a catalyst in the weaning of children from their dependence on electronic devices. How so?
Electronic toys condition children to look to iPhone messages or texts as welcome distractions from the onerous effort of concentrating under conditions of loneliness. By contrast, surrounding family activity acts as a comforting and companionable background which swallows up loneliness and with it, the need for distraction. Against the familial background, concentration becomes a natural outcome of hitting the books. Thus, while electronic devices feed the child’s desire for distraction, family activity becomes the distraction which liberates the child from a need for distraction and renders them self-sufficient to the task of concentrating on their studies. The problem of students whose studying is inhibited by electronic distractions sought out of loneliness will only worsen with each passing school year. It is the responsibility of those generations who can recall a time before the proliferation of myriad electronic distractions to cultivate and encourage self-sufficiency in the present generation of students.