The crackling fire warmed our outsides as the hot chocolate warmed our insides. We were sprawled out on the couches, our hearts as warm as our bodies, as Sally read aloud Just David, a wonderful novel by the author of Pollyanna. As I observed the peaceful attentiveness of my children, I was struck by how intensely personal reading aloud is. Everyone, child and adult alike, was drawn together into the world of the story and shared the experience. There was a palpable peacefulness that we all sensed and savored. It all felt "right."
After the reading time, one of the boys asked if he could "play the computer." He spent the next 30 minutes focused on the screen in front of him, entering alone into an imaginary world of Civil War generals and battles. Occasionally, he would get frustrated at the machine and scold it as though it were a person, but otherwise he was pretty quiet. I was struck, in contrast, by how intensely impersonal his experience was. No shared experience, no interaction with real people, no warm fuzzies. Though there was quietness, it was only physical silence, not the quiet of spiritual peace. It felt, well, kind of cold.
I am not a cyber-bashing traditionalist. Far from it, since we have several of the digital doo-dads in our home, not to mention the several in our office. But I am not ready to put our computers next to our books on the bookshelf. On my hierarchy of educational resources for children, computers are way below good books. Let me share a few thoughts to try to unearth my concerns about the computer relative to childhood and home education.
Books are endorsed by God. I don't want to spiritualize this issue, but there is a sound biblical basis for the supremacy of real books in God's order of things. It would appear to me that God has hard-wired us from eternity past to respond to books. We learn and grow from all books because he designed us to learn and grow from his book, the Bible. I want my children to value books above all things digital because God values books enough to preserve his word in the holy "writings" (hagia graphe). It is not just a convenient metaphor that in the eternal heavens there will always be the Lamb's "Book" of Life. I don't think any dynamic equivalence translation would ever yield a "Lamb's Multimedia CD of Life." That Book of Life is, and always will be a real, physical book, with real pages, with the names of God's elect "written" on them for eternity.
Books are real. There simply is no way to digitally replicate the experience of reading a book. Who will want to snuggle up with a good digital reading device and a cup of hot tea? Well, maybe all those kids raised on Gameboys. Nonetheless, I want my children to be "book lovers" because books sharpen the lines of reality that computers tend to dull. Flashing, flickering images on a screen cannot replace the simple, tangible joy of turning pages. Frankly, I believe very soon computers will become the servant of books. I envision within a decade an inexpensive book printer for the home that will download from the Internet and print on demand a fully-bound book with full-color cover. Internet libraries, CDs and digital reading devices may have other uses, but they will never replace real books. Books will last for generations, and they don't have to be plugged in; computer code is outdated within a few years. I want to leave my children a library of real books, not a box of CDs.
Books are personal. No matter how "interactive" computers may become, the term "personal" computer is a misnomer. Sitting at a screen and "interacting" with electronic code is actually de-personalizing, especially for a child. Relying on a computer for your child's learning is like relying on a Nintendo for his playing. In contrast, reading a book together, or talking about one, is the kind of personal, interactive experience I want my children to remember from their childhood. I strongly believe that the ideal childhood education is one rich in books and reading, filled with personal interaction with loving parents.
Having said all that, I do believe there are some legitimate uses for computers in childhood learning. However, the right attitude is imperative. I have to make a conscious decision to resist buying into the hype of the information age gurus and software educational specialists about "better learning through software," or the "computer literacy crisis," or "the challenge of giving every child in America access to the Internet," ad infinitum. I have a responsibility to use the computer wisely in my children's lives. Here's what I think.
It's a tool, not a toy. It's too easy for the computer to become a sophisticated game box to entertain my children. That's why they ask if they can "play the computer." The kind of software we buy, how we use it, and how we let the children use it will determine whether they see it as a tool for productivity, creativity and communication, or as a toy for entertainment. It is my responsibility as a parent to monitor the monitor.
Focus on usefulness, not appeal. A program for arithmetic drill and review can be a useful tool for learning. However, if it is more like a cartoon with numbers in it, it subtly tells my children that learning is a subset of entertainment (i.e., "I can't learn if it's not fun!"). There is no reliable research to support the notion that "edutainment" software is better for learning than less commercially appealing programs, or than the old book-based methods. It is my responsibility to make sure that a program is serving my educational goals, not the other way around.
Do what it's good at. The computer is exceptionally good in some areas, but easily and quickly becomes a cyber-wasteland of wasted time. It's a communications tool, so I want my children to use it to express themselves verbally and visually, whether on screen, online, or on paper. It's a productivity tool, so I want my children to be comfortable with word processing, page layout and other basic computing skills they will use as adults. It's an information manager, so I want them to know how to manage, manipulate, and find information they need, whether in a database, on CDs, or on the Internet. It is my responsibility to limit the potential for wasted time by maximizing time spent on "real" computing tasks.
Computers generate a lot of warmth, but it is only a physical warmth that quickly dissipates when the thing is turned off, leaving only impersonal memories of images that exist only electronically. Books also generate a lot of warmth, but it is an emotional warmth that lasts for a lifetime. A good book read aloud leaves memories of a shared experience, parental love and involvement, and family closeness. These are not imaginary images, but real memories that live in the heart and mind.
Love books . . . use computers.