Two years ago, my family was blessed with a baby. With my niece in tow, I had a great deal of exposure to the new world of opportunities that opened up. But observations, a skill I learnt as a journalist, helped me take a deeper look at what the new world had to offer me. One of the very first observations I made was how children today are much more comfortable with technology than people. When the fact sunk in, I could notice it everywhere, toddlers, school-and college-goers alike, were addicted to the ‘smartphone’. In this article, young parents can find a way to incorporate social skills in a fun new way, when gadgetry is taking over the personal touch – quite literally!
Building the foundation
Children, as young as two and three enter their first social world in the form of playschool or a pre-school – a foundation that many parents believe is essential for good education. Mahek Khan, a Kindergarten teacher with Don Bosco School, Nerul, Navi Mumbai, says that’s not all, pre-schools are important when it comes to learning to interact with others the same age, understanding and processing information, learning to express various emotions they experience. She says, social interaction is one of the primary skills they teach children in subtle ways, by teaching them to share toys, wait for their turn for the slide, etc.
Agreeing with Khan is Paramjit Kaur Sethi, who has been teaching kindergarten students in Bombay Scottish School in Mahim for more than two decades now. She says that there is a significant change in the quality of kids over the years. They are sharper and tend to grasp things faster these days and are primarily more tech savvy than any of the previous generations. Moreover, she says, “The importance of a pre-school is in the most important qualities kids are taught – to be expressive, to be outgoing and share their resources. It teaches them some of the essential qualities of being a friend.”
On the other hand, Khan notices that technology in certain ways has made the jobs of teachers easier. “Children are able to grasp and understand rhymes easier these days. However, technology also poses a different set of challenges for teachers, which is to enable the children to relate to, and with each other.
Sethi elaborates, “With ever-busy, working parents, children are often left with nannies and sometimes grandparents, which in turn restricts their circle from a very young age. Add to that the need among parents to have a single child. It often takes many children time to get used to many people around them, and becoming comfortable and a part of the crowd.”
Reconnecting with roots
It is a common sight to see parents be proud of their young ones being able to navigate a smartphone with an ease they never had, in the process forgetting to teach them simple social skills that are important in the long run. Dr. Sameer Parekh, Director of Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Healthcare, explains that overuse of technology can directly impact the child’s overall social and emotional development, as it would be likely to restrict their exposure to the stimuli in the real world, with a greater preoccupation in the virtual world of technology. Further, while some of the programmes could be educational in nature, overdependence and overuse could lead to social alienation and deprivation of the opportunities to interact with peers and significant others, which are vital to understanding the nature of reciprocity and socio-emotional development of the child.
He further explains how over-dependence on technology can make us excessively rely on social networking sites to communicate with others, leading to a greater probability of withdrawing from others around us. He points out, “In fact, there is a growing tendency to spend greater time using forms of social media relative to real-world socialisation. Equipping the youth with the basic life skills is a must to prepare them to deal with the world today. They need to be encouraged to acquire skills related to gender sensitivity, dealing with bullying and aggression management. Furthermore, they must learn to build their assertiveness skills and social skills, in order to be empowered to face the challenges of the world.”
D is for Demands
In one of the interviews I conducted as a journalist, a parent, entrepreneur and fitness expert told me how she dealt with her daughter’s demand for a mobile phone. She recalled how her daughter told her that all her classmates had a mobile. She asked her daughter instead if all her classmates had a private jet to which her daughter said ‘No’. She then explained to her daughter how everyone need not necessarily have everything. Though it might sound like a temporary solution, it definitely is a start.
Closer home, we deal with my two-year-old niece by pairing her with neighbours and their children when she demands a Johnny Johnny video on YouTube. Living in a gated community also comes in handy when we arrange for play dates and let the kids share each other’s toys. Of course, there are disagreements and quarrels over who gets which toy but nevertheless, better than giving into demands for a mobile phone.
That said, it is also necessary to avoid a power struggle and set reasonable limits for the child. Dr. Parekh explains, “Children are likely to compare themselves with their peers, and while you can discourage it to an extent, it is important for you to also make some allowances for the child’s preferences as well. Having a hawk’s eye on your child is not even practically possible, while also not being very comforting for the child. Such a child is more likely to find opportunities to sneak away from your supervision and overindulge in the use of technological devices, thereby worsening the situation.”
Defining the Lakshman rekha
It would be a futile attempt to disconnect from technology completely even for parents – after all, most of our essentials from paying bills to connecting with colleagues, friends and even family, to a certain extent, have turned digital. Instead, there could be ground rules one can introduce at home. Like making technology-free zones at home, a rule that not applies just to the young ones, but also to the parents. “For instance dinner time and the dining table could be a technology free zone,” says Dr. Parekh.
In this case, it is also necessary that parents practise what they preach. Dr. Parekh suggests that we as adults might make rules for the children, but we ourselves are over-indulgent with technology. While work and personal demands might make it seem difficult, it would not be a bad idea to delegate children to remind us to put our mobile phone away while at the dinner table.
Similarly, one could also look at designating certain hours for technology use, let children to use whichever technology – after all they also need to know how gadgets work to fit in with their peers.
Sethi explains how she ensures that a shy child in class is made to sit with a more outgoing one, thereby having them both learn new things, “The shy one learns to be more outgoing, while the outgoing one learns the quality of responsibility,” she adds.
Dr. Parekh, however, explains that in case parents want their children to spend less time in front of television and laptop screens, it is their responsibility to find alternative sources of entertainment for children. And the best time to encourage such options is essential in the early ages.
Lastly, he says that there is a need to encourage media literacy. “Remember, the purpose is not solely to restrict the children’s use of technology, but to educate the children and youth with the ability to critically understand the messages shown by the media, in order to be able to guide them towards right decisions effectively,” he adds.