expiration date

When I first moved to Texas, I met two young girls who were homeschooled by a method that did not feature any books of literature published after 1912.

They lived far off the grid with their parents without phone or TV, the family built a beautiful adobe house from scratch and by hand, and except for their vehicles and wind-and-solar power generation system, they lived a 19th-century lifestyle. The only thing that created the impression that the girls’ schooling had created unique outcomes was their quaint and somewhat formal means of expressing themselves in spoken and written words.

If you are a modernist you may recoil at the thought of restricting a child’s reading curriculum to 19th century works, but I can assure you these girls have grown up to be two of the most intelligent, well-educated, talented, and high-achieving young people I have ever met.

There is no expiration date on sound moral values and wisdom. These things can’t go sour like a carton of milk. Their shelf life is timeless.

I have been giving a great deal of thought to the influence of modern entertainment media on the ways that today’s young people think. I am convinced it will be necessary for young people who come to live at Estrella Vista to check all their personal electronic devices at the door. A kid who is wearing earbuds and listening to music while hiking to a mountaintop would be cut off from the healing and centering influences of the natural rhythms this setting has to offer. (It is a safety factor too: had I been listening to music when I encountered that Mojave in the chicken coop, I would not have heard his warning rattle and would likely be dead right now.)

We need to get kids to slow down their thinking, become more self-reflective, develop longer attention spans, and sharpen their critical thinking skills. Most kids these days are spending five to six hours a day on-screen with television, video games, and computers which are turning them into passive observers. Visual tracking skills, eye-hand coordination, gross motor skills, social skills, motivation, initiative, creativity, and problem solving abilities are all inhibited by these media.

Early last week at its national convention, the American Academy of Pediatrics again warned parents of infants and toddlers that they should limit the time their children spend in front of televisions, computers, self-described educational games, and even grown-up shows playing in the background. The Academy said there is no such thing as an “educational program” for children under age 2, and that leaving the TV on as background noise distracts both children and adults.

Renowned parenting expert John Rosemond calls television watching a “deprivational experience for the young child,” as it robs the child of the opportunity to discover and delight in his or her own potential. Television also compromises the development of cause-and-effect thinking and values development. Violent TV and video games desensitize kids to violence and increase the likelihood of kids emulating observed violence in their behavior. Rosemond says on-screen time literally causes brain damage, and I believe him.

Says Rosemond: “Today’s children have considerably shorter attention spans than did kids in the early 1950s. This is going on all over America. You could not teach fifty children with one teacher in a classroom (like you could in the 1950s) if you had kids with considerably shorter attention spans.”

I have no doubt that kids coming here to live will, by virtue of having been raised on television and video games, be accustomed to and dependent upon entertainment. There will be a role for electronic media at Estrella Vista, but it must be intelligently regulated. I am collecting used computers for a future computer lab (I’m up to four machines so far). I am also building a film library and, of course, a large library of books.

When Derek first came here, he consumed a large number of movies he had heard about in prison but had never seen. (Happily he lost interest as the outdoors lured him away from everything but Facebook.) Most of the first films that Derek viewed were movies like Silence of the Lambs and Fight Club that feature violence; I had second thoughts about this at the time and have ever since.

On reflection, I think it would be rather ridiculous to censor films as a means of trying to “protect” young people from violence after they have been raised in a prison or home setting where violence is an ever-present and pervasive feature of daily life. As I build Estrella Vista’s video library, I’m going to take a page from the book of my homeschooling friends with the pre-1912 curriculum: I’ll create a library that is dominated by older films that promote pro-social values which may seem downright quaint to modern TV-conditioned sensibilities.

A couple days ago, one such film arrived in the mailbox: Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), starring iconic Hollywood bad-guy Edward G. Robinson and angelic child actor Margaret O’Brien. This wonderful but little-known film was directed by Roy Rowland and is based on the novel by George Victor Martin, about the Norwegian-descended residents of a small Wisconsin farming community. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, his last before being blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

In a departure from his typical type-casting, Edward G. Robinson plays the gentle and loving father of a precocious 7-year-old daughter played by Margaret O’Brien, and the central theme of the story is the importance of communitarian sharing and generosity. The story shows the child as a catalyst and inspiration to the whole community to act unselfishly. The film models the way a rural community like ours works when at its very best and, as such, could potentially be an effective teaching tool.

Older films like this may also offer the advantage of acclimating kids to a slower, non-MTV/sound-bite pace that will encourage more reflective and deliberate thought. Yet whether or not this experiment will pan out is anybody’s guess. A lot of kids cannot adjust to the slower timing of older films.

Yet, if we are insulated here from the outside world and its insane pace and given a rich array of choices in unfamiliar entertainments and creative tools—who knows? Maybe we will even achieve the preferred ideal of creating our entertainment rather than just consuming it.

It’s worth a try.


Groove of the Day 

Listen to David Allyn performing “I’m Old Fashioned”


9 Responses to “expiration date”

  1. 1 Val
    October 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Quote: “Most kids these days are spending five to six hours a day on-screen with television, video games, and computers which are turning them into passive observers. Visual tracking skills, eye-hand coordination, gross motor skills, social skills, motivation, initiative, creativity, and problem solving abilities are all inhibited by these media.”

    I honestly dont really see how playing video games (which I do a lot) turns me into a “passive observer”. Watching tv certainly does that, cause all I do is sit and stare at the screen while things happen onscreen.
    But playing a video game means I take AKTIVE part in whats going on onscreen. Visual tracking skills, eye-hand coordination, motivation, initiative, creativity and problem solving abilities are certainly NOT inhibited by that, more like the opposite. Sure, it depends on the sort of games you are playing, but there are a lot of games out there that REQUIRE you to have good coordination and be creative about solving problems that you run into.
    And I am convinced that some of that actually HELPS you in the real world.
    You told me one day that you yourself dont play video games and never did, so I dont really see how you can say something like this, without actually having tried at least some games yourself?

  2. 2 andy rea
    October 23, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    Love John Rosemond read his column for some years. Was privileged to meet Mr Rosemond at a medical convention, and have an autograph book somewhere. : 0 )


  3. October 23, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Val, I’m really glad you have begun a conversation here in part because I was thinking about our “movie nights” as I was writing this piece.

    But first, an answer to your comment questioning whether I should be expressing an opinion about video games without having tried them. Fair question.

    Here’s the deal: I have never especially liked playing games of any kinds. For me, they always seemed to take time away from other activities that are more important to me and that help make me feel more fulfilled and happy. I have lots of friends who enjoy games, but that is not something I share with them. I just do not have an interest in playing video games to form an opinion about them. It is easier for me to read what people I respect think about video games and to report on that.

    Last week I was researching sociopaths who are serial murderers and cannibals. I hope you are not suggesting that I should have to taste human flesh before I can develop a position on cannibalism and write about that.

    You enjoy games and that is fine for you–but not for me… and not in my environment. I am not writing about what you should be doing in your life and environment. I am only writing about what will happen here.

    I am committed to carrying out an experiment at Estrella Vista that is focused on getting this place and the people living here in sync with the natural cycles. I want to see if certain kinds of problems resolve themselves as a result. I will not be forcing anyone to live here, nor will I be imposing anything on people that they are unwilling to accept. If young people come here to live, it will be with their agreement that personal electronics will be left behind. Free choice.

    I respect your choice to play video games to any extent that pleases you. If this means that you are not doing other things with your time, I respect that too. It is not my place to judge or impose my will on others.

  4. 4 Val
    October 24, 2011 at 12:53 am

    I hope you are not suggesting that video games are as bad as cannibalism. Or is my brain just too damaged already from too much on-screen time…

    With my previous comment I just wanted to say that I think you can not really say that playing video games and watching tv is all the same and has the same “ability-inhibiting effects”.

    • October 24, 2011 at 3:31 am

      How does one develop abilities? By exercising them. By devoting time and attention to them. It is a matter of choice. If you devote yourself to electronic entertainment you’re not doing other things and developing those other abilities. Videogames cannibalize time that might otherwise be devoted to other things. How can you say that devoting time to videogames does not inhibit other abilities?

      Unless you’re training to be a drone pilot, what value are the skills you’re developing as a gamer, anyway?

  5. 6 Aimee
    October 24, 2011 at 8:34 am

    My husband and I have 3 biological children, now 18, almost 15 and almost 13. We raised them with the, “less is better” attitude. They do however have cellphones and iPods, but they do enjoy family time and know how to just “be.” We also adopted a son from Ukraine in 2004 when he was almost 16 years old. Not having raised him most of his life, he doesn’t know how to “be” so to speak. He needs something to occupy his mind ALL of the time. He doesn’t understand how or why we can be so “boring.” His background has a lot of violence and I think he uses the gaming to drown it out. It simply takes him away to another place. That being said, he isn’t a violent person himself. He has a very sunny outlook and is a very pleasant person to be around. He could however, play video games 12-15 hours a day if he didn’t have anything better to do.

    He literally needs to be occupied ALL of the time. He needs to be surrounded with people. He cannot be introspective. It consumes him and he gets very depressed. Therapy doesn’t seem to help. He loves to sit and watch TV and could do that 12-15 hours a day, if his video games aren’t available. He just zones out. He’s a hard worker though. He will do anything we ask him to do and do it with a happy attitude and do it well, but he’s not motivated to do things on his own. He’s a tough one to figure out.

    It would be interesting to see how he would thrive in your desert. I don’t think he would make it! I think he would go stark raving mad with the lack of stimulation unless you worked him like a pack mule from dawn til dusk!

    Anyway, I come at this from both sides. My bio kids are not gamers at all. My youngest son, at almost 13, would still rather be outside riding his bike and playing in the creek and just doesn’t get the kids that spend all day inside on the Xbox. Whereas our older son would go crazy if he had to spend Friday nights just hanging out with us chatting! Either way, I wish you luck in your endeavor…

  6. 7 Val
    October 24, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Same goes for books, for example. They also “cannibalize time that might otherwise be devoted to other things.”
    But nobody would say anything if a person reads for some hours every day, being as much of a passive observer as when watching tv, just staring at pages instead of a screen, turning pages instead of switching channels.
    So both gaming and reading keep you from doing other things and developing other abilities.

    At least gaming offers you to actively influence whats going on in front of you. For example you might be solving some sort of puzzle that might occur in your real life at some point, or something comparable. So you´ve kinda done it before, and you might be better at it this time.
    Or you might have played some flight-simulator game with a joystick, and the next day you go to work and are told to maintain the backhoe. It has joystick-like controls, so you already have a slight idea about how to handle those things. Sure, its not 100% the same, but better than just having read about it in a book or seen it in a movie.
    Or you might have played a farming-simulation game…if it was made accurately enough you might learn something about how to grow grops, how much water certain plants need, what time of year they should be planted and harvested and so on…again, you could read about it in a book, but this way you get a slightly more active way of learning about it.
    Or you could have played a game like “Sim City”, where you are the ruler of a virtual city and have to take care of everything from budget-planning to building roads. Again, not a 100% percent the same as reality, but it can give you an idea about administrative structures/processes, for example.
    You might even just be playing a racing game and find out about what happens to your car if your front axle breaks at a 150mph. 😉
    Also, there are a lot of games that require you to pay attention to (visual) detail, look for some tiny little object that MUST be somewhere and is needed for a solution to progress further. Once found you might need to combine it with other objects you already have, based on what your goal is. So attention to detail AND creativity are trained in a way.
    And this might positively influence the way you look around when stepping away from the screen, just because you got used to it.

    Again, I´m just trying to say that video games dont have to be as bad as usually said. They´re not all about running around as a soldier, shooting everything that moves.

  7. October 24, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    The one thing that we as human beings have to remember is that machines are not human and therefore are suspect. The great lesson form Star Wars is – remember the scene where Luke goes in for the kill while flying his fighter and he hears the voice form Wan Kanbe ” Luke, turn off the computer – Go with the Force ” and he scores a direct hit ! There is also a scene towards the end of the trilligy where Luke defeats Darth Vader and takes off his mask and underneath is a shriveled up human who once was a Jeti warrior – The dark side was and is the system that destroyed his humanism.

    The Star Wars trilligy was based on Old Mythological Values.

  8. 9 Val
    October 24, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    So for you everything that is not human is therefore suspect? Interesting.

    I think we humans are the most “suspect” of all, just as a side note.

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