The Book Corner

Do you have a book to recommend that you would like to see reviewed or would like to review yourself? Please send your suggestions to Harriet Heath at harriet.e.heath@gmail.com. We can’t guarantee every suggestion will be reviewed, but we’ll do our best to cover as many as possible. Submissions should be for books that are geared toward parenting educators or contain material that would support parenting educators in their professional development or their work with parents; please do not submit books about parenting curricula or programs or information for parents. 

The New Childhood: Raising Kids to Thrive in a Connected World

Author: Jordan Shapiro; Reviewer: Harriet Heath

Harriet’s Updating Note: Shapiro’s book, reviewed here, is even more relevant during the current pandemic than it was when it was written or when I wrote the following review. The book poses questions such as, “Why should two six-year-olds playing happily with their dolls and chattering away using Zoom be limited to twenty minutes of “screen time?” As parenting educators, we are in an excellent position to help parents think through their rules about screen time. Are the rules about screen time or the activity done on screens? We also could be discussing, collecting and studying ways in which parents can help their children learn how to socialize via Zoom.  

Parenting educators are apt to miss this incredible book because it does not have any of the current buzz words such as “screens” and “digital” in its title. The “new childhood” in the title refers to a childhood where digital equipment is an integral part of children’s lives. The “connected world” is the vast internet they are forever exploring and interacting in. The author Jordan Shapiro’s basic assumption is that the digital world is here to stay. It is the world our children are growing up in and will live in. He argues that the adults in the lives of children should be helping their children to be ready to live in the digital world.

The book is exceptional among others dealing with children and screens in that it recommends turning on the computers, iPods and smartphones — not off. The book focuses on gaming, describing a wide range of benefits children gain. These benefits range from learning basic social skills to acquiring a greater sense of control by guiding an avatar through the imaginary horrors and wonders of a video game. Other gains described include raising situations that parents, playing with their children, can follow up on such as how children feel when losing or winning a game, or what the next steps of a game might be. Gaming, Shapiro describes again and again, is a wonderful way for parents to bond with their children.

Jordan Shapiro mocks those that worry about the negative effects screens will do to children’s minds and the dangers for children exposed unprotected to the wonders of the internet. His argument is that the people from time immemorial have renounced the new. He goes back to ancient Greece to prove his point. Socrates, the Greek philosopher, did not believe in the newly discovered art of writing. Discussions were to be verbal and thus fluid. Plato, fortunately, did not follow his teacher’s advice so today we can read of their discussions. Throughout this book, the author gives examples of how new technology has both led to changes in social patterns and reactions against those changes. It makes for very interesting reading and eats away at our criticism of the new.

Shapiro takes these examples of what the critics feel children are losing and describes how the children are getting the same or more relevant skills as they game. For example, early in the book, he describes his boys playing Minecraft with the neighborhood kids via Skype. He sees the same kind of role-playing and make-believe that he’d experienced playing in the streets of Philadelphia as a child. In both scenarios, the video game and the street play, the author maintains, children honed their self-regulation and executive functioning skills while trying to maintain an atmosphere of fun among friends. The book is a continuous weaving of describing social changes as a consequence of the digital world and how the digital world is providing children the experiences they need as adults in that world.

A concurrent theme is the vital role parents can and should have in helping their children explore this new digital world. First, parents need to know the gaming world. Next, Shapiro is adamant that parents should be playing the games with their kids. Innumerable times throughout the book Shapiro was playing the games with his boys. He describes them sitting side by side on the couch the way they would if he were reading them a story. Each had his own equipment. Often they were laughing together about something that happened or yelling at each other to move their virtual people in certain ways. Yes, sometimes his boys were playing while the author caught up on his e-mail, but he must have spent a large portion of time playing games with his kids. A third part of the parent role, related to the virtual role, is parents talking with their children about their gaming, virtual experiences. How did it feel when given an ugly label? How did it feel to give an ugly label? What was it like not having been invited to the party all your friends went to and then described on Facebook? One creative suggestion related to preparing kids for social media: Set up a mock social media with friends and relatives where children could participate and experience the give and take of social media and see modes of mature social media engagement before actually going on social media. By being involved, Shapiro notes parents are:

  • Demonstrating that they take their children’s imaginative play seriously. 
  • Subtly sending the message that they acknowledge the strategies the children are using to cope. 
  • Telling their children that they appreciate the things that mattered most to them. 
  • Finding a fun and safe space in which they can help their children cultivate sophisticated social and emotional skills.

The challenge for parents, Shapiro notes, is that the world their children are growing up in is not the world they, the parents, emerged from. Parents do not have the experience of their own childhoods to help them know how to guide their children. This book offers parents some guidance.

The book raises some questions. As a researcher, I found little evidence that children have actually mastered the skills the author claims they have. The author seems to be relying predominantly for evidence on what he observes in his sons and at times in their friends. Do children actually learn social skills when gaming? We need more solid evidence.

Another question relates to timing. If we are to prepare our children for their digital world is there a developmental sequence for doing so, for turning on the computers and opening the wide range of experiences that are there? The examples cited in the book were of his boys of elementary school age with some ideas for the teen years.

And maybe the most important question is how to be assured our children get enough physical exercise as they deal with the fascination of screens. This question the author barely mentions.

For us, who are parenting educators, the themes of the book can shake us up. So much of our discussion has been around the amount of time children should be on screens. Are we neglecting to pass along to parents what may be powerful tools they can use with their children as they prepare their children to live in the digital world that is theirs? As parenting educators do we need to point parents to specific kinds of games?  If children do learn vital social skills virtually, does gaming give parents another set of tools to aid them as they guide their children toward adulthood? Furthermore, kids are hankering to use these tools, which makes them even more powerful. Should we be teaching these tools? In other words, should we be dealing with screens from a broader perspective?

If we decide to integrate more information about the gaming/virtual world into our work, how do we choose to present to the parents with whom we work the digital world? If the parental role is so vital in helping children master the digital world, should we as parenting educators be integrating that part of the parental role into our work with parents? If we were to integrate screens more into our tools for parents, do we need to become more specific as to the skills that can be taught? The book challenges us.