jasonbwatson

August 30, 2016

Built into your bones

I recently finished reading Yeonmi Park’s autobiography In Order to Live. Park was born in North Korea and eventually escaped to China–where she found her mother and herself in the hands of a human trafficker. After some time they were able to make their way to South Korea. The book is an interesting read and an insightful firsthand account of life in the Hermit Kingdom, but that is not what I am going to address here. Something Park wrote, though, jumped out at me. As she was describing all of the things that she learned upon arriving in South Korea that were contradictory to what she had been taught from infancy about the incredible power of the Kim family, she wrote this:

It’s not easy to give up a worldview that is built into your bones and imprinted on your brain like the sound of your own father’s voice.

Park’s point was that even though the things she had been taught about North Korea in general and the Kim family in particular are, once you know the truth, absurd, it was difficult for her to come to terms with that at first because of what had been taught to her for so long. It had been taught by her father–and her mother–and it had been taught so long and so often that it was embedded in her. It was as she said, built into her bones and imprinted on her mind.

Now in the case of Park she was taught something that was not true and therefore the result was dangerous and debilitating. But the example still proves an excellent one for the power of teaching children from an early age. God knows this, of course, and that is exactly why He told the Israelites so many times that they were to teach their children about Him–who He is and what He has done. They were to teach them young and teach them often. It was not to be confined to the Sabbath or to special occasions, but to be an everyday part of their lives. The most familiar example comes in Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which reads:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Hebrew word translated “diligently” in verse 7 above is shanan, which literally means to whet or to sharpen, like a stone, a knife or arrows. Strong’s Concordance says the word figuratively meant “to inculcate.” That is precisely what God had in mind when He gave this instruction to the Israelites and it is precisely what had happened to Yeonmi Park. Inculcate means, according to dictionary.com, “to implant by repeated statement or admonition; teach persistently and earnestly.” Is synonyms are “instill, infix, ingrain.” God instructed His chosen people, and His people still today, to teach their children from an early age and with such frequency and insistence that they become inculcated with the truth.

Here is how some other translations render Deuteronomy 6:7:

  • You shall teach them diligently to your children [impressing God’s precepts on their minds and penetrating their hearts with His truths] (Amplified Bible).
  • and tell them to your children over and over again. Talk about them all the time… (Contemporary English Version)
  • Repeat them to your children (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
  • You must teach them to your children (Living Bible)
  • Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children (The Message)
  • Impress them on your children (New International Version)
  • Repeat them again and again to your children (New Living Translation)

I think you get the point. Instilling a biblical worldview in children–an understanding of the world and all that is in it based firmly in the truth of God’s Word–does not happen by accident or by a one-time or even once-in-awhile instruction. It takes intentionality, repetition, consistency and perseverance. In his commentary, Joseph Benson says the verse means to teach God’s truths to children “so as that they may pierce deeply into their hearts.” Matthew Poole says the exact same thing. I like how the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges puts it though: “make incisive and impress them on thy children; rub them in.”

One of the reasons I like that in particular is that rubbing it in requires contact. It requires being up close and personal. Rubbing it in cannot be done from afar. It cannot be done only by words or by pointing the child to a book. No, rubbing it in means getting right there beside the child, rubbing shoulders, bearing burdens, opening hearts, sharing honestly, apologizing when necessary, correcting when needed.

This instruction from God to teach children consistently about Him is not limited to the Israelites nor to the Old Testament. It appears repeatedly throughout Scripture. There are multiple instances in Deuteronomy, but here are some other examples, though not an exhaustive list:

  • O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. (Psalm 71:17)
  • We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. (Psalm 78:4)
  • Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
  • Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)
  • Teach these things and make sure everyone learns them well. (1 Timothy 4:11, TLB)
  • But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

3 John 4 says, “I could have no greater joy than to hear that my children are following the truth” (NLT). I agree with that sentiment. In keeping with the thought shared by Park, I cannot imagine any greater joy than knowing that when my children think about God’s truth it is my voice they are hearing. Oh Lord, grant me the discernment and yieledness to parent my children according to Your Word, teaching them Your way and your Truth.

May 5, 2015

The most important thing

Mattel has a brand new doll they want to sell your daughter. It’s called Hello Barbie, and it takes the classic American doll to a whole new level. This new Barbie uses WiFi and speech recognition, records the voice of the doll’s owner and then, using cloud servers and voice recognition software, sends responses back through the doll’s built-in speaker which allow little girls to have conversations with their Barbie. At a toy fair in New York a Mattel presenter said that the Hello Barbie can “have a unique relationship with each girl.” According to an article by Julie Borg, the doll will be able to “play interactive games, tell jokes, initiate storytelling, and listen and learn about each girl’s preferences and then adapt accordingly.”

A Washington Post article about the doll said, “a Mattel representative introduced the newest version of Barbie [at the New York toy fair] by saying: ‘Welcome to New York, Barbie.’ The doll, named Hello Barbie, responded: ‘I love New York! Don’t you? Tell me, what’s your favorite part about the city? The food, fashion or the sights?'” Not surprisingly then, the Washington Post article was titled, “Privacy advocates try to keep ‘creepy,’ ‘eavesdropping’ Hello Barbie from hitting the shelves.” A CNN story was headlined, “Talking Barbie is too ‘creepy’ for some parents.” Borg’s article in WORLD was subtitled “New interactive Barbie blurs privacy lines.”

This excerpt from the Post article explains where the “creepy” part comes in for most people: “Hello Barbie works by recording a child’s voice with an embedded microphone that is triggered by pressing a button on the doll. As the doll ‘listens,’ audio recordings travel over the Web to a server where the snippets of speech are recognized and processed. That information is used to help form Hello Barbie’s responses.”

The doll is not scheduled to be available for sale until the fall, and the companies involved with it–Mattel and ToyTalk, the company that manufactures the software in the doll–are planning to develop privacy policies before then. Already, though, a Mattel spokesperson says, “Mattel is committed to safety and security, and ‘Hello Barbie’ conforms to applicable government standards, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.” Interestingly enough, the technology in the doll could be used both by the toy company and by parents to “spy” on children. ToyTalk says, “Parents can choose to receive daily or weekly e-mails with access to the audio files of their children’s conversations with Hello Barbie.” Most parents do not listen in to every conversation their children have with their toys. Part of childhood’s wonder is the ability to pretend and talk to one’s toys–that, until now, have not been able to talk back. How will the ability to listen in to those conversations impact parent’s relationships with their children? This eavesdropping could have potentially positive results, but it is not difficult to imagine potentially dangerous ones, too. Then, too, there is the potential danger of someone other than the parent accessing the recordings, either by hacking the parents e-mail or the company web site, and using the information contained in the recordings to cultivate a relationship with the child.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has already created a petition demanding that Mattel scrap the doll because of the potential for using it to market directly to children. The doll could be used to plant the idea that children ask their parents for Barbie accessories, for example, the group claims. “Kids using ‘Hello Barbie’ aren’t only talking to a doll, they are talking directly to a toy conglomerate whose only interest in them is financial,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director.

Creepy though the technology and capabilities of the doll may be, it is not difficult to understand how we got to this point. “Sales of Barbie have plummeted recently, while demand for children’s apps and online games has exploded. Children are forging their digital footprint earlier than ever, forcing parents to make thorny decisions about what kinds of technology limits to put in place during playtime,” the Washington Post reported. With more and more parents giving their children virtually unlimited access to anything the Internet has to offer, through iPads, smart phones and more, one cannot fault Mattel for finding ways to combine the latest in technological capability with their best-selling toy for young girls. Still, that does not mean the doll is a good idea.

The concerns described above are legitimate and need to be taken seriously. Borg highlights another danger, though, when she emphasizes in her article the fact that the technology contained in the doll will serve only to further separate children from real-life interactions and relationships. She points out that in their touting of the doll’s benefits, Mattel claims that the doll can eventually become a girl’s best friend. Dipesh Navsaria, a pediatrician and board member of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “Computer algorithms can’t replace, and should not displace, the nuanced responsiveness of caring people interacting with one another. Children’s well-being and healthy development demand relationships and conversations with real people and real friends.” We live in a culture that is already celebrating the pseudo-relationships facilitated by the convenience of instant digital communication. People send text messages to teachers when their children will be late for school, teens ask their friends for relationship advice via Facebook messaging and they spread rumors and gossip via Facebook posts. Courts have ruled that divorce papers can be served via Facebook, too. There are real dangers in abandoning genuine interpersonal relationships in favor of those that exist only in the cyber realm. People say things through keyboards they would never say to someone’s face–but that is only one of the myriad dangers that exist when one interacts with the world almost exclusively through technology.

I do not fault Mattel or ToyTalk for pursuing the creation of Hello Barbie, and I am sure that other toy companies will soon have their own offerings that incorporate this interactive technology. Again, though, that does not mean it is a good idea, and, personally, I would strongly caution parents against buying this doll for their daughters. I will not be signing any petitions opposing the release of the toy, nor do I think banning its sale is necessary. Mattel is a company driven by profit. If the doll doesn’t sell well, they will quit selling it. If your daughter still plays with Barbie’s try buying her one that doesn’t talk back, then get down on the floor and play Barbies with her–letting her and you create the voices and conversations yourselves. No tech companies will listen in, no advertising with be slipped into the conversation, and the relationship between your daughter and you will be strengthened. That’s the most important thing of all.

August 30, 2013

A parent, not a pill

Given how common the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are these days, and the seeming haste with which physicians will prescribe stimulants to treat the disorders, you may find it interesting, as I did, that the Wall Street Journal reported in July that those prescriptions do not improve the academic performance of the children who take them. In fact, they may even have the opposite effect.

According to the article, “Stimulants used to treat ADHD like Ritalin and Adderall are sometimes called ‘cognitive enhancers’ because they have been shown in a number of studies to improve attention, concentration and even certain types of memory in the short-term. Similar drugs were given to World War II soldiers to improve their ability to stay alert while scanning radars for enemy aircraft.”

The study the WSJ was reporting on, however, indicates that over the long run there is really no significant difference in achievement scores, grade point averages or being retained in school among students who take the ADHD medication and the students who do not.

That would be disappointing and even troubling all by itself, but the study went further. Not only do students on the medication not perform any better, but “boys who took ADHD drugs actually performed worse in school than those with a similar number of symptoms who didn’t.” A separate report, a working paper published on the web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research, indicates that girls on the medication report suffering from more emotional problems than girls who do not use the drugs.

Given the number of students taking these medications–2.7 million of them as of 2007–this is serious news. While the prescriptions have been flowing in increasing numbers there have been other voices arguing that the medical community really has no idea what the long term effect of ADHD medication will be on the children who take it. And the belief that these medications help improve focus and academic performance has led to them being popular among students taking important tests or trying to improve their grades–even students who do not have a prescription for them. There is such a demand for these drugs on the “black market” that estimates are that as much as 15% to 20% of all ADHD medication winds up in the hands of someone without a prescription for it.

The WSJ article also points out that what ADHD medications do seem to do effectively is improve classroom behavior. Students on the medication are more likely to sit still and less likely to interrupt the teacher than those students diagnosed with ADHD who do not take the drugs. More specifically, “The medicine may help with focus, but it doesn’t help with deciding what to focus on.” In other words, the ADHD medications are effectively behavioral modification drugs.

I can remember attending an educators’ conference years ago, when ADD diagnoses were just coming into vogue, at which the head of a large educators’ organization suggested that ADD might be more accurately spelled BRAT. The comment received the chuckle the speaker was going for, but in the years since then the diagnosis became so common, and the medication so prevalent, that there was surely a growing number of people who believed that the “disorder” is real and the treatment effective.

I have worked with enough children and talked to enough people to know that there are legitimate cases of chemical imbalances and other challenges that make focusing and remembering difficult, and perhaps there are times when treatment with medication is warranted. At the same time, I can say with just as much conviction that I have worked with enough children and talked to enough people to know that there are times when children who were unsuccessful on the medication become much more successful when they are in environments with structure and discipline, when they are held accountable, and when they have adults who encourage them in their work.

I can recall another professional conference at which I heard an expert in the field of working with troubled youth say that while there may be a case for medication in some instances, the best treatment for children who seem incapable of focusing or applying themselves appropriately is “consistent, loving discipline over time.” I would have to echo that with a hearty amen, since that is what all children need, regardless of whether they have any diagnosis. Not coincidentally, that is exactly what the Bible prescribes for raising children, too.

I am not a mental health professional, and I am not going to jump on a soap box and say all ADHD medications should be eliminated or all children should be taken off of these drugs. I will say this, though: no physician or parent should ever use drugs just to get a child to behave or sit still. There seems to be significant evidence questioning the merit of using these medications in order to accomplish improved academic performance, and that means physicians and parents alike should think long and hard before putting children on these drugs–especially when there seems to be a link between the medication and emotional problems. If a child has trouble focusing, listening, learning or obeying it may not be a medical problem. It may not take a pill, but it will take a parent.

August 23, 2013

Digital Dementia

I read a report recently of a new ailment that seems to be afflicting young people around the world, though the term originated in South Korea: digital dementia. What is that exactly? Well, according to the South Korean doctors who coined the term, and as reported in the UK newspaper The Telegraph, it is “a deterioration in cognitive abilities that is more commonly seen in people who have suffered a head injury or psychiatric illness.” (Click here for the article). What causes this deterioration? An overuse of technology like smart phones and gaming devices. The article cites Byun Gi-won, a doctor at the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul, as saying that the overuse of such devices actually “hampers the balanced development of the brain.”

According to the reports out of South Korea more than 18 percent of Koreans between the ages of 10 and 19 are using their phones more than seven hours per day. South Korea is considered to be the most technologically-connected nation in the world, and more than 64% of Korean teenagers have a smart phone, a number that tripled from 2011 to 2013. The overuse of these devices is causing poor development in the right side of the brain, which is where concentration occurs. Doctors speculate that this could lead to the onset of actual dementia in 15% of those impacted.

South Korea is not the only place where technology is overused, of course. The article in The Telegraph references a book entitled Digital Dementia written in 2012 by Dr. Manfred Spitzer, a German neuroscientist. As best I can tell from a quick search on Amazon this book is not available in English, so I have not read it and am unlikely to be able to do so in the near future, but the article in The Telegraph reports that Spitzer warns that the damage caused by the overuse of electronic devices is irreversible, and he has called for banning digital media from German classrooms.

I can appreciate the good doctor’s position, but I do not think banning technology is the answer–not in classrooms, at least. Technology is a tool that allows teachers to do some wonderful things in their classrooms–things that were unthinkable even when I was in high school (which was not all that long ago really). I think a bit of caution on the part of parents is wise. I am surely not the only one who has wondered about the wisdom of parents equipping their pre-adolescent children with phones that cost hundreds of dollars, can take crystal clear digital pictures and have instant connectivity to the Internet. There is simply no need. Even worse, though, is when those same parents allow their children to use the device whenever they want, and for as long as they want. Don’t even get me started on cell phone etiquette! Forget digital dementia; maybe we should be on the look out for the complete loss of muscles in every part of the body but the thumbs when people are texting each other from fifteen feet away!

So where does the U.S. stand in this coming digital disaster? According to the March 2013 report from the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, 78% of U.S. teenagers (ages 12 to 17) have cell phones, with 47% owning smart phones. That means, the report states, that 37% of all U.S. teens have smart phones, up from 23% in 2011–a significant increase, but not nearly the tripling that occurred in South Korea. Yet, 74% of U.S. teens say they access the Internet on cell phones or other mobile devices at least occasionally, and 25% of teens say they are “cell-mostly” users of the Internet–a number significantly higher than the 15% of adults who identify themselves as such. A finding that I found particularly troubling given the predators that are out there is that a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys report being cell-mostly Internet users–and while 71% of teens who access the Internet on a home computer say they do so on a device they share with other family members, that is highly unlikely to be the case with those who use the Internet primarily via cell phone. (If you want to read the entire Teens and Technology 2013 report you can do so here).

So, what is my point? Well, first of all, I think the term “digital dementia” is a bit silly. I think the last thing we need is another label for mental health professionals to slap on teenagers (or adults) who are basically lacking in common sense and self control. At the same time, I think there are legitimate concerns over the amount of time teenagers are spending on digital devices. I would strongly encourage parents to limit both the amount of time their children and teens have access to cell phones and other digital devices and to seriously consider whether or not their children and teens need smart phones or cell phone access to the Internet. My gut instinct is that there are very few times parents will find that their children and teens do need such devices. That said, though, I feel just as strongly that prohibiting the use of cell phones and other tech devices by children and teens is equally unhealthy. We live in a world where technology is ever-present, and that is not going to go away. Effective parenting will involve training and equipping children to exercise self control and discernment in both how to spend money (hundreds of dollars on a phone that is basically a mini computer is seldom justifiable) and how to use technology in a safe, healthy, and God-honoring manner. Parents need to take to heart their God-given responsibility to teach and train their children, and they need to take to heart Psalm 37:30, which in the New Living Translation reads, “The godly offer good counsel; they teach right from wrong.”

August 9, 2012

Don’t Ignore God’s Design

I always find it interesting when scientific studies prove the validity of the Bible. I do not know whether the authors of such studies set out to provide or disprove the Bible, or whether the Bible ever even crosses their minds, but, without fail, accurate and legitimate scientific study consistently reaches a conclusion that is consistent with what the Bible has already established. As Solomon wrote, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, ESV).

I can remember back a number of years ago sitting in a large meeting room listening to one of the nation’s experts on the subject of dealing with troubled, aggressive and hostile youth, and hearing him state that the very best antidote for such behavior is “consistent, loving discipline over time.” The seminar was not hosted by a Christian group, and the speaker did not make any claim to be a Christian, but I thought to myself, “Hmmmm…interesting. That’s just what the Bible says.”

Well, another perfect example has emerged recently in a new study by Mark Regenerus, published in Social Science Journal. Regenerus, a sociologist and professor at The University of Texas, wanted to evaluate the validity of claims made by the American Psychological Association in 2005 that children are nor adversely affected by growing up in homosexual households. In 2010, social scientists Judith Stacey and Timothy Biblarz claimed that lesbian households were actually better for children than heterosexual households. In Journal of Marriage and Family they suggested that, “Strengths typically associated with married mother-father families appear to the same extent in families with 2 mothers and potentially in those with 2 fathers” (article abstract). That article was entitled, “Does the Gender of Parents Matter?”

But back in 2001 Stacey and Biblarz wrote, in American Sociological Review, an article entitled “Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” The abstract for that article asserts: “Opponents of lesbian and gay parental rights claim that children with lesbigay parents are at higher risk for a variety of negative outcomes. Yet most research in psychology concludes that there are no differences in developmental outcomes between children raised by lesbigay parents and those raised by heterosexual parents.” Stacey and Biblarz go so far as to state that “heterosexism has hampered intellectual progress in the field.” It was this heterosexism that that they claimed caused the 21 studies that they examined to downplay what could have been important findings regarding the gender and sexual preferences of children. In their conclusion Stacey and Biblarz write that “researchers must
overcome the hetero-normative presumption that interprets sexual differences as deficits, thereby inflicting some of the very disadvantages it claims to discover.” In other words, they claim, it is the homophobic bias of researchers that results in studies showing that “lesbigay” families disadvantage children, since it surely could not be the case that those families in fact do result in disadvantages.

So, what did Regenerus find? His article was titled “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study,” and was published in Social Science Research. First, he decided to test a far larger sample than other such studies have typically used, selecting at random more than 15,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 39. Of those 15,000 he found that 175 responded that their mothers had been in a lesbian relationship, and 73 indicated that their fathers had been in a gay relationship. Okay, so less than 2% of respondents were raised in a homosexual household; but what impact did that have on them? According to the research, those individuals were more likely than their peers raised in heterosexual families to report “being unemployed, less healthy, more depressed, more likely to have cheated on a spouse or partner, smoke more pot, had trouble with the law, report more male and female sex partners, more sexual victimization, and were more likely to reflect negatively on their childhood family life, among other things.”

Now, let me be clear. I am not suggesting, nor, do I believe was Regenerus, that every child who is raised by a homosexual couple will be more likely to lose a job, get depressed, smoke marijuana, cheat on a partner, etc. But I am suggesting that it is not surprising to me to see those kinds of results. When we break the rules, there are consequences. When we ignore God’s design for the family, there are consequences. Do heterosexual parents mess up in raising their children? Of course. in case by case instances there will always be cases when we can find children of heterosexual parents who are far worse off than children of homosexual parents. But in general, children will be disadvantaged when raised by homosexual parents, because they will be raised in an environment that is contrary to God’s design.

I should mention that the article by Regenerus, and the study, have come under incredible attack since publication. Not surprisingly, it has been called “flawed, misleading, and scientifically unsound” by GLAAD, HRC, The Family Equality Council and Freedom to Marry. Those organizations, obviously, want to advance the idea that homosexuals, and homosexual families, are no different than heterosexual ones, so their thoughts on the study are not surprising. There has been so much negative attention directed at this study that there has been an audit of the research authorized by Social Science Journal, and I understand that those findings will be published in November. I hope that the results will indicate that the study was appropriately and accurately conducted. At the end of the day, though, even if the audit finds some errors or tries to put a different spin on this subject, the truth will always be the same: no one can ignore God’s design for the marriage and family and think everyone will be okay.

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