E-reading to your kids? I’ll just read, thanks.

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I heard this story on NPR the other day, about a tech reporter who’s been trying out different children’s book apps with his three year old daughter (also named Lily, coincidentally).

Each night, the reporter cuddles up with his little girl just before she goes to bed, and he asks her whether she’d like a real book or one on the iPad (she usually chooses the latter).

As you might guess, there are all sorts of bells and whistles that come along with iPad children’s books, such as animation, songs, games, etc. And the reporter notes that although his daughter is very passive while reading “regular” books, she’s much more actively engaged with the iPad stories, by virtue of the opportunities they provide to interact with them.

That makes sense to me. And because the act of reading has already changed drastically during the course of my lifetime – and presumably will continue to do so, at a rapid pace – maybe this is the way to best prepare kids for a life of reading, and get them excited about it from an early age.

And yet.

It’s a tired cliche at this point to cluck and wring our hands at the loss of “simplicity” in our lives, and to shake our heads at how technology pervades every part of our existence – particularly how we communicate with friends and family. This is the world we live in, and no amount of nostalgia is going to hold back the tide.

But even while acknowledging all this to be true, I nonetheless felt a little sad while listening to this radio story. I’m sure the little girl is more “passive” while listening to traditional, old school books being read to her. But isn’t there something to be said for moments of passivity? Particularly in children? Since we spend the entirety of our adult lives doggedly chasing after our own tails, and scrambling to get done what has to be done (while maybe, if we can, also pursuing our ambitions), isn’t childhood the perfect time to allow, or even encourage, moments of quiet contemplation?

I may be coming out of left field, but I almost feel that because our adult lives are so over-programmed and crazy, we feel like our kids need constant stimulation, too. As if this is the norm for all humans, young and old alike. But as the mother of a fiercely world-curious two year old, I’m here to tell you that little ones are pretty stimulated all the time, whether we provide the entertainment or not.

And this seems all the more reason to invite a good stretch of passivity into the bedtime routine, as far as I’m concerned. A chance to slow down, focus on each other, share something together, and listen.

Which leads me to my next point, which is, the iPad bedtime story option removes something crucial from the bedtime ritual: hearing the father’s/parent’s voice narrating the story. My hope is that (our) Lily’s earliest associations with book-reading will involve me and Joe being lovingly, intrinsically linked to the process in every way. The feel of sitting on my lap, under a small quilt my mother made for Lily; the sense of my arm curled around her back; the smell of my shampoo; the way I cue her to turn the page (“next page, please”); how we both stop to point out things in the illustrations, or ask and answer spontaneous questions; and yes, the sound of my voice responding to her, as well as telling the story itself.

There’s a reason why, when I get the chance to attend an author’s reading, I feel nearly intoxicated by the experience. Shutting off the world for a while and just listening to one person tell a story, presuming it’s a decent one, is such a rare pleasure in our go-go-go society. Why wouldn’t I want to give my kid the chance to develop a deep and abiding love for this old-as-time practice?

Perhaps I’m over-romanticizing this. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel I should confess that I don’t have a Blackberry or iPhone; I have only the most rudimentary texting skills (texting isn’t even part of my calling plan); I kind of despise Twitter; I keep my daily calendar in a little paper booklet; and I’ve lately struggled to download anything but music onto my iPod. So a super tech-savvy modern woman, I am not.

Plus, I give full kudos to this tech reporter for spending one-on-one time with his daughter each night, sharing stories with her. But personally, I like keeping technology at arm’s length a bit. It makes it easier to shut it all off for a while.

And do something like read a real book to my kid.

8 thoughts on “E-reading to your kids? I’ll just read, thanks.

  1. Lorin Burgess says:

    Great post Jenn, as always. I agree on many levels, as I like the experience of reading an actual book to my children. I strongly agree that too much of that type of thing is overstimulating and not necessary at young ages. However, isn’t this debate mostly about format? Wouldn’t “The Giving Tree” and “Cat in the Hat” still be fabulous no matter what the format? It’s kind of like when people get so excited about big screen TVs, as if “Jersey Shore” will become better if it’s in 60 inch HD. I worry more about the decline in quality content, but that’s probably another subject. Overall, I’m not that worried about inevitable format changes if the content is still good.

    • Jenn McKee says:

      Yes, classic stories will remain intact, regardless of format; that’s absolutely true. But I can’t help but feel like some of the tactile, sensory experiences of reading to a child are lost when translated to a digital medium.
      As I mention in my post, part of what bothered me most while listening to this story involved hearing actors reading/performing the stories instead of the parent. Perhaps if the parent still narrated the book while both parent and child looked at the illustrations on the iPad, my feelings might not be so strong – and now that I think about it, I’m sure that’s probably an option provided by these apps. But as for me, I already feel like we’re struggling to prevent “screen time” from getting out of hand in our house, and the introduction of this would only make that harder.

  2. Carol says:

    Screen time is screen time. And it is extremely limited in my house. The kids watch a screen of their choice for one hour on Saturday (TV, computer games, or Leapster).

    The bedtime story ritual is savored time. Now that they are old enough for chapter books, it’s even more fun for us. We read 2-3 chapters a night. I completely agree with you, Jenn. I-PAD DOES NOT COUNT AS A BEDTIME STORY!!

  3. Lorin says:

    I guess I missed the part about someone else’s voice when I read your post the first time, I strongly with that that’s not acceptable, and I would never say that it’s OK to completely replace the book reading experience. Carol, I don’t agree that you can unequivocally equate all screen time (even though I agree that there can be too much). We usually watch family videos and view photos on the computer, which I consider to be very positive, and not somehow inferior to looking at pictures in a scrapbook. I guess it all comes back to monitoring the content.

    Interestingly, Jenn, my opinion has partially been formed by my reaction to annarbor.com. I was pretty sad when the Ann Arbor News shut down, but I have to say, I don’t feel any sense of loss because the content is still so good. 🙂 I even jokingly give Carolyn a hard time for reading the print versions, asking why she insists on reading news in a format determined, and limited, by someone else.

  4. Camille-Yvette Welsch says:

    I agree with you Jenn. As a teacher, I would like students who know how to listen without having to be bombarded with various activities and graphics and so on. I think we learn how to listen as children during story time. Losing the voices of the parents also seems to lose some of the experience of laying your head on your dad’s chest and feeling the words rumble inside as you hear his voice outside his body. Maybe I am an angry Luddite, although I have a smart phone that is super fancy. I just like the sound of books. I like the fact that the first command my son learned was “Turn the page, please!” I love that pop-up books fascinate him. I wanted to know how to put a pop-up book together as a child. It seemed possible in a way that computers and making one never has. I like the smell of books, the way that you can tell by the feel of the paper what the book is going to smell like. Please let there be some tactile, intimate experiences left in the world. I don’t want to outsource part of the bedtime ritual.

    • Andigrams says:

      I was beguiled by words as a child. There was nowhere I could not go, nothing I could not do & no one I could not be. They were the open sesame to my young life. Snuggled next to my Mom or Dad, my imagination flying all over the universe, I learned about the power and beauty of language. But mostly I learned about myself. That “tactile, intimate experience” ( beautifully put Camille-Yvette) was the first step to becoming myself. Now I confess, I love the way that modern technology allows me to do things faster, smarter, better. But to paraphrase Jurassic Park ” just because we can, doesn’t mean we should”. Where in all of the bells and whistles of an iPad story is the opportunity to think & imagine for ourselves? If we are all singing the same songs, playing the same games & watching the same animation then the experience becomes much more homogeneous, and much less individualistic. This certainly has it’s place, especially for more formal learning, but for a bedtime story? Give the kids a break. Sheesh!

  5. Carol says:

    I feel an explanation of my previous post is called for. It makes me sound like a bit of a fanatic or control freak when it comes to limiting screen time. The current “electronics” arrangement in our household was a long time in coming. My little guy, 5 years old, is, how should I put it, a recovering screen addict. I never had a problem with TV or computer games every day as long as it was somewhat limited. He is home in the morning since he attends afternoon kindergarten. He would watch a half hour of TV after my older daughter left for school, then when they both got off the bus in the afternoon, they would watch (or play computer) another half an hour. They called it “electronics” time. He would obsess about it— Is it electronics time yet? Can I have more electronics time? I can’t think of anything to do but electronics. I had four dreams about electronics last night. I can’t fall asleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’m going to watch for electronics.
    He also would fall to pieces when his half hour was up. Crying, tantrums, etc. So one day, we decided to cut back, way back. He is happier and his moods are visibly lighter. Our family life is so much better and considerably easier. My daughter, who could always take it or leave it, doesn’t seem to miss it at all.
    Incidentally, I’ve talked to friends who have boys and they have found that their sons are definitely more “addictive” when it comes to screen time then their daughters.

  6. 34 Kiwis says:

    “I’m here to tell you that little ones are pretty stimulated all the time, whether we provide the entertainment or not.”

    Hello Jenn. I was looking for an article like this and I found your blog. I know your words to be true. As a school teacher I find that many times student expect me to entertain them while I’m teaching daily. Thank you for your efforts.

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