I’ve got a very interesting subject to talk to you about today that I discovered while listening to a podcast! Yes, not only do I make podcasts but I am an avid listener of them as well. In this particular podcast, I heard Dr. Cal Newport, a computer scientist, interviewed about the negative effects of interruptions on learning, memory, and creativity. I thought that what he was saying had so much relevance for your children that I couldn’t wait to introduce my listeners to his research and ideas. Please take a few minutes to listen to this post that I call Distraction Free Thinking Vital for Kids. The message is so vital for all parents to hear that I don’t want you to miss it.
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The Essence of Dr. Newport’s Research
First, a confession. I have not read Dr. Newport’s book, Deep Work, Grand Central Publishing, 2016, but I have heard him speak in a fairly extensive interview and I feel I have a good grasp of his main idea! He has coined the term “Deep Work” to describe the kind of quiet uninterrupted thinking time that scientists tells us unleashes our brain’s best creativity and important thoughts. The kind of quiet contemplation that so many great thinkers have used to create great works. Dr. Newport says there is good evidence that any interruption to deep work thinking derails and diminishes the creativity of the work we do and degrades our learning ability. I am sure that includes not only your best thinking but also your children’s. In fact, deep work is probably more important for your children to achieve than it is for you since you have likely completed your education and they have not!
Your children live in a super distracted world
Now, let’s consider the distracted world your children are immersed in today and how it can negatively affect them. Even in the quiet of their bedrooms, they likely are having their studies and thinking time interrupted by texts, cell phone calls, and popup instant chat requests on their computers. They have likely fallen prey to the idea that multitasking is efficient and desirable. It’s not! Working with frequent interruptions is rapidly becoming the reality for today’s children. Unfortunately, not only does this short attention span work lead to sloppy thinking, but likely contributes to the growing incidence of ADHD. Let me remind you, frequently interrupted learning is totally new. Just a generation ago, most children’s study place (likely their bedroom or library) was devoid of all electronics and communication devices. Likely a much quieter place than the bedrooms of today. A place that was much closer to an environment conducive to producing what Dr. Newport describes as deep work.
Limiting access to technology is often unpleasant but necessary
I think it is safe to say that every parent want their children to get the most from their education. But for today’s children, the constant distraction of technology limits achievement. This is the point Dr. Newport is making. I’m sorry, but you can see that this forces parents to be at odds with their children’s wishes to immerse themselves with technology. It’s my opinion that you must deal with this issue. If parents keep the goal of maximizing their children’s education as their overarching goal, they just can’t avoid putting their mark on their children’s study environment. Unfortunately, that intervention is likely to lead some conflict. More on that in a moment.
I think Dr. Newport’s research has illuminated the fact that the fewer interruptions your children have when they are doing their schoolwork, or mastering cognitive tasks or just being creative, the better. Their learning, memory, and creativity will be better without distractions. That means limiting all electronics, phones, tablets, TV’s, and possibly even some types of music in the places where they study and think.
The current smartphone addiction
So many children are literally addicted to their smart phones that limiting them during study time is likely to be very challenging. But here is the approach that I recommend. I find this approach refreshingly direct and honest. Try explaining to your children the destructive effect that interruptions from texts, cell phone calls, emails, and popup chats are likely to be having on their cognitive functioning and ask your children to help figure out some work arounds to minimize these distractions. Recruit their help and brainstorm solutions together. Have them help you design an acceptable distraction free area where they will be doing most of their studying. Recruiting your children may help them accept limitations that, at first blush, they will likely see as intrusive, unreasonable, and possibly mean. You know that Doc Smo pearl though, “If you treat your children like adults, they may surprise you and act like an one”. But in the end, whether they gracefully accept your restrictions or not, I feel that you need to do what is to your child’s best interest– ensuring that they get deep work time on a regular basis. Never forget, “You are the parent and they are the child.” If you know you are making a decision that is in your children’s best interest and is reasonable, you just need to dig your heels in and not budge.
Summary and Recommendations
Good parenting is all about setting age appropriate limits, especially when those limits have your children’s best interest at heart. Believe me, their short term resentment will likely morph into appreciation as time passes and they see that the wisdom of your decision. This process will likely take many years but trust me, it will happen. Another aspect of parenting to keep in mind is this little pearl; “It’s easier not grant privileges than it is to take them away once they have been bestowed.” Always keep that in mind as you navigate the treacherous waters in which parents must swim. With all this in mind, here are my recommendations to today’s parents who have school age and teenage children:
–Your children’s study area should be a quiet place with as few distractions as possible. You already insist that they do their homework, why not also insist that their study time be as productive as possible. Let’s max out that deep work thinking.
–Your children’s bedrooms should be as electronics free as possible- No TV, no video games, no unbridled internet access, no cell phones or tablets at least during study time etc.
–Access to texts, cellphones, instant messaging and all other intrusions that can find their way into study time should be forbidden, no matter where that study place happens to be.
–You should define and insist that your children get and appropriate amount of “deep work” time that is commensurate with their age. I think parents are best at defining this.
Your children’s store of knowledge, ability to think and create are their greatest asset as they grow and mature. The key to unlocking all their cognitive potential is quite contemplation. Make sure your children get enough uninterrupted quite thinking.
Well, that’s it for today’s edition of Portable Practical Pediatrics– a little preachy but hopefully useful. If you enjoy exploring pediatric topics and learning what’s new in pediatrics with pedcasts, consider taking a minute to write a short review on iTunes or my Facebook page, DocSmo.com, hitting some like buttons on my various social media outlets, or share an episode with friends or family. Your support keeps this podcast coming. Thanks for your support. This is Doc Smo, hoping you can get your little squirt, to do some deep work. Until next time.