March 10 2014 05:56 PM

Parents worry about their kids' readiness but also love abundant interaction with devices-weird

Aaryn Belfer

"A new PBS survey of American families with children under 6," said Deb Welsh of KPBS during my drive home from work last Wednesday, "finds almost half are worried that their child lacks the skills to start elementary school." 

"Well, duh," I said to Welsh from the cabin of my car. It's pretty hard to prepare an active preschooler—versed as many are in the ways of imaginative play, wonder, creativity and naps—for the grueling seven hours a day, five days a week of sitting quietly and doing worksheets that's forced on them by kindergarten. To get a kid ready for that, you'd have to ditch Montessori or Head Start (what's left of it) in favor of crate training. Which is actually called child abuse. 

As it happens, the radio story was sort of generic. It left out any mention of the small sample size (roughly 1,000 parents) and the fact that participants' answers coincidentally validated PBS's programing. The results reinforced "PBS KIDS' long-standing position as the number one provider of engaging and educational content for young children." That's what the three-page, not-mentioned-on-radio press release said, anyway. 

And, hey, I'm not one to disagree: As educational television goes, PBS has it going on. Word Girl rules. So does Martha Speaks. A certain 56-pound member of this household was practically sitting shiva when Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman got cancelled, but we can still catch episodes via Roku. And generations of children still have the timeless badassery of Sesame Street—though my child never got into the show the way I did, and this has been one of my biggest parenting disappointments to date. Ruby stuck the knife in deeper the other night when she said, "You know that one monster? The one that lives in a trash can—what's his name?

But back to the cannibalized radio story:

Welsh conducted a phone interview with PBS's general manager of children's programming, Lesli Rotenberg, and even though she sounded like she was in a backwoods outhouse using twine and a tin can, I was riveted. 

Rotenberg said that half of the parents surveyed worry about their child's social and emotional readiness for school. At the same time, 89 percent said they value media exposure for their kids, with television being the most common choice, followed by "things like computer games, activities, websites and apps."

I slammed my brakes and came to a literal screeching halt on Interstate 8 as I heard this. Yes, the contradiction was startling enough to bring me to a stop. But mostly it was the driver in front of me who stopped short, as she'd been caught off guard while texting.

It's curious, I think, that parents so overwhelmingly value screen time (grade-schoolers spend an average of six hours a day in front of a screen, according to while simultaneously worrying about their children's ability to have human interactions and say "please" and "thank you." Correlation, anyone? Perhaps someone can develop an app to teach kids how to be in society. Oh, wait. That's what Minecraft is for, right?

It's important to stay involved with your children, Welsh pointed out in her story, and Rotenberg agreed. "Any time that a parent spends with a child—whatever that child is doing—they're going to learn more just because the parent is there by their side." So true! My kid rarely gleans the take-home lessons from watching My Little Pony on her iPad as thoroughly as when I'm sitting next to her analyzing celebrity attire with the Fug Girls on my laptop.

Late last year, while having breakfast with a girlfriend at The Mission in North Park, a young couple with three phones between them brought their baby and his iPad to dine at the table right next to us. While hipster Mom and Dad tapped away on their three phones, Baby played on his device with the volume loud enough so we could all enjoy the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Game that was teaching him how to be social. On vivid display was how valuable their family time was.

On Christmas Eve, I saw Baby as a teenager when I strolled passed a little family at the Hotel Del. They were sitting silently on a bench—the boy in between his parents—their heads bent at the neck, their faces lit up by the glow of their individual screens. Parallel play in glorious action.  

And just one week ago, I was out to dinner and witnessed Baby 25 years from now. He was with five friends at the next table, all but one of them on their smart phones (I'm guessing the sixth dude forgot to charge his). They were doing the Quasimodo, their eyes bulging, their backs kyphosis-ing, each poking their fat greasy thumbs at what has to be the most bacteria-infested surface in the industrialized age. They took photos of their milkshakes and burgers, presumably posting them to whatever social media is cool right now; they had text conversations presumably with more interesting people than their physical companions. 

I'm pretty sure humans are in the process of evolving into a tribe of inarticulate, L-shaped Sissy Hankshaws. And not the pretty Uma Thurman version, either.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends less than two hours of screen time every day for children older than 2, and this includes the exceptional programming of PBS. But to keep up with progress, I think it's clear: The best way to adequately prepare kids for school—and the future—is to stick a tablet in the dog crate with them.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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