Palo Alto Weekly
News - November 16, 2012
'Unplug your kids,' psychologist advises
Palo Alto University's Robert Russell speaks at fourth 'Town and Gown' gathering
by Chris Kenrick
"Unplug your kids."
That was the message Friday, Nov. 9, of psychologist Robert Russell, who spoke in the fourth "Town & Gown" presentation by Palo Alto University.
Russell, who directs clinical training for the university that offers degrees in counseling and psychology, spoke at the Stanford Faculty Club to about 75 students and counselors, with strong representation from the Palo Alto Unified School District.
Today's children average nine hours a day of engagement with media, Russell said.
"Given that media exposure, you have to wonder about who is out to control the development of your child's consciousness. Consumerism and media have led some to conclude that corporations are really now constructing the view that we, and children themselves, adopt," he said.
"This raises the specter of the vulnerability of childhood itself."
Society's perception of children has changed radically since 1900, when they were viewed as "hardy, courageous, sturdy, wholesome, self-sufficient and capable," Russell said.
Today, he said, kids are seen as fragile, precious, vulnerable, sickly, dependent and incapable, with more than 20 percent living in poverty and high levels of obesity and diabetes.
Kids are firmly entrenched in a "consumer culture where we're bombarded by messages to 'buy, buy, buy,'" Russell said.
"You have an uphill battle as adults to engage children in a developmental stage" free from the escalating electronic competition.
Russell said parents should "get your children off the couch and back into nature. Engage them in rational conversation.
"Create challenges from them that are difficult but solvable. Don't level adversity; encourage adventure," he said.
So-called "helicopter parents" — those who hover around the children — make the mistake of trying to micro-manage their kids and shield them from failure, stunting autonomy and independence.
"Take some control," he said. "I talk to parents who ask me questions such as, 'Is it a bad thing for my 7-year-old to sleep with their cell phone?'
"Yes, it is, actually," he said.
"Unplug your kids and control it."
Palo Alto University, founded in 1975 and known until 2009 as the Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, has a campus on Arastradero Road and cooperative arrangements with the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and Stanford University.
This past June it awarded 39 doctorates, 29 doctorates in psychology, five masters degrees, 31 undergraduate degrees in business psychology and 32 undergraduate degrees in psychology and social action.
The university offers low-cost mental health services to the community through sliding-scale fees at the Gronowski Center, a clinic in Los Altos.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted by parent,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 12, 2012 at 8:19 pm
I agree with many of the professor's points -- he makes many valid and important points -- and I am especially concerned about the consumerist culture messages associated with most screen time today.
I'm not going to wax poetic about the good old days because there were plenty of GI Joe action figure and Lucky Charms commercials, but at least for a time, the Saturday morning commercials were replaced with School House Rock shorts, from which I learned my multiplication tables and how to recite the preamble to the Constitution. My parents let me have our old television in my room, and it had the intended effect: I realized I didn't much like watching TV sequestered in my room, it quickly became a dusty relic, and to this day, I don't believe in having media in bedrooms which are supposed to be calming and for sleep.
I will take issue with his characterization of parents today being the problem, especially in this community. In 1900, most children were expected to die before their 5th birthday. Life was hard, and those who could, protected their children. How far does the professor want to take this? My husband had access to knives and guns as an elementary student (though of course not automatic weapons like today). My husband's father had to hunt for food when he was that age, and had to shoot the family dog when it killed the chickens (Depression -- starvation was a real issue, and yes, this was real life, not some movie). Several of even my father's siblings died in childhood -- but then, there were a lot of them in order to ensure some survived. The kind of independence my father had was forced on him because of upheavals in the world, he saw his share of death as a child, and he's lucky to have survived himself. He still suffers emotionally because of it. Let's not gloss over the ills of the past.
People have far fewer children now, and We have the standard today that every child should survive into adulthood and thrive. This is despite how complex the world has become. A car seat is an essential safety device, so effective, it is the law, yet for how many people is this obvious? There were no car seats when I was a child. And who would think they risk their child's death by putting the child in that safety device in the front seat of the car? By facing it forward in back rather than backward when the child is an infant?, or backward in the front? Confused yet? What about the side airbags, do you know whether they are a safety risk for children or not? Studies show that a fair percentage of people don't even strap their kids in to their seats properly, risking injury or death in an accident. Clearly they buy the seats, earnestly try to use them -- but it's a complicated world, with a lot more to remember. When I was a kid, we played happily in the car for hours, pretending we were driving, in a fort, and so forth. Now, kids can't roll down the windows themselves, the electric windows cause a few dozen deaths every year because of the design of the mechanisms not mixing well with kids climbing around the car, and the airbags can be deadly if they misfire. That's not the doing of overbearing parents, and it's not for viewing their kids as "sickly" that they don't let them climb around the cars like they used to.
Kids are safer, and yet there are so many more nonintuitive rules necessary to ensure that safety. Where the professor sees helicopter parents, I see families trying to do the best they can to ensure that every child survives and thrives. Yes, he has good points about some parents needing to take charge, and even about the SMALL minority that seem to want to live their children's lives for them. And I do think the way people dealt with this brave new world initially, to avoid ever criticizing to raise children's "self-esteem" did a whole generation of kids a terrible disservice and our society is the worse for it (but that's another subject). However, as a parent in this community, I see mostly hard-working, caring, intelligent people trying to raise healthy, happy, kids in a complicated world. That includes helping them learn to be independent, and ensuring ALL of them survive and thrive.
Too often the charge of "helicopter parent" is made against any parent who is engaged and involved, often as a way to diminish or challenge parental authority in a situation where "winning" that power balance is to the challenger's benefit, not to help the children. Too often the charge is just a mirror of the old tendency to blame everything we don't understand on parents: autism was blamed on the equivalent of "helicopter" mothers in the day (or conversely, on distant, cold mothers), asthma and allergies were blamed on overbearing mothers, TB on a weak, overly romantic personality, and so on.
Having grown up way to fast in other parts of the country, where technology was not the issue, I think kids in this area get the benefit of a longer childhood (a good thing) because of how involved and caring parents are, and most are concerned about their kids getting outdoors, getting activity, not spending too much time on devices, etc. I think the charge of "helicopter parenting" is a too often, easily used charge leveled against all involved parents (warmed over and rehashed from charges from the last century like overbearing, cold, hysteric, whatever). The obesity and diabetes epidemics are complicated and I think it's harmful and premature to blame all parents trying to navigate an ever more complex world for it.