An “Electronics Police-Mom” Goes Digital

Most parents I know set rules around how their kids use “electronic devices” and try vigorously to enforce them. In fact, it has become a point of parental pride to have a policy. It’s like the new “my kids eat organic food” trend. Good parents set limits, limits, limits. I’ve heard parents say, “My child cannot use the playstation or any other electronic device during the week and we limit usage on weekends.” And others say, “My child can earn thirty minutes a day of “screen time” if they do all their school work.”

I admit it — I am an “electronics police-mom” as my children have displayed alarming addictive behaviors, spending endless hours on the Wii, playstation, watching DVDs, itouch, kindle and on our MACs. And they are so engrossed on the devices that they appear somewhat dazed and checked out or they may yell out seemingly random things or high five each other for achieving some obscure level. What starts out as checking school assignments on-line ends up as watching an episode of 24. And every time we get in the car my 7 and 8-year olds ask within 1 second, “Can I use your phone? Can I play on your iPad?” I tell myself I am only relenting because this will keep them occupied during a boring appointment. But the truth is, I’m getting a little worn down. This policewoman is tired!

They are savvy negotiators, our children. EVERY child has some electronic device and they are biding their time before they can get the next. My kids are already begging for the iPad2 and I have said strongly – “no way, too expensive”. But we already caved in on the Kindle for our 13 year-old. Yes, she got her Dad’s hand-me-down as we can download via the Kindle app on our iPhones and iPads. But she has one! When they were being released in 2008, we said, “Not for kids, too expensive” and she had one by 2010. A matter of time…

So we are on the fence – can we keep policing the use of electronics by our kids? Schools are trying – “NO CELL PHONES during school hours” but the kids are texting and reading school assigned reading on Kindles. Since all good parents are electronics police but many of the devices are multi-purpose, what are we supposed to do? And the wild west of trend-setting is coming at us – e-books! Do we limit these or embrace them and the devices that carry the content?

Read ahead with caution as I will hit on another topic that is near and dear to all parents’ hearts–

We really want to develop a love of reading in our four children and this seems to be a priority on every good parent’s agenda. But “how to” is very elusive. Why doesn’t my second child love to read when it seems everyone else’s children are avid and engaged readers?

When my son was two, he would grab his favorite book (“We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”) and jump on my lap. We read it in silly voices and never skipped a word or missed a page. It was memorized and cherished and I felt happy at the prospect of having a good reader on my hands. But when he went to kindergarten and was required to read every night — he started to protest! And, when he went to second grade and was asked to keep a reading journal, he became a “short-cut taker.” As parents, we needed a strategy! How could we get our son to love to read again?

A teacher once told us, a critical step occurs in all children– when the child switches from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This is why, as parents, we strive to create a love of reading. When children are “learning to read” it can be a wonderful journey, but, when they begin to have Science and other subjects (starting in around 2nd grade), kids have to use their reading skills to understand directions, read and comprehend materials and complete work. So engaged readers have a better chance of becoming good learners.

Since our kids are addicted to electronic devices, could we somehow transfer this love of electronics to a love of reading?

We researched and found the digital revolution offers even more than we hoped to foster a love of reading by leveraging their desire to use electronic devices. Today’s children feel very comfortable with technology, especially their hand held electronics. And, the biggest trend in building reading skills and reading comprehension in the best schools is using a multi media approach. At more and more schools, using the computer (and increasingly electronic tablets) is a core piece of the reading curriculum.

So, we danced with the idea of hanging up the police uniform and opening up the electronics usage rules. What did they think was a good idea in terms of electronics usage? We were shocked when they knew about Math apps and state capital apps and Madlibs where you have to insert a noun, verb, adverb, etc. – they’ll have to learn what they are! They are also excited to download their favorite books. The Hunger Games was out at the store but available on Kindle. The Fujimini Adventure Series comes with an Asian glossary attached to the iBooks so they can learn about another culture! Our kids were selling us on using electronic devices to read and LEARN.

We could not show we were too excited at the prospect of having the “once heavily regulated” devices used for educational purposes but we are secretly thrilled. If these devices can be used for learning, I can be flexible and allow them to be used for other purposes as well (and, Angry Birds is really fun after all).

And now “tablets” are the reading devices of the future. Adult books have been moved and consumed at an alarming speed and young adult content is following rapidly. Enhanced e-books will be hitting children’s books as the e-reading devices flow out.

So we are already exploring enhanced ebooks for one of our children who loves cartoons, so he can watch the stories unfold and follow the words as he goes along. We are hoping the dynamic nature of animated books will motivate him to read more and content can be downloaded NOW. The NOW factor is huge – if your child wants to continue reading or find the next book in the series, we can buy it and promise if he behaves he can read it tomorrow. Can you believe this change in tactic?

There will be a multitude of agencies cropping up to review products as well as blogs and other informal reviewers. We are trying to be proactive. The technologies are here to stay and I would rather figure out how to harness the beasts than how to stop my kids from using them.

Ink books will always have a place in our hearts as the classic way to read and bond with our kids. But in 2011, we must also embrace technology to keep our kids addicted to reading and learning. They still have to talk to us at dinner; that is our new big rule. It is time for this electronics policewoman to retire and let the cool digital mom emerge. Attention good parents – time to change from limiting electronics to influencing the content!

Eileen Wacker, a Harvard Business School graduate, lived and worked in seven different countries, including the United States. Wacker now resides in Honolulu, Hawaii, with her husband and four children, one of whom is a daughter adopted from China. She is the author of the new children’s book, Silent Samurai and the Magnificent Rescue, the third installment of the Mom’s Choice Award Winning Fujimini Adventure Series. For additional information on the series, please visit