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Book World: Digital Dads and Microchip Moms [The Washington Post]

Book Review by Hope Katz Gibbs
Book World / The Washington Post
Education Review

THE PLUGGED-IN PARENT
What You Should Know About Kids and Computers
By Steve Bennett
Times Books / Paperback / 187 pages / $15

I’ve long been a fan of Steve Bennett’s 1991 book, 365 TV-Free Activities. It sits dog-eared and well worn on the “good mommy” section of my bookshelf. I like it for its simplicity, its ideas (making a Bug Motel is a favorite), and its basic premise—that good parenting means extracting your kids from the grip of Barney and interacting with them.

So I had high hopes for Bennett’s newest book, “The Plugged-In Parent,” and fortunately I wasn’t disappointed.

The book is engaging from its first page, where Bennett introduces himself not only as a computer expert who has authored 55 books on computing, parenting, environment and business, but a parent. Bennett is one of us. Even with all his professional / technological expertise, he too grapples with the effects of the digital age on his kids.

Bennett writes, “Aside from the fact that [his daughter, Audrey) is just seven, technology has always been part of her young life. She’s a member, like her ten-year-old brother Noah, of a digital generation that began banging on keyboards as toddlers and now can do things with PCs that would leave many adults scratching their heads. But for all their technological prowess, will kids of the digital era fare better than their predecessors?”

Ah, the million dollar question.

He admits it’s anyone’s guess if computers and related technologies will become dream machines that enhance kids’ lives. The downside, of course, is that these seemingly marvelous machines will turn out to be digital demons that hasten the already-shrinking period of life known as childhood.

His concerns hit home. As a reporter who writes about technology for The Washington Post, I regularly engage my daughter Anna to help me test educational software programs. I sat her down in front of my Mac when she was 18 months old. Would she know what to do with the mouse to get pop the bubbles on Reader Rabbit program before her? Oh yes. It took her 10 seconds. And although I continue to let her play the games that regularly come in the mail for me to test, I often wonder—shouldn’t we really be at the park?

Yes, says Bennett. Find a jungle gym and get out into the fresh air with your kids.

But also he sagely advises that parents make peace with the PC—because the technology is not going away. He points to a study by Forrester Research, which suggests that in two years, 27 percent of 18-year-olds will have grown up with PCs in their households.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of sitting around and debating whether or not the technology is good or bad for our species,” Bennett writes. “It’s here now, and we need to find ways of drawing on its best aspects and avoiding its worst.”

In nine chapters, Bennett tries to teach us how.

First, he suggests that parents make a commitment to learning as much as they can about the hardware and software that is coming into the home. Granted, some of his suggestions aren’t novel, but throughout he offers advice on how to avoid potholes on the cyber expressway.

For instance, Bennett urges that before plunking down $30 or $50 for the latest game, families should be good reviewers. Ask does anyone really need the game, does it offer meaningful interactivity, and—most importantly—will it stand the test of time?

He also gives great tips on how to keep kids learning as they play with the computer. Each day, he suggests, encourage kids to use an electronic reference source to find an interesting fact, or a memorable event. For the more technologically sophisticated clan, he suggests designing their own games or creating family newsletters.

The bottom line says Bennett, is that you are the parent—and you are in charge.

“We have many choices to make regarding technology in our homes, and not just about what kind of software we buy and what our kids do online,” he writes. “We can purchase devices or software that restricts television, phone, and computer use. To the extent that you’re willing to become a plugged-in parent, you can pluck the best of what the digital age has to offer and bring it into your household in a way that enriches your children’s lives.”

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Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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