Parenting digital babies: Don’t throw the print out with the bathwater

This past week, I attended the annual meeting of the Society for Informational Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) in Austin, Texas. I have plenty of thoughts to share about sessions I attended and people I met but tonight, I only have a few minutes and I’ve been thinking about this post for a while.

You might have seen this video a couple of months back. It went viral pretty quickly and caused a bit of a stir. The conclusion that this father drew from watching his infant daughter test the characteristic iPad finger swipe on the photos of a magazine was that to her, the magazine must be a “broken iPad”.

For the most part, people lapped up this video and the dad’s conclusions. I mean, the baby WAS amazingly cute. Who could resist? Plus, the myth of the digital native is rather compelling.

I’d like to offer a different interpretation, however. It’s one I shared with my esteemed professor, Punya Mishra over coffee and with fellow Ontario Certified Teachers Anita Drossis (@adrossis) and Deb Kitchener (@kitchenerd) from Abel Professional Learning and Learning Connections at the end of their fabulous roundtable discussion at SITE. (I also ranted about this to Jack Smith one day in January on the 5th Floor of Erickson Hall.)

To me, the dad gets it wrong…and in fact, may be doing his daughter a real disservice by thinking about her emergent literacies in this polarized way. That the child tested her finger swipe on the magazine images shouldn’t surprise anyone if the only texts to which she has had repeated access have been delivered on an i-device. To me, this child’s curiosity about the static image suggests that she has had limited exposure to print media which, lest we forget, have their own set of affordances and constraints — some of which overlap with those of images on the iPad and some of which do not.

I don’t see a child who thinks the magazine image is a broken iPad. I see a young child who has had limited exposure to multiple genres of text and media and who, in the absence of a schema to understand this “new” print media, used her existing iPad schema to make sense of it all. The magazine wasn’t broken. The child just hadn’t had enough experiences with printed media to understand how it worked.

Importantly, I ask why not? What were these parents doing? Obviously, I don’t know, but the baby’s behavior suggests a skewed emphasis on one type of text (i.e., digital) over others.

As the parent of two young children myself, I understand the frisson of delight that comes as we see our kids figure out these powerful new technologies. Heck, my 17-month old baby’s vocabulary includes Google, and Skype. But here’s the thing. She’s no digital-age savant. She’s just talking about her world (she also says book and read!)

My suggestion: don’t throw the print out with the bathwater. Our babies will be smarter and more able to adapt to the unprecedented demands of their literate futures if we bathe them early and often in multiple genres of print and digital texts today.

(P.S. While grabbing the embed code at YouTube for the video, I read several comments that make points similar to mine, though perhaps a little more sharply. I don’t think these parents have “failed” as several YouTube commenters have suggested. Rather, I think their daughter has already had important and rich literacy experiences – they just appear to have been limited in scope. Fortunately, in their case, I’m pretty sure there’s still time to introduce multiple print genres to go along with the digital genres she already knows :))

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