As greater emphasis is placed on the importance of human interaction for babies and young children, technology is moving in the opposite direction. The focus on the importance of early childhood education has put the spotlight on programs designed to advance the goal of bringing children of poverty up to the level of children of the wealthy. Technology is playing a role in various ways.
Research has pointed to interaction with parents and caregivers from birth as playing a significant role in brain development. This has evolved into a focus on words and the fact that children of the wealthy know more words than do those of the poor. One solution advanced is training parents to talk to their children.
Attention has been called to a program in Providence, R.I., and one in Houston that focus on training parents to talk to their babies and young children. The programs entail the use of small tape recorders that record all words spoken to and by them in vests worn by the children. The recordings are analyzed and the results used to demonstrate to parents and caregivers the importance of talking to their children as well as ways of doing so.
Apparently the programs have yielded results in increasing the number of words heard by children in the poorest families. But I wonder if the focus is not somewhat awry here. The idea behind the program is human interaction – not numbers of words.
The home visitors who do the training are interacting with parents and caregivers in the participating families. It is likely that the meaning of this human interaction to those who are often isolated with babies and young children is greater than the numbers counted. The relationships established in the process of teaching and learning play a significant role in the ability of caregivers to interact with their children in more meaningful ways.
At the same time that human interaction has become a focus for brain development and verbal competence, the tech world has created an interactive program in which children speak to an iPad. A child having a conversation with an imaginary character from a show he is watching may become the interactive future of tablet-based television watching. This approach is seemingly justified by the amount of time children spend watching TV and by the idea that a child is interacting and imagining along with a show, instead of passively staring at the screen.
Technology has undoubtedly made possible many worthy advances. But current usage appears to be moving in a direction away from what we have learned about aspects of human development that we value. There are those who feel that technology has increased human communication, and it is certainly true that social interaction has become global.
However, perhaps we need to stop to consider what is being lost in the process. Is a child spending time talking to a tablet a worthwhile replacement for imaginary play with friends or even with toys? An architect writes of the role building with Legos had in developing his creativity and ability at construction. He quotes Frank Lloyd Wright writing of himself as a child playing with the famous blocks, “A small interior world of color and form now came within grasp of small fingers.” He himself writes, “You have to take things apart if you seek to put everything together.”
It is personal interaction that is humanizing, promoting the kind of human development we say we seek. Tech talk does not always promote real communication – the kind between people, not between people and recorders or tablets.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at