The following is the first of several posts based on the new book, How To Be a Durable Human: Revive and Thrive in the Digital Age Through the Power of Self-Design.
One of the beautiful things about kids is that they’re unencumbered. Their minds are tabulae rasae—fertile, open fields. The job of parents, teachers, and other caring adults is to direct their exposure to seeds of knowledge and experience, and to help tend what takes root.
The idea, says Dr. Michael Rich—a pediatrician and founder of Children’s Hospital Boston Center on Media and Child Health—is to:
Build a menu of diversity which makes them a richer, fuller person.
Too much of anything—digital or otherwise—can throw anyone off balance. Here in the 21st century, we can take a lesson from Romanian orphanages that operated in the 1980s and 90s. Orphans who lived there would spend months alone in their cribs with virtually no physical affection or individual attention.
Today these people not only struggle with long-term mental and emotional problems, their brains are physically smaller. “We found a dramatic reduction in what’s referred to as grey matter and in white matter,” says Charles Nelson, a Harvard Medical School pediatrics professor and author of Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery. “Neglect is awful for the brain. The wiring of the brain goes awry.” (Grey matter is mainly for thought processing, while white matter is more structural and is used to transmit nerve impulses.)
These days, kids—or any of us, for that matter—can easily suffer from the benign neglect of too little physical and eye contact with other people and too much time with technology. “Overuse of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain,” researcher Byun Gi-won of the Balanced Brain Center in Seoul, South Korea, reported in a United Press International news story.
If you are over twenty years old, you are among the last people ever to grow up in a pre-digital existence (whom I affectionately call The Last Generation Before Cellphones). As such, you can draw from your unique experience to help kids cultivate balanced, durable lives—fertilized with loving touch and conversation. At times, it will be necessary to summon the guts to step in and interrupt their (and maybe your own) reverie—whether tech-based or otherwise—in the name of their (and maybe your own) overall development.
A college classmate of mine stepped in for the betterment of middle school students in Camden, New Jersey.
After Franciscan friar Jud Weiksnar was assigned to St. Anthony of Padua, he saw that the run-down, drug-infested park next to the parish school was too unsafe for students to go out and play.
But rather than ignoring it or contacting authorities himself, he taught students how to tackle the problem. He created what I call a durable human design: he started an after-school class in civic engagement.
The seeds Father Jud planted grew quickly. Within two years, after reaching out and meeting with public officials, the kids convinced them to light and restore the park. What came to be known as The Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force also secured millions of dollars in funding to fix a water runoff problem that had periodically flooded streets and basements for decades.
Through my reporting, I’ve gotten to know the Student Leaders and was honored when they asked me to facilitate their Martin Luther King Day of Community Organizing. In the summer, I went to Von Nieda Park for a cleanup day and talked with them as they repainted benches and picked up litter, only a little of which is still drug-related.
Because Father Jud empowered these kids with the know-how to do things for themselves and their community, they now exude self-confidence. You can see it in eighth-grade Student Leader Jose and his cohort, Ziani, who is now in high school on a full scholarship: (video 1 min. 45 sec.)
But, lest I leave you without your own durable human design tip, allow me to introduce the Talking Stick, a technique that emerged from indigenous peoples living along the northwest coast of North America. A Talking Stick can help you facilitate discussions within your at-home community—whether to address simmering feuds, dole out chores, or acknowledge an elephant in the living room.
As I write in How To Be a Durable Human:
The person holding the stick is the only member of the group who is permitted to speak. The stick is passed around so, eventually, everyone in the group has a chance to be heard. “Especially those who may be shy,” says Wikipedia. “Consensus can force the stick to move along to assure that the ‘long winded’ don’t dominate the discussion. The person holding the stick may allow others to interject.”
You can use a spatula, a carrot, or any sturdy hand-held object as your “stick.” Long ago, someone in our family picked up a piece of driftwood that we adorned over the years with feathers we also found on outings.
If you are lucky enough to be a member of the Last Generation, B.C. (or want to emulate one), feel good about taking the initiative to share your wisdom with loved ones. Some day, they may even thank you for it.