Saturday, January 20, 2018
How the Things we Consume Change Us and our Children
When I played Minecraft, I dreamed in cubes. This was merely a comic moment in my life, until I recently began assimilating this memory with other things like the camera's place in my relationship with my children, their and my own relationships with media, now that they're teens, and my parenting in general. I've been thinking about how we process and synthesize learning, where the learning comes from (what choices we make about what goes into our mind), and, of course, how we're raising our children. Dreaming is one of the most important ways we synthesize the thoughts, emotions, and experiences from our waking life. Dreams often bridge the gap between our experiences and the creative solutions we come up with. In his 2017 article in UC Berkeley's Greater Good Magazine, Matthew Walker says that "During the dreaming state, your brain will cogitate vast swaths of acquired knowledge and then extract overarching rules and commonalities, creating a mindset that can help us divine solutions to previously impenetrable problems." So what goes in during the day gets synthesized at night, and then becomes a part of the thought-matrix we use for solving problems in the future. So maybe the fact that I now seem to paint on small square canvases, assembling them in rearrangeable grids, has come from Minecraft's influence on my subconscious mind. Minecraft may be the reason my art looks this way. Not a big deal, but weird. And worrisome, when I extrapolate this thought to the other things I put in my mind... and in my children's minds.
Everything we consume becomes a part of our subconscious landscape, and influences our decisions in the real world. Our brains are masters of adaptation, and our thought processes determine how the brain will change itself. In their 2016 article on FastCompany, Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane explain that "If you’re in a fight with someone at work and devote your time to thinking about how to get even with them, and not about that big project, you’re going to wind up a synaptic superstar at revenge plots but a poor innovator."
While all these articles I'm linking to are fascinating from a scientific perspective, what I think we need to be talking about is the decisions we're making about learning choices. We are always learning. Every single experience you have in your day, from the way you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning to the conversations you have with your fellow commuters, to the media you consume while on a work-break to the book you read before falling asleep becomes a part of the clutter that your brain will sort through and synthesize while you sleep. It becomes one of the things you subconsciously take into consideration when making every decision from what to eat for dinner to whether to run, walk, or dance down the street. We need to be mindful of those things we put into our brains, and equally, we need to be mindful of how we're raising our children.
What are we teaching our children? From the first seconds of their development inside our wombs, we've been influencing them.We tell ourselves that the curriculum they follow at school, or the homeschooling curriculum and schedule we so lovingly craft, or even the summer camps we send them to will be a part of their wonderful rich learning experience. And they will! But so will the way they witness our own behaviour at home. They too are always learning; always observing and internalizing and dreaming what they see into the physical structure of their brains. They know whether we work to solve hard situations, whether we listen to our partners or cut them down; whether we sweep our problems under the carpet or confront them head on; even the words we choose and the respect we have or don't have for each other will become the way our children solve their problems. Also, they will learn from the schoolyard as much or more than they will learn from the classroom. They will learn from the television, music, games, and social media that they consume. They will learn from the advertisements they walk by on the street, and the displays in store-windows. They will learn from the way the wind blows through the trees the way the deer hides but the crow doesn't, and the way the school-bus chugs as the driver turns the key, and the way the driver chugs his coffee. They will learn from the ways we make our decisions, which are influenced by the things we consume while they're not looking.
And I'm not advocating a lockdown of our children, here. Quite the opposite, actually. Protecting our children from life would only mean they develop few skills to consciously choose what they put into their own brains. Is it possible that as my kids play video games and watch online videos unsupervised they are changing their brains for the worse? Of course it is. It's probable that as my son builds his Minecraft fortresses to keep out monsters he increases the likelihood that he will choose to build fortresses (physically, psychologically, or emotionally) in his real life. It's likely that the more my daughter watches reality TV the more she looks at life as a competition, and success as defined by coming out on top of others. These are the realities of the world we live in.
We can't keep our children caged from the world, but we can improve the world, and because we and our children are part of a greater community, the more of us make commitments in this regard, the easier it will be for all of us to make the changes. The two most potent changes we can make, I think, are to make responsible decisions ourselves, and to give our children more agency. And neither of these is easy.
By making responsible decisions ourselves, I mean that we live mindfully. We need to think of what we are doing and why; to make conscious decisions. We need to ask ourselves 'why am I watching this violent TV show to relax'; 'why am I wearing makeup to feel confident'; 'why do I drink wine when I'm stressed or to feel happy'? And then we need to ask ourselves if these actions serve our purposes. We need to ask ourselves how we'd feel if our children made the same decisions (because research shows they are likely to). But more importantly, our children will see us making considered choices, and they are then more likely to do the same.
Which leads me to part two: Our children don't need to be sheltered, they need to be given their own agency. They need to be given the responsibility of exploring the world and making their own choices - even when it terrifies us (and I know it does!) If we let our children play the games they will play; read the books they will read, and befriend the people they will befriend, then they will see not only that the world is a vast and complex place, but that we trust them to manage themselves in that world. And if they've learned from our own modeling how to carefully consider their decisions and the things they put into their minds, then they are more likely to manage themselves well in that world.
I've been talking to my children all their lives about how what they consume will effect the way they see the world. And they still do things that don't seem healthy to me. Still, it's important that I give them the space to go out and experiment, trusting that they as well as I will make the best decisions for our own well-being.
at 4:30 PM