What can we do in the New Year to help build inclusive communities amid a time of polarization?
BY D. ALEX BERGREN
Perhaps this is the kind of thing one would expect to hear from an educator, but the path to building inclusive communities begins with children and an understanding of how critical it is that we as adults actively monitor the influences on their rapidly developing brains.
There are many sources of influence on the developing viewpoints and characters of children. Traditionally, perhaps, the most powerful influences have been parents, school and church. Coaches, scoutmasters and other adult mentors also carry considerable weight until the teen years when peers and media, in its many forms, begin to wield much more power. The race is on to ensure a strong groundwork is laid before these new influences are brought to bear. It has been the natural order of raising children for generations.
With the rapid growth in the power and ubiquity of technology, that natural process has changed. A fourth source of influence has found a way to gain access to and grab hold of the brains of younger and younger kids while the other three — parents, school, church — have begun to lose influence.
We all know parenting is hard, and in the readily available screens we found an ally. Put a screen in the hands of a child and the backseat bickering in the car goes away, dinners out are more peaceful and a respite from the chaos can more easily be found. It’s an easy solution — so easy, in fact, that we often do not recognize or acknowledge the potential dangers.
As parents, we are making an expedient choice while unwittingly exposing children to an unfettered, unfiltered stream of information that is, by design, hypnotizing, endlessly attractive, even addictive. Children may potentially be exposed to things that might shock even the most jaded adult, and as they are being exposed their brains are being shaped and transformed. We are giving a tremendous amount of power to this fourth source of influence on elementary and pre-teen children.
We must recognize that when we provide screens to pre-adolescent children, we are in fact making our jobs as parents exponentially more difficult, even if the car ride is quieter. We are bringing an enemy into our midst. Our children are being exposed to things we never could have imagined when we were children. Technology is certainly powerful, and there are many advantages, but forgive me for quoting Uncle Ben in Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
So what does all this have to do with building inclusive communities? We must begin by recognizing the growing power and platform of forces that are eroding the fabric of our communities, and we must recognize it is time to take back the influence we gave away so easily. Putting an iPad or smartphone in the hands of an upset six year old to calm him is a microcosm of a larger problem: the ceding of parental responsibilities to a proxy, in this case a particularly dangerous one. Recognition that we created this problem is the first step. Striving to take back our influence comes next.
We must strive to make sure the fourth source remains at best just that: less influential than parents and schools. The heart and soul of a community can be found in its children. We cannot allow the fabric of our community to fade into screens where the very worst kinds of influences, the dark heart of human vice and hate, lies in wait to influence the children who are accessing them.
I won’t be able to capture the action plan required to win back that influence in this space, but I cannot emphasize enough that it is both exceedingly challenging and critically important. Parents are the vanguard, and school should be right behind. We need to take back eye contact; we need to take back conversation; we need to bring back the family dinner; we need to help our children deal with challenges without sedating them with technology; we need to ensure critical discourse and thinking; we need to take control of the forces shaping our children’s brains.
Parents must be more powerful than media. We are the first source, and the strengthening of our communities starts with us.
The Independent News posed a question to community leaders, writers and artists: What can we do in the coming New Year to help build inclusive communities amid a time of polarization? If you would like to share your own thoughts, respond to this project or even complain, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bergren is the principal of Princess Anne Middle School.
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