When Children and Culture Collide: An Interview with P. Donohue Shortridge

P.DonohueShortridgeMany of you have heard of P. Donohue Shortridge or had the privilege of hearing her speak at your school or a Montessori conference. She has a master’s degree and is AMS certified at both the infant/toddler and early childhood levels.

She works with schools and families as a consultant, helping them implement Montessori ideals in their practice and in their lives. I thought it would be good to talk to her about the topic of children and culture, and she was kind enough to answer my questions. Let’s jump right in!

Lori: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Before we get into cultural influences, let’s talk about the first plane of development. What are the tasks and needs of the 0-3 child?

Donohue: Infants and toddlers are busy acquiring basic independent functions, i.e. becoming upright and learning to walk, learning to talk, learning to get dressed, learning to eat and mastering the toileting process.

As Dr. Montessori said, children of this age learn best through movement; their intelligence grows through movement, so this is why we see the non-stop, hands-on direct engagement with their environment. They are joyous explorers of everything. What they need is a consistent routine and caregivers who understand, model and facilitate the work at this age: self-mastery for basic skills.

They also need freedom to move about and fascinating three-dimensional items with which to engage. And most importantly, they need to be honored for the age and developmental stage they are at right now. Very young children cannot be reasoned with, they cannot wait, they cannot stop moving, they do not grasp abstract concepts and if the input is too fast and furious, they are easily overwhelmed.

Lori: It’s interesting to hear you list those qualities, because so often we think of those as negative but really it’s just a characteristic of that age group. What about 3-6?

Donohue: Children in 3-6 are taking all that input from the first three years and learning to organize it so that it makes sense and becomes personally useful. Still in the period of the absorbent mind, they are increasing their gross and fine motor development; their language becomes more sophisticated; they now engage memory and can wait. They are excited to make their bodies come under the command of their minds and they are working on figuring out what is real. They need hands-on experiences offered at their pace.

This is the time to offer reasonable reality, that is, reality at their development plane, which is different than for older children. This age child is working on making the connection between the three-dimensional world and how it is represented in language and pictures. Their language development is crossing the semi-abstract bridge into reading, writing and thinking.

For example, do animals talk? If the input coming at the child is predominantly talking animals, then there is confusion as to what animals really do. As an alternative, we offer reasonable reality, which is exposure to real animals at the appropriate level of encounter. And then we offer that semi-abstract bridge: accurate representations of that animal that connect back to the child’s real world encounter with that animal. This includes accurate pictures and the word labels for that accurate picture.

Think about how many concepts there are to form. Children of this age need us to offer real world experiences at their level and then accurate representations of that real world. With all that to do, there’s not much time in the day for “entertainment”.

Lori: What about children in the second plane of development (6-12)? What are their tasks and needs?

Donohue: Children now have their foundation laid for self-efficacy and are ready and eager to engage in the larger world. They have moved out of the period of the absorbent mind and their intellectual capacity and thirst expands exponentially. They are physically strong and steady, so that they can focus on expanding social and intellectual engagement with others.

Imagination is now a tool for discovery. This child needs the larger picture of the human-made and natural world presented as a puzzle to be solved, e.g. how high, how old, how big, how long ago, etc. until all the questions they can think of are answered. The first plane of development, that grounding in reality, now is the basis for further exploration, elaboration, and imaginings.

The elementary child needs the world offered in fascinating stories of the big picture, then lots of time and opportunity to get into the myriad details that comprise the bigger picture. They need hands-on, three-dimensional tools to help create the bridge to abstraction and they need to solve problems, both intellectual and social as well as physical.

Lori: How can parents make the best choices for their children when it comes to entertainment (movies, TV, video games, music)?

Donohue: Based on what the child needs at each level of development, as stated earlier, here is what parents might ask themselves in making these decisions:

~ Why am I offering this entertainment to this age child?
~ How does it further meet his needs and honor his tasks?

Lori: Good questions! It can be very hard to know what is appropriate or not. Can you give a specific example of a movie or TV show that is marketed to kids but is extremely inappropriate for young children?

Donohue: Currently, there is the second coming of the Happy Feet franchise. It burst on the scene five years ago and made a gagillion dollars, scaring little children all across America. It’s back and who knows what horrors are in store for our children this time. I wrote a review of the original Happy Feet which you can find on my website. P. Donohue Shortridge. Click on the Articles & Essays page and then look under the “For Parents” section.

I recently sent out an email to a lot of parents and Montessorians about the Happy Feet Two movie because I am so concerned about young children being exposed to it.

My concerns with this movie relate to:

• Young children being exposed to the incredibly fast-paced clips
• The relentless sound track and the rapid-fire dialog
• The movie’s content

Modern animation is sped up even faster than in the past. It is designed to bypass the frontal lobes where critical thinking occurs and be directly absorbed into the mid-brain where our emotions reign. Animators admit learning lessons from advertisers. Young children do not have the mature cognitive ability to process what is coming at them at this frenzied, hyper pace; it’s called cognitive overload. Happy Feet Two will also be available in 3D, which only intensifies the overload.

And as to my content-concerns, parents and children will see the trailer for Happy Feet Two everywhere in the next few weeks as part of the sophisticated marketing campaign for this sequel. Cute penguins with anthropomorphic faces and Elijah Wood’s voice (Frodo, for goodness sake); who could resist? Marketers further lure parents by use of adult humor and big name stars.

For Happy Feet Two, they’ve ramped up the star power by adding Matt Damon and Brad Pitt to the cast. However, the trailers do not always show what is in the movie itself. This was true of the first movie. To investigate for yourself, I invite you to watch the trailer for Happy Feet (you can find it on YouTube); then go to my website and read my review of that movie. The trailer belies what is actually in the movie. The content in the original Happy Feet was not appropriate for young children.

Will the content in the sequel be as unsuitable for young children? The original grossed almost $400 million and both movies have same writer, director and production company, so what would be different? I’ve been carefully watching the various trailers for Happy Feet Two splashed all over the television and already noticed two concerning incidents: a large sea creature gobbles a small innocent one who is frantically trying to escape, and in another scene, a sexy adult female penguin says at one point, “I’m getting a stalking vibe.”

I suggest that if you are seriously thinking of taking your young child to see Happy Feet Two that you go see it yourself first and then decide.

Lori: I think that’s really eye-opening because of the contradiction between the marketing of the movie and the actual content. I think it happens a lot.

Donohue: Look, parents are trying to figure out something to do with their children. So they do with their children what they used to do on their own – go to the movies. But ask yourself, why are you doing this? Just because it is out there enticing you to come on in, is it a good idea that you do so?

A recent piece of research suggests that many parents don’t really know what to do with their children, so they take them to restaurants, to Starbucks, to the movies, and put them in organized sports. Little children cannot handle all this very well. Of course they will cope, but is that what we really want for them?

Lori: Based on what you’ve said so far, I have to ask you: Is there anything positive to be found for kids in popular culture?

Donohue: I’m still looking for it.

Lori: How can parents make good choices about what their kids hear, see, and do?

Donohue: Again, if parents can understand what their child needs at this developmental moment, this can be the foundation for answering any question that comes up. OK, so I have a 13-month-old, who is working on walking every waking moment of his life, is this a good time to take a road trip with my child? I have a four-year-old, for example, is this the time to go to Disneyland?

We often remember our own childhoods older than our child is now. We don’t remember much of our years younger than six years old. So don’t rush it, keep it simple when they are younger, and keep it real when they get older. The key is to be sure to pay attention to where your child is right now.

Lori: How can we counteract things we want to keep our child from but they hear about anyway (from school, neighbors, family, etc)?

Donohue: Well, we can pretty much be in charge of what our children under three-years-old are exposed to because the parents pretty much have dominion over how that age-child spends his every waking moment. Or should have.

Children age 3-6? Again, this age child should pretty much be moving from home to Montessori school and back home again. Once in awhile, this 4-year-old will see and hear something disturbing. The antidote is lots of time in free-play nature. Make that negative experience become a smaller and smaller percentage of the child’s life by offering reasonable reality at his level. Then make a note to self to avoid/minimize that encounter in the future.

That would include things such as using the DVR so that your five year old won’t see that stupid commercial for the sarcastic comedy show that is advertised during the baseball game dad and child are watching together.

It could also include a talk with babysitter, grandparents and older siblings about what is and is not permissible for your young child to see. I would also avoid loud restaurants that blare the television and so forth. Back in early times, parents had to figure out how to keep the children safe from scary creatures that wanted to come in the cave; today, parents have the same protective job to do.

The difference is, and thus the challenge is that it was easy to tell the scary things back then; a bear is a threat to both adult and child, but today, that which seems “harmless” to adults is still scary and inappropriate to children, thus parents need a keen understanding of that which is inappropriate for children of different ages.

Lori: Any advice for divorced parents whose ex-spouse does not share their values?

Donohue: There is no good answer to this question. Divorce is a disaster for children, period. With that being said, offer what is appropriate at your house. One would hope that divorcing parents would be grown up enough to talk through these issues. When talking to the other parent, state what you are seeing, “When Nathan came home last week, he had nightmares two nights in a row and talked about the show he saw with you.” State facts and ask for cooperation. Keep your cool and don’t make it personal. And of course, never talk about the child in front of him.

Lori: We’ve talked a lot about negative things to keep our kids from – what should we be steering them towards, value-wise?

Donohue: For children under six, as much time as possible in free-range nature beyond the playground. Simple routines, lots of sleep, and no screen time.

For children over six, anything that engages their mind and body working together: this includes making things, chores, pick-up games freely chosen, pet care, gardening or other out-of doors activities. Some families value service to others; offer this at age-level appropriateness.

I would limit screen time to one hour a day and that includes everything added up: TV, DVDs, computers, smart phones, iPad, etc. And all of it supervised and chaperoned. Make a movie-watching experience on the weekend a big deal family affair. Think of it as a special event rather than the consistent background hum.

Lori: I think you have excellent suggestions and I really hope parents are listening to what you are saying. It’s easy to get defensive about the choices we make for our children but really, it’s not about us: it’s about them and what is important for their development. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me!

Donohue: Thank you, Lori!

For more information on the services that Donohue provides for Montessori homes and schools, and to read her essays about Montessori and parenting, please visit P. Donohue Shortridge.