“In the great green room, there was a telephone and a red balloon.” Recognize that line? Class? Anyone?
It’s the opening sentence of 1947’s “Goodnight Moon,” the perennial bestseller by Margaret Wise Brown. My mom read it to me; I to my kids and grandkids. It’s melatonin on a page. Puts parents to sleep in minutes.
The kids, however, might ask to hear it again. And again. I sure did. Loved the sound, the sheer magic of those 129 words. Learned to read them long before I went to school.
If you think I’m launching into one of my periodic sermons to young readers, you’re right. Some of the smartest, most imaginative works ever written are intended for kids: “Alice in Wonderland,” “Winnie-the-Pooh,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” “Green Eggs and Ham.” I could go on — about other childhood favorites, about rainy afternoons lost in a book, about the worlds of wonder and knowledge that await on the page.
Instead, let’s talk current events.
I was indeed transported back to that great green room the other day, but it was because of three news stories. First, the school year is starting and thousands of young Berkshire residents will be trying to regain the ground they lost in this past, COVID-cursed year. Second, September is National Literacy Month, a time to promote the printed word and the joy of reading, for kids and adults.
Yes, adults. Thirty-two million of them are functionally illiterate, according to the Department of Education, and 130 million — half of all adults — read at or below the sixth grade level. That’s barely enough to fill out a form, much less write a technical report for work.
The Barbara Bush Foundation says poor adult reading skills are costing Americans $2 trillion a year in lost wages. The better you read, the better your job and the more you earn.
The third news nugget is that China just announced it is limiting all school-age citizens to three hours of video games a week. Kids there have ID cards and are required to submit them to gaming sites before playing.
Sure, the new rule is typical commie overreach, but the goal is admirable. Our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that U.S. kids now spend six to nine hours a day — a day — in front of glowing screens. Studies have linked that level of exposure to attention deficits, sleep and emotional problems, obesity, social isolation, low grades and subpar reading scores. An hour online is usually an hour not spent reading a book.
What’s a democracy to do?
Our government and online operators are unlikely to restrict access for youngsters or anybody. So, it’s up to parents to patrol the electronic battlefield and make sure kids develop good reading skills.
I’ve written before about accomplishing that latter task. You know: Read to your children. Let them see you reading. Get them a library card. Keep books in the house.
But, weaning the kids away from screens is vastly more difficult. Some tips from the pros: Set limits on screen time. Use it as a reward for completed chores and other good behavior. Learn about — and set — the parental controls that come with many electronic devices, including TVs.
Create tech-free zones, like the dining room or the kitchen. Same for tech-free times of the day; certainly, meals. Don’t let the little nippers have a phone of their own until you, not they, are comfy with that. Get them outside — on sports teams, family hikes, games or even shopping trips. And leave the devices behind.
To avoid sleep-killing overstimulation, keep hand-held and other gadgets out of their bedrooms, and ban all use an hour before lights out. Cut back on your own device time or save it for after they’ve gone to sleep.
Also, ask them to tell you about anything they see online that puzzles or bothers them. Explain why you’re taking all these steps: electronic devices can be addictive — even dangerous — and destructive of reading skills.
A tall order, to be sure. But, you can tell your kids that if they don’t develop robust literacy now, they could be condemned to a life of low-wage misery. And if that approach doesn’t work, put it like this: Either it’s the great green room, or we send you to China.