Lasts and Firsts by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Welcome to the 2014-2015 school year.

Senior year has finally arrived in our house. Ever since Adam entered his preparatory school, we’ve been counting backwards from Class VI. And now here we are among the parents and members of Class I. For Adam and us, his parents, it will be a year of lasts and firsts. This will be the last time I launch a child of mine into the school year from our home. The next stop is college. This will be the last time I attend a back-to-school night; I won’t meet his professors in college. This will be the last year I cheer from the sidelines during one of Adam’s cross-country races. He probably won’t be running competitively in college.

But it will also be a year of firsts for Adam. Most notably he’ll be going through the arduous process of applying to colleges. We’ve done the prerequisite legwork of the college applicant, dutifully making our way to look at schools. There’s no clear favorite, although parents and child have their opinions. Having gone through this before, I try very hard to keep my opinions to myself. I work on remembering that this is Adam’s life and that I must wholeheartedly support him much the same way I do during a running meet.

Grace—I think that will be the watchword to which I return over and over this year. The grace to understand that, perhaps for the first time in his young life, Adam must have significant control over his decisions. The grace to appreciate the decisions he makes. The grace to accept those decisions. Grace is an odd word for a Jewish parent. Ask a Jew if grace is an overtly Jewish concept and the answer is most likely no. But in Judaism, the idea of grace is bound up in G-d’s infinite mercy. Rabbi Rami Shapiro who wrote a book on the subject of grace in Judaism notes that grace encompasses, “G-d’s unlimited, unconditional, unconditioned, and all-inclusive love for all creation.”

I’m surprised that my thoughts have turned to G-d in this essay. What does G-d have to do with the college process—G-d who has bigger and more important issues to which to attend. But I must confess that I saw flashes of G-d’s grace in the required autobiographical essay that Adam wrote for his college counselor. Note this is not the common application essay—the autobiographical essay was strictly written as informational for the people writing his school and teacher recommendations. And yet, it was profoundly eye-opening for me.

I knew that Adam and Anna got along well—in fact I have often marveled over how close they are. They are, in many respects, best friends. But this was driven home for me when Adam’s essay described the way Anna influenced many of his decisions ranging from playing soccer and singing in the school choir, to the way she treats people. As the older sibling, Anna has had a profound influence on Adam’s derech eretz—literally, the ethics that he holds dear in life. He wrote, “My sister showed me that it is sometimes more important to listen to your friends than talk. She was nice to me and in turn encouraged me to be nice as well. She taught me how to retort with wit, how to lose with grace and how to generally function as a person. She taught me how to be a confidant, by placing her trust in me, and in turn never told my secrets. “

After reading Adam’s words about Anna I thought, yes, Ken and I have done our jobs as parents. As I read on, I was buoyed by Adam’s descriptions of his late night talks with Ken about science. “My father and I had this tradition when I was younger,” Adam writes. “He would sit in the rocking chair in my room and talk about science with me. He would entertain my questions about space and anatomy, which I used to think were the only important parts of science. He fostered in me a scientific curiosity that remains to this day. I credit him with my infatuation with all things scientific. He encouraged me to always ask questions and to learn what was really going on around me.”

I think I was most surprised about Adam’s observations of me. It did not escape Adam’s notice that I have a difficult relationship with my mother. But he lauded me for sticking with her and doing my best to make her comfortable and happy. I was touched that, as young as he is, he appreciated that, “my mother never told me to distance myself from my grandmother. She told me to always love her and respect her. She taught me how to be patient.”

Adam’s essay reflects the best of lasts and firsts. Through his observations, I understood that this may be one of the last times that his parents have such a primary influence on his life, But it’s also a first—the first time that I recognized my son had the grace and empathy of the adult I hoped he would become.

 

The New SAT by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Adam saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Magazine a couple of weeks ago, he groaned, “Too late for me.” The headline that upset him, “The Story of the SAT Overhaul,” announced that a new version of the SAT was coming out in the spring of 2016.

Adam had just come off of taking the nearly four-hour exam the day before and he was not a happy camper. Ask Adam what he thinks of the SAT and he’ll happily give you an earful on the subject. “The SAT is quite possibly the worst way to gauge a student’s ability to perform at a college level,” he says. “The vocabulary is unnecessarily obscure, the reading analysis asks the most random questions, the writing section indoctrinates students to lose all sense of creativity and style and the essay is judging a student’s ability to write in a time limit not suitable for a well constructed paragraph.”

SAT
Of course, that’s one kid’s opinion, but I suspect many of his peers share it as well. It appears that the College Board has been listening too. For the second time in ten years the Board is thoroughly revising the way it tests college applicants. According to David Coleman, who took over as head of the College Board in 2012, the changes will go far in democratizing the test for all students.

In effect, Coleman is acknowledging the SAT’s dirty, open secret – families with access to wealth, education, a good school or all three have an unfair advantage when preparing for the test. The new SAT will be more aligned with what a college-bound senior should have learned in a common core curriculum. Before coming to the College Board, Coleman was a key figure in the development of the Common Core Standards. Those standards, with their emphasis on analytical thinking as well as key math and writing concepts, will be reflected in the new SAT. As it stands now, Coleman acknowledges the test is “disconnected” from the high school curriculum.

Some of Adam’s criticisms have been dealt with in the test that will be administered in 2016. The section that is currently labeled critical reading will merge with multiple choice writing questions from to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Thankfully, current questions known as “sentence completion” will be jettisoned, addressing Adam’s complaint about defining “unnecessarily obscure” vocabulary.

The College Board will include more science, history and social studies questions for further analysis on the exam. New among those passages will be source documents from American luminaries like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The math section will focus more on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics touching on more advanced mathematics. As it stands now, calculators are allowed throughout the math sections, but they will be barred from certain portions in the future to determine math fluency.

The mandatory essay, an innovation of the 2005 SAT, will be optional in the future. Students will now have 50 minutes to analyze evidence as well as an author’s argument. Currently, test-takers have only 25 minutes to answer a prompt that doesn’t require them to verify facts or worry about accuracy.

The change that I am most excited about in this whole SAT business is that it has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to test preparation. Gaming the SAT is a $4.5 billion-a-year industry that preys on parents and kids alike. To end this madness (and yes, my kids took prep courses, so I got caught up in the frenzy too), Coleman has partnered with Khan Academy, which offers free online tutorials on myriad subjects ranging from literature to calculus.The academy was founded in 2006 by Sal Khan, 36, who left his job as a successful hedge-fund manager with the goal of bringing a world-class education to anyone with an internet connection. With that same can-do, egalitarian spirit, Khan Academy will offer its trademark free videos on preparing for the new SAT.

The new SAT will also hopefully make books like the newly published, The Perfect Score Project: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT by Debbie Stier feel anachronistic. Stier is a suburban New York mom who decided that the only way to gain admission and win a scholarship to college for her B average son was to help him achieve a perfect 2400 on the current SAT. Thirty years earlier, Stier had done poorly on her own SAT exam, so in her quest to beef up her son’s academic profile she took the SAT as an adult – seven times in seven different test centers. She went to tutoring companies, engaged pricey private teachers and generally drove herself nuts. She didn’t achieve a perfect score – her verbal scores steadily improved but she never scored more than the mid-500s in math – but she learned a thing or two about the unfairness of the system along the way.

As for Adam, he says that SAT has too much power in teenagers’ lives. He’s doubtful whether a new version can come close to reigning in that power. He may be right. Yet after all is said and done, most college admissions officers note that grades, not SAT scores, are the best predictors of success in college.

For the Breath of Schoolchildren by Judy Bolton-Fasman

The Talmud states that “parents bring a child into this world but a teacher can bring a child into the World to Come.” As I was searching for this quote on the Internet, in its idiosyncratic wisdom, Google also pointed me to the saying that a father is obligated to teach his son to swim.

On the surface, these two Talmudic directives seem to be at odds with each other. The first asks parents to give over their child to a teacher for a proper education. The second is a handson command to teach a child a basic survival skill. But walk into Dr. Jonathan Garlick’s research laboratory at Tufts Dental School and the two dictums come seamlessly together.

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Dr. Jonathan Garlick

Garlick is a professor of oral pathology and the head of a stem cell research laboratory, for which the ultimate goal is “using [stem] cells for personalized therapies for regeneration and repair of diseased or damaged tissues and organs. [And] to develop novel applications for artificial skin made in the lab that closely mimics the form and function of this human tissue.”

“Science is about communication,” says Tufts University Professor Jonathan Garlick.
In short, Garlick harvests stem cells that allow him to model the way your skin behaves. But read the summary of his research closely and you’ll pick up subtext that the two Talmudic dictums suggest: designing experiments that further our understanding of how stem cells can be used to fight disease and developing the hands-on laboratory protocols that are required to expand that knowledge. As novel and innovative as Garlick’s scientific work is, there is something else just as extraordinary happening in his laboratory: He is deliberately and effectively training the next generation of scientists and science-literate students. And he is capturing their hearts and minds while they are still in high school. There has now been a long line of Gann Academy students and others, including my children Anna and Adam, who have completed immersion programs in Garlick’s laboratory specifically geared to pre-college students. It began when Garlick welcomed high school seniors from Gann into his workspace through Ma’avar – the school’s six-week externship program. The experience proved to be so powerful for both the students and Garlick that he went on to design a two-week immersion experience for high school students in the summer.

Garlick is passionate about his work and dedicated to his mission “to be an incubator for student learning of all ages. This isn’t just about research, but about the broader impact of science in their lives. I want kids to converse in science, and by that I mean that I want to inspire them to be empowered citizens in ongoing conversations about science.”

Garlick’s vision of educating students is couched in the Jewish values that he holds dear. He explains that his research with stem cells is a type of regenerative medicine that he views as “molecular ‘Tikkun Olam’” – he sees replacing damaged cells with cells that he grows in the laboratory as contributing to healing the world.

Garlick recognizes that aspects of stem cell research are open to public debate. He says that his mandate to teach science to younger generations and beyond evolved from his experience as a stem cell researcher. He observes that his work is often surrounded by “moral, political and legal issues that have a direct impact on scientific research. I needed to learn about these broader impacts in order to better understand how social, moral, philosophical and ethical issues that are grounded in science can play an increasingly larger role in our contemporary lives.” To that end, Garlick relishes teaching students how to wrestle with issues at the interface of our capabilities and conscience while also emphasizing respectful debate.

“Science,” notes Garlick, “is about communication. There is value to communication and teamwork when doing scientific research.” Students in his laboratory also learn that they have personal stakes in the work to which they are exposed. Garlick cites the human genome as a prime example. What does a researcher, an insurance company or, for that matter, a private citizen do with the information that is generated? With whom do we share it? What is confidential and what is public? What does one do when she learns that she may be at risk for a particular disease?

“I teach my interns about probabilistic information versus deterministic information, judgment versus uncertainty,” says Garlick. “It’s crucial to help these students develop powers of discernment to appreciate the broader impact of this technology in their lives.”

As with much of science, failure is a “welcomed part of the experimental learning process. We get unexpected results. In fact, at times, we don’t get it right, but every result has a purpose and kids end up using critical-thinking skills to teach each other.”

In addition to growing stem cells, Garlick emphasizes that he is cultivating a culture of “derech eretz” – respect – in his laboratory. “Mutual respect and collaboration is a value that transcends cliques in high school. We engage individuality for the greater good. And that individualism has meaning and value whether it is from a 10th-grader or a postdoctoral student. My goal is to humanize the science.”

Jonathan Garlick’s dedication to nurturing the next generation of scientists and informed citizens brings to mind another Talmudic saying that joins the work of teachers and parents: “The world endures only for the sake of the breath of schoolchildren.”

Sorting Through the Parent Backpack by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When Anna was 11 years old, she asked if I would read “ The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to her. Not one to want to miss out, Adam asked if he could also listen to the story.

I was hesitant to read the book to my young children. How would I explain its apparent racism? Were they too young to understand the difference between cultural norms and malicious prejudice? Had I worked out the context in which “Huckleberry Finn” existed in my own heart and mind?

I plunged ahead and read the book to my children. As a result, we had deep conversations about the language of racism. We concluded that words hurt as much as punches. It turns out that “Huckleberry Finn” is on Adam’s English syllabus this year. I feel good that I prepared him for the tough issues the book brings to the foreground.

I told that story recently to ML Nichols, author of the very helpful book “ The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5: How to Support Your Child’s Education, End Homework Meltdowns, and Build Parent-Teacher Connections.” In addition to having that important conversation about difficult subjects, she confirmed what I have intuited all these years: that “reading with your kids even for 15 minutes a day makes a profound difference in a child’s education. Teachers know which families are reading to their children. And if your kids will let you, read to them through middle school.”

parentbackpack
Middle school? Isn’t that the time when kids are first testing out their independence? Nichols noted that in between those attempts at separation from parents, some middle schoolers secretly like to be read to: “ They won’t tell their friends but from a very young age, kids like the bonding, the rhythm the expression in your voice. All that makes reading a pleasurable experience. Reading with your kids is also a great way to help them build vocabulary.”

According to Nichols, the best way to support a child’s education is to model read for that child. “Reading is a pillar of the elementary school years,” she noted. “If a child doesn’t develop those core reading skills, he or she can struggle through the rest of school.” Nichols asserts that the best way to inspire a child to read is to model it for children: “ Whether you’re reading a book, a newspaper or a tablet – let your kids see you reading.”

Nichols’ wisdom on all things connected to elementary school education is hard-won. The idea for her book came about 12 years ago when her oldest child, now a senior in high school, was entering kindergarten. She looked around for a book that might guide her through her children’s early school years and came up empty. It was also a time when she had stopped working outside the home and got a bird’s-eye view of the elementary school classroom by volunteering.

“I learned a lot as a parent volunteer in schools and on district committees,” she noted. “But it wasn’t until I helped a parent write an email to a teacher that a light bulb went off for me that I could put everything I’d learned in a guide for parents on the elementary school years.”

To that end, Nichols emphasizes that establishing a good relationship with a child’s teacher is another cornerstone of his education. “I see our children’s elementary journey like a winding river,” she said. “ We’re on one side of the bank and on the other side is the teacher with whom we’re partners. Each of us does our part.” Nichols makes her metaphor concrete with basic suggestions: “Do your part,” she asserts. “Make sure your child has had breakfast and gets to school on time. Teachers notice those things. Don’t be the parent who gets in permission slips late. I’m also hearing of more and more teachers getting notes from parents that a child couldn’t do the homework because of a dance recital or lacrosse practice. Such conflicting expectations confuse kids in elementary school because they want to please both their parents and their teachers.”

I’ve always had ambivalent feelings about homework, which is ironic given how much of it my own children have done over the years. Nichols does not debate the value of homework for young children. Instead, she offers helpful suggestions for painlessly getting it done. Like everything suggested in the book, the key is organization and consistency. Establish a time and a place to do homework with your child. According to Nichols, “ That place should be a happy one. Make it a fun destination with colorful pencils, cool puzzles or creative glue sticks. Our role as parents is to coach and guide, not to do or correct homework, which provides valuable feedback for a teacher.”

Adam is a junior in high school. I’m grateful that I no longer supervise his homework, but I miss reading to him and his sister. Although Nichols focuses on younger children in her book, I can still write a thank-you note to his longtime academic advisor for helping my boy to self-advocate and step out of his comfort zone.

“Teachers,” says Nichols, “appreciate a genuine expression of thanks from parents or students more than anything.”

The Joy of Cooking with ChopChop by Judy Bolton-Fasman

I don’t cook very well. My family is bored with my rotating repertoire of chicken, turkey meatballs, and pasta with kosher turkey sausage.

I did have a creative period where I made chicken fajitas and a pretty decent meatloaf. But those didn’t last long. My excuse is that I’m always short on time, but the truth is that cooking intimidates me. I’m from the Birds Eye generation where convenience trumped fresh food and cooking itself.

I’ve been waiting a long time for a food writer such as Sally Sampson. Sampson is the founder and publisher of a nonprofit organization that publishes a delightful magazine for children called Chop- Chop: The Fun Cooking Magazine for Families. Sampson not only finds the fun aspects of cooking; she demystifies it and elevates simple cooking to its own art form.

Sampson is no stranger to creating recipes. With 22 cookbooks under her belt, she decided the time was right to combine her expertise with her burgeoning interest in health care and preventing obesity in children. In a recent interview at ChopChop’s offices in Watertown, Sampson noted that ChopChop Magazine and her new cookbook “ChopChop: The Kids’ Guide to Cooking Real Food With Your Family” allows her “to address obesity by having doctors prescribe cooking at well-child visits. And I’m using my skills [as a food writer and healthy-eating advocate] in the magazine recipes and the new cookbook.”

 

ChopChop Magazine, a quarterly publication, is distributed in 10,000 pediatricians’ offices in all 50 states. The magazine is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which reviews every issue. Since its launch in 2010, ChopChop boasts a circulation of 500,000 with 20 percent of the issues printed in Spanish. The magazine is funded primarily through sponsors such as the New Balance Foundation, and Children’s Hospitals in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. ChopChop recently garnered the equivalent of an Oscar in the food world when it was named “Publication of the Year” by the James Beard Foundation.

ChopChop

Sally Sampson’s new cookbook is an extension of her nonprofit’s popular magazine.
No doubt ChopChop’s appealing design and clear language, along with bright colors and gorgeous food photography, were factors in wining the prestigious Beard Foundation award. But there is something more at stake here. It’s the recipes themselves that are innovative. Although the magazine and new cookbook are aimed at children ages 5 to 12, the recipes are surprisingly sophisticated without being complicated.

“I think of kids as inexperienced cooks,” said Sampson. “We cover the basics in our recipes, such as what kind of kitchen utensils they’ll need and whether or not making a recipe requires adult supervision. There are not too many steps in these recipes and not too many ingredients. And I don’t cook anything that goes into two pans.”

Sampson divides her recipes into three categories: the basics; the fancy version of the basics, in which kids can bump up a recipe with spices or herbs; and the expert level, which requires things such as kneading dough or using a blender. Adults need to be on hand to help with most recipes, which makes the ChopChop way of preparing food an intergenerational experience. Bear in mind there are no peanut butter and jelly sandwiches here. To prove how easy yet still elegant food preparation can be, Sampson taught me to make a basic vinaigrette dressing with olive oil, vinegar and mustard. I drizzled it onto a simple spinach salad that I tossed with almonds and raspberries. After my family got over their initial surprise, they were impressed. Preparation time was less than 10 minutes. We haven’t had store-bought salad dressing since then.

“Eating well is cooking well,” noted Sampson. “If you can’t cook, then you don’t have a really clean diet. [ChopChop’s] No. 1 criterion is that it tastes good. We don’t want to demonize sugar and fat, but reduce them while being flavorful. We’re competing with fast food and takeout, which is causing an uptick in the obesity rates.”

Sampson’s solution to the dinner dilemma is straightforward too. She said the key lies in “a well-stocked pantry. Beans, pasta, rice and any other staples you can think of. Have olive oil on hand and a couple of vinegars, spices, onions, garlic, carrots, lemons and lime. Tofu is also good to have in the house. If you eat meat, have chicken breasts in the freezer. You can make an amazing salad with basic ingredients.”

As for me, I recently spiced up my pasta dishes by making Sampson’s “World’s Quickest Tomato Sauce.” Foregoing store-bought sauce, I also dispensed with sugar and, in some cases, fillers and preservatives.

As Sampson noted, “Cooking can seem out of reach for some people. We want to focus on the joy of cooking for kids and adults alike.” She’s helped me to do just that.

After the Bar Mitzvah, the Service Continues by Judy Bolton-Fasman

This is a story about a church, a temple and a young man dedicated to feeding the hungry. For over two decades Project Manna at the Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge has fed thousands of people a year from its little kitchen. And for 24 years Temple Emanuel in Newton Centre has been moved by the mission of this small yet mighty church to produce the eponymous Project Manna, a concert to raise critically needed funds to keep the food kitchen open. “It is,” says Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, “a story about black-white, Christian-Jewish love, partnership and community building that has been going on for over two decades.”

MassAveThis year’s Project Manna concert on Wednesday, March 24, 2013 at Temple Emanuel, features Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and a star of Jewish music in her own right. Neshama and her band will celebrate the traditions of gospel and Jewish music with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. Rabbi Gardenswartz notes that, “Neshama’s music is deeply moving and a salve for some of the suffering seen throughout the world.”

Inspired to “repair the world” as well as by Temple Emanuel’s commitment to feeding the hungry Max Breslau, a recent Bar Mitzvah, decided to do more than attend the annual Project Manna concert. It began with Max’s older brother Mitchell who was required to do a community service project for his school in Needham. As Jane Breslau, the boys’ mother, points out there wasn’t much volunteer work for kids who were under sixteen. The Breslaus noticed that Temple Emanuel’s Brotherhood volunteered at the Mass Avenue Baptist Church’s soup kitchen and decided to commit to serving there for a year. A year soon stretched into two years and Max joined his brother and mother that second year as part of his Bar Mitzvah project.

Conventional wisdom holds that doing one thing three times becomes a habit. In the Breslaus’ case volunteering over time has become a passion. Monday evenings in the Breslau household belong to the Mass Avenue Baptist Church. Jane notes, “we take our commitment to the church and the guests at the soup kitchen as seriously as someone takes a sports commitment.” On a given Monday the Breslaus will be among the volunteers who serve upwards of seventy meals. They not only serve, but also help to prepare the supper. Jane notes that among the moving experiences at the kitchen are the prayers said before every meal. “Sometimes my sons will do a prayer and it will be a bracha—a blessing in Hebrew. Other times they’ll simply note how thankful all of us are to be there. We feel we are a part of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church family.”

As parents, Jane and Howard Breslau purposely pushed their sons out of their comfort zones. Neither boy had any idea what a food pantry would be like. Much to their surprise, the boys’ perceptions of the homeless were shattered. “It wasn’t just a learning experience for my sons,” Jane notes,” they completely changed their assumptions about who was homeless. They saw how thankful these people were to be there. How respectful they were.”

Max, who became a bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel last week, says that his time at the soup kitchen will go beyond his bar mitzvah project. “I love doing it every Monday. Everyone who comes and eats makes friends. There’s one guy who loves the Patriots and we talk about the team. With other people, we share how our week has gone. Everybody has a story and people don’t necessarily look homeless. You wouldn’t expect some of these people to be out in the street.”

Max also noticed the soaring temperatures inside the church during his summer service at the soup kitchen. “I decided to raise money for two ceiling fans and air conditioning window units.” At first the goal was to raise a thousand dollars. Max reached out to friends and family and to his temple email list. The response was so generous that he raised the goal to $2000. Max and his family called it the Fan Project, asking people to “be cool and become fans of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church Soup Kitchen.” As of this writing Max and his family have raised $1800.

As for their own parenting, Jane and Howard assert that their commitment to the soup kitchen has been a “ learning process.” Howard notes that it is “breathtaking” to see his family’s commitment every week. “It’s a joy to see their eagerness to go there. They’ve established friendships with the staff and guests that are very meaningful.”

Jane notes that, “everyone has a different perception of what a mitzvah is. It’s not something that should be easy or immediately fit into your life. You should make it fit into your life so that you’re giving back to the community. We began this project to help our children, but our time at the soup kitchen has had a profound effect on me too.”

Live and In-Person: Media and Young Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

A couple of weeks ago was school vacation week for both kids, which meant that the four of were reunited for a few days. All was well until we went out to dinner. There was a 20-minute wait to get a table, which meant that three out of the four of us immediately whipped out our iPhones. Poor Adam was left in the dust, but perhaps more dangerously, we disconnected from one another. “Someone talk to me,” he pleaded.

iPhone

I’m sure I’m in the majority when I say that I don’t know how I ever lived without the convenience of 24-7 access to, well, everything. Can’t remember the name of an actor? No problem, take out the phone and start Googling your way to the answer.

But have our fingers become too quick to text and Google out of habit? A recent article in the New York Times put that question out there in an article called Your Phone vs. Your Heart. In it Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor, talked about the downside of establishing an ingrained habit that can not only change neural pathways but also “mold the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.”

The scientific term for that molding is called plasticity and it is used to describe the flexibility of the nervous system to adapt and learn. Frederickson’s research shows that plasticity further affects the heart-brain connection. So the more you look up from your iPhone and interact with people, the more you literally strengthen your heart. And Face-to-face contact fosters empathy as well as improves overall health.

Frederickson’s research in social genomics— the study of how our personal history, social life or even loneliness affect gene expression in immune systems—also clearly shows that parents role-modeling screen-time behavior can be as life-altering as the genetics a child inherits. According to Frederickson, interrupting to text while ostensibly playing with your child or reading to her can “leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.”

But how do we translate the findings of social genomics to our own children? Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, social commentator Hannah Rosin explored the brave new American childhood of iPads and iPhones. Remember how we thought we were going down the rabbit hole when VCR’s were installed in mini-vans? Ever since viewing screens entered American homes, parents and educators have worried that children’s brains would turn to mush from too much watching. In 1999 the august American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned that television viewing for children under the age of two affected brain development, particularly when it disrupted interaction between parents or caregivers.

iPad

Enter 21st century touch technology to complicate what seemed to be a straightforward directive against too much screen time for toddlers and young children. Touch technology was popularized by the iPad and it’s taken off among the toddler set where the swipe of a finger can move action figures, act like a paintbrush or manipulate shapes. It’s mind boggling to realize that hundreds, if not thousands of apps for games and reading and art can be easily packed into a gadget the same size as your average board book.

I remember when three year-old Adam sat on Ken’s lap as he maneuvered a mouse. I thought how revolutionary and how scary. It’s stunning to contemplate how much more ubiquitous technology has become over the last decade. As Rosin points out, “technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease.”

By 2010, there were more than 40,000 kids’ games and apps available on iTunes. In the iTunes “education” category, many of those best-selling apps targeted preschool or elementary school age-children. Apps were also available for children as young as 18 months. The AAP weighed in with a recommendation discouraging parents from using electronic media with children under 24 months.

Lisa Guernsey, author of the book Screen Time: How Electronic Media from Baby Videos to Education Software Affects Your Young Child, offers guidance by identifying the three C’s of media consumption—content, context and child. Content, says Guernsey, is the way in which information is presented. Apps labeled as educational are not necessarily good for kids if children cannot fully comprehend the task at hand. Context relates to the way a parent uses social media. Like Fredrickson, Guernsey advises that social interactions are a critical part of using media particularly with babies and toddlers. The success of the first two C’s depends on parents taking the time to know their children. Each child is different, but on the whole parents should keep a kid away from apps or television directed at adults.

There has been no research to date that suggests that using an iPad will make your preschooler smarter or, alternatively, short circuit her neural pathways. But the iPad has only been around for three years—a relatively short time for scientists to secure grants to investigate the topic. Humans, however, have been around for a very long time and nothing improves one’s psychological outlook or better cultivates empathy than looking up from an iPhone screen, even if it is Face Time, and making a real, in-person connection.