The task of the child, once basic survival needs are met, is the development of the self—a sense of identity, an answer to the question Who Am I? That identity is a composite of all the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual learning that happens in the first years of life. We know that appropriate amounts of attention to physical needs, sufficient stimulation and adequate emotional reassurance are essential in the first months of life and that, in fact, the mother provides a second “womb” in those early months as though the child were still a part of her body. That is reason enough to provide women with maternity leave so that they can accomplish this much needed additional care.
Quickly however the child moves away from the protective maternal sphere and ventures out into the world—in many instances—the virtual world. I see children at 18 months playing quite effectively with a tablet—knowing the play button, and the on and off switches, maneuvering little creatures across a screen. Many appear precocious in the ability to recognize symbols or associate certain colors with certain tasks. So that is a good thing, right? They are learning, learning, learning without any adult intervention. We have screens in our cars so that kids can watch cartoons while we drive to Grandma’s house. They can play them quietly at church or while waiting in the doctor’s office. They are an instant attention grabber and electronic babysitter. So it’s all good. Hmmmm??!!??
The advantages to virtual parenting are many. The electronic world is not going to go away. It has changed our lives in ways too numerous to mention. But with all the innovation that this Brave New World provides we cannot overlook the important fact that human beings are hard-wired to connect—not to a computer–but to each other! Physical touch is essential to our very lives. Babies raised in orphanages, even with sufficient food and shelter, cannot survive without human handling. We may be at the top of the evolutionary tree but we carry with us the need for physical contact from our animal ancestry. Look at a basketful of puppies if you don’t believe me. They are a joy to watch because they love to roll over each other and their mother on a continuing basis. Human babies need that same sort of cuddling and lots of it. It’s not just because it’s fun. It’s because it is literally a life-affirming need.
Okay. So the screen can’t do the cuddling. But it sure can provide intellectual stimulation. A child can learn anything she wants to know from a computer. Yes indeed. But once again, human beings are different from computers. It will never be enough for us to become repositories of knowledge that we can spit back out like Siri on a Smart Phone. It will never be enough if we are to become planners and decision-makers; mothers and fathers; cooks and managers; farmers and fireman; lovers and friends. The adult world which children will eventually enter will require them to perform tasks which will require attributes such as physical strength; strategic planning; sensitivity and compassion; the courage of conviction; ethics and values; passion and love. I may be going out on a limb here but I don’t think you learn these characteristics playing computer games.
Becoming an adult—a caring, compassionate, productive adult—means having a strong sense of identity as a human being. Developing that identity begins in infancy and continues through childhood and on into maturity. It is a lifelong task. But it means that in the most formative years a child needs to interact with caring people who provide feedback, constructive, consistent limits, and loving affirmation of the child’s personhood. Within that context the child comes to know herself and in the process begins to answer the fundamental question that life poses to all of us: Who Am I?
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.