Monday, February 7, 2011

All too real

A fascinating blog post by Dr. Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, contrasts the civility of 1950s television comedies such as Leave It to Beaver with the rudeness of today’s reality television, and argues that the loss of civility is harming the development of our children’s brains.

Fields is hardly alone in stating that exposure to bad behavior is harmful, but where others focus on the risk that children will learn and imitate bad behaviors, Fields emphasizes biology. He writes, “A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.”

In summary, he says that bad social behavior causes anxiety that inhibits the development of neural pathways within the brain. The human brain continues to develop through adolescence and into early adulthood, with different structures developing at different times, and if a stage of development is inhibited or interrupted, it does lifelong harm.

The middle-school years seem to be especially critical for the formation of connections between the two hemispheres of the brain, and Fields writes, “Impairment in integrating information between right and left hemispheres is associated with increased risk of craving, drug abuse and dependence, and a weakened ability to make moral judgments.” Parents and teachers already know that the middle grades in school are characterized by increases in gossip, namecalling, and exclusion; the last thing children need is any influence that encourages these behaviors.

The kind of civility that Fields says is beneficial to brain development is part of what Jewish tradition calls
derekh eretz. Literally “the way of the world,” it comprises both good manners and courtesy, and other aspects of proper social behavior, but in common usage it means respect for others.

Jewish schools often struggle to encourage
derekh eretz, but I can say from personal experience that lecturing children to “show a little derekh eretz” has little effect, even after explaining what that means. What does work is pointing out examples of its presence or absence. For example, a parent or teacher who is reading a story to young children might comment when a character says or does the right thing, or when another character says or does the wrong thing.

The same applies to television. Recently Sara Baim drew my attention to another article discussing reality television, published in the online magazine Tablet ( by Marjorie Ingall. Ingall describes moral lessons that can be learned from Top Chef and Project Runway, and also discourages watching certain other shows, but the key is parental guidance— not only about what to watch, but about how to interpret it. If your family watches any of these shows, it’s best for parents to watch with children and comment on examples of good and bad behavior.

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