New! 2014 Scholar in Residence at the Center for Art in Wood, Philadelphia

Invited HuffPost TED Weekend Blog: Beyond Gaming, There’s Life

 

We’d just begun a family vacation this summer, when my teenager woke up barely able to swallow, with a throat raw and sore. I took her to the nearest ER, where the wait was blessedly brief. A triage nurse whisked into the examining room with a laptop on wheels and began questioning my daughter. Name? Weight? Pain on a scale of 10? The nurse was efficient, yet something was missing. During a 10-minute checklist, she never once looked at the case – the bundle of humanity (and mystery) that is my daughter.

Was I expecting too much of this moment? Checklists in medicine can prevent infections. Taking 10,000 steps a day is now a global health movement. Shaking hands for six seconds boosts oxytocin, the “trust” hormone, Jane McGonigal recounts in her TED talk on how simple game-based tricks can better our lives. Anything daunting or monumental – health, medical diagnosis, resilience – demands entry points. The lists and formulas and tips that we adore point our muddled selves in the right direction, making small but powerful changes possible. Now portable and automated, they can help the fragile roots of good habits take hold.

But are these entry points to change too often seen as endpoints today, especially when they come to us so easily, with a click and a touch? Are we increasingly sated by the checklist and tipsheet? Consider that a majority of teachers now see a link between middle and high school students’ use of digital tools and careless, short-cut writing. Most online searches consist of one query, and we tend to open just one document per search. Since the mid-1980s, Americans show a 35-percent drop in their ability to elaborate on ideas, a key measure of creativity. While briefly using my daughter’s laptop, I was taken aback to see slightly off-target word suggestions flashing above my prose – the work of her school software. How often had an algorithm’s choice eclipsed a moment of potential student musing?

Yes, we evolved to survive a threatening world by plucking the low-hanging fruit – and by using tools to extend our grasp. Shortcuts and quick fixes appeal to what psychologists call our “cognitive miserliness.” Yet in a highly sci-tech society, our zeal for efficiency and brevity become akin to Plato’s wild horses of appetite and instinct battling the charioteer of deliberation. Nearly anything cloaked in a template or metric – six seconds, three steps, nine questions – seems unarguably sufficient. Insurers now reward doctors for treating complex conditions such as pneumonia with checklists that stipulate administering antibiotics within six hours of hospital arrival, writes the cardiologist Sandeep Jauhar. “But doctors often cannot diagnose pneumonia that quickly,” he notes. “Checklists lack flexibility.”

And some walking behavior researchers – yes, they exist – are concerned by our sometimes blind faith in the 10,000 steps regimen. “This is just a guideline,” says Catrine Tudor-Locke. Not only do differing populations have varying exercise needs, but the myriad step-counting devices on the market measure “a step” in a plethora of ways, she says. In multiple ways, confidence in a magic formula is unwarranted, reminding us, as Aristotle once wrote, that versatile minds do not try to measure a fluted column with a rigid straight-edge.

McGonigal is right in asserting that we can’t condemn games wholesale as a waste of time. Content matters. A ‘game’ that inspires an elderly recluse to walk farther each day is a good thing, and surely better for us all than one filled with gruesome violence. But shouldn’t we remember most of all that challenges don’t come with clear rules, levels of play and push-button heroics? The eminent British woodcarver David Pye once wrote of automation as a “workmanship of certainty.” Once in production, the widget as product is predictable. But craftsmanship is a “workmanship of risk,” in that the process of making is uncertain, like life itself.

On that crisp blue-sky late-summer day, my daughter and I left the emergency room in great time, toting a correct diagnosis and an incorrect prescription, not knowing that ahead lay a two-week saga of three more doctor’s visits before she truly could begin to mend. As we click through checklists, apps and games that promise so much, let’s remember that games have a place in our lives, but life is not a game.

In McCain’s (Multitasking) Wake: WashPost’s “Great Moments in Boredom”

 

Yesterday I got a call from an old AP colleague, now with the Washington Post. Quick! Dave Beard wanted commentary on distraction for a photo montage dubbed “Great Moments in Boredom.”

The Post’s resulting Photo Gallery, featured on page one today, offers a nice peek at world leaders and others caught peeking at their watches, yawning and even falling dead asleep in the public eye. The inspiration? Sen. McCain was photographed this week playing poker on his smart phone at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting on the Syrian crisis. Oops.

One incident of squirming statesmanship that didn’t make it into the Post’s gallery occurred in 1943, during a press briefing following the Quebec Conference between FDR, Churchill and then-Canadian premier W.L. Mackenzie King.

An article from the time headlined Churchill’s fidgety behavior – crossing and recrossing his legs, loosening his collar, mopping his forehead and hurling one of his famous cigars away just half-smoked. As the press didn’t seem to emerge from the event with any scoop, perhaps Churchill was simply bored with the proceedings – and in a hurry to move on. (At the summit, the allies had agreed to begin discussing a plan to invade France.)

All that’s to say that distraction, evermore, is subjective. Sometimes it’s pure escapism, sometimes a natural response to our less-then-enchanting surroundings. McCain perhaps should have mustered more focus for a crucial hearing. (And our devices certainly make it easy for us to turn away.) And yet, given how long hearings tend to last, perhaps he just needed a bit of a break…

 

On the Day of MLK’s “Dream” – A Thought on Aliveness

The perfect scent of an August morning. The still reservoir, a sheet of glimmering glass.

Think of all the people pursuing their hopes, unrecognized, perhaps unpaid, for their inventions, creations, solutions – or just for surviving.

Sunlight strikes the small branch of a wayside bush, shaft meeting shaft. A flame-reflection bursts from a taxi in the distance, then vanishes.

A scowling artist pushes his easel and paints up a hill, mulling where to pause.

Towhead twins jog with their mother, one leaping to touch the leaves above.

It is not the loose-weave of these forgotten moments that carry us forth – or is it?

 

- on the anniversary of MLK’s ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech

Why We Can’t Let Google Push Technology ‘Out of the Way’

Note:  This post first appeared on Huffington Post‘s front page.

 

Heading home last week after a walk in Central Park, I saw a bearded man on his hands and knees, peering at a patch of plants poking up between the sidewalk’s cobblestones. Lost key or contact lens? I stopped to ask. No, he was just looking, he told me, running his fingers across a tuft of grass and over a mossy cushion of green. Two plants that normally flower in April and August were blooming simultaneously in May, he said. Are you a botanist, I asked. He stood up beside his bicycle. No, he said, just interested.

You never know what you might see if you look down, or around, or in any new direction. Take a minute and you might notice something unexpected – evidence of a tiny glitch in a seasonal rhythm, or a bonsai-size bit of wilderness breaking though a stony byway.

Yes, we often hear this exhortation to ‘wake up.’ Immersed in virtual worlds, we particularly miss much of the earthly wonder budding around us. In her intriguing new book On Looking, the animal cognition expert Alexandra Horowitz takes 11 city walks with experts such as a geologist or an artist in order to make the “familiar become unfamiliar.” Her book is timely. With our finite attentional capacities, we do miss so much in life.

But as Horowitz would attest, the topic of awareness can be a Pandora’s box. Why should alert awareness matter when we have so much ‘coming at us’ all day long? Isn’t the real problem honing our focus, rather than trying to drink more from the experiential firehose? The question of exercising our awareness is complex, and yet matters more than ever today, I believe. Here is why:

First, we are creatures of habit, prone to see, hear and think the familiar and expected – whether online or on the sidewalks we cross each day. This is in part why babies amuse us. They exude delighted interest in everything, since nearly everything is new to them. We can’t exist child-like, open to everything. But turning off our ingrained ‘eyes of habit’ once in a while makes us more inventive. People who live abroad or are bilingual are more likely to be creative, simply because inhabiting a new country or language inspires what psychologists call ‘cognitive flexibility.’ Knowing two ways to drink tea or multiple words for love expands our horizons of understanding. We need to look up from our humdrum commute or from our same old stomping grounds of the Web.

Even more importantly, truly seeing anew isn’t simply a matter of glancing around. It involves noticing, and then comprehending what’s familiar and what’s new on multiple levels. Two blooming weeds in the pavement may cause a moment’s admiration for their unexpected beauty. But understanding whether or not their cycles of flowering are askew and so further evidence of climate change demands effort, not simple snapshot observation. Exercising our awareness involves probing and testing our assumptions.

Today, the popular idea that our devices should fade into the background – exemplified by Google’s aim to make technology that ‘gets out of the way – is alarming. As I told the Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker in a recent interview, if technology becomes invisible to us, we lose sight of how it shapes us, for good and for ill. We will stop noticing the ‘google effect’ – the complacency we show while searching online – and sadly keep assuming that Facebook-style template identities can express our whole selves.

We can’t see our devices and their torrents of information anew each moment. Our tools invariably will fade into the background of our lives. (While reading a book, I see its content, not the print technology I hold in hand.) But we must sometimes step back and try to comprehend how new, powerful digital technologies influence us, as well as what they deliver to our minds. Waking up to the world is a two-fold responsibility: seeing, then understanding. If we don’t manage this with our digital and earthly habitats, we will be abdicating a role in the making of our future.

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A CNN.com Blog: Does It Matter Where and When We Are?

I was asked to write this CNN.com blog as part of their recent series on our mobile society:

 

Tonight, as my husband stands in our bedroom, fingers whirling across his smartphone and eyes glued to its tiny screen, I have no idea “where” he is. Is he checking the score of his beloved home team, or dealing with a rant from an indefatigable boss overseas? Is he working or home-ing, or both?

This melding of work and home, of course, is an old story. In 1999, I wrote an article about three generations of a Baltimore family and their work-life balance. Shattering my romantic views on what it was like to live a few easy steps from work — literally over the store — the family’s elderly patriarch told me that his parents couldn’t wait to move to the suburbs and put some distance between family and work. Their hardware business had shadowed their evenings and weekends, stealing peace. Decades later, the patriarch’s restless, cell phone-toting, entrepreneurial son blamed the portability of work for his recent divorce. … read more

Digital Dharma: The Art of Preservation in a Copy-Paste World

Replication is at the heart of life. The genetic information encoded in our DNA allows new life to be passed along and to evolve. Children learn through imitation. And the copying of written information allows us to build on the past and make knowledge accessible. Gutenberg turned a wine press into a vehicle for individual enlightenment.

E. Gene Smith, a scholar of Tibetan literature and the subject of an intriguing new documentary, was a highly original hero – of the copy. At his death in 2010, he left behind a single volume of essays, but an enormous lifework: the preservation and reproduction of tens of thousands of rare, seminal Tibetan texts from a canon integral to the history of Buddhism. In an age when information seems quick, easy and even expendable, the film Digital Dharma should make us think carefully about technology’s relationship to replication in our post-analog lives.

As a lanky young man with a flair for languages, Smith was earning a PhD at the University of Washington in the early 1960s when he became a student of Tibetan lama and refugee, Dezhung Rinpoche. But Smith’s studies were stymied by a lack of texts. The country’s astonishing canon was imperiled first by the Chinese occupation and later the Cultural Revolution, when monasteries, libraries and books collections were destroyed in huge numbers.

The destruction wasn’t merely symbolic. Most often, no other copy existed when a Tibetan text went up in flames. Even into the 20th century, Tibet had no printing presses, so texts consisted of hand-lettered manuscripts or books printed from carved wooden blocks. Moreover, the texts themselves are crucial to world history. Tibet is one of four languages in which the Buddhist canon – or dharma – is preserved, and the country’s vibrant literature as a whole reflects its place as a crossroads of Asia. The losses were akin to the destruction of the library at Alexandria.

Enter Smith, a Mormon-turned-Buddhist who began a personal, decades long quest to search and recover and then print copies of thousands of Tibetan books and texts. Working for the Library of Congress from New Delhi beginning in the 1960s, he traveled tirelessly across India, Nepal and Bhutan to find texts that refugees were hiding, then found ways to use U.S. aid to fund the printing of new copies. With velvet guile, he navigated Cold War and Sino-Tibetan politics, always placing the books – not human differences – at the center of his quest. “The idea is to deliver the tradition back to the owners of the traditions,” he told the Buddhist magazine Mandala in 2001.

Smith’s vast publishing efforts, however, didn’t stop at the printed page. The movie climaxes with his late-life efforts to digitize the vast collection he accumulated at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center, and his 2008 travels back to Nepal and India to give exiled Tibetan monks laptops and hard drives containing their own monasteries’ sacred, now-digitized collections. The monks were ecstatic. In the film, one beaming abbot wears a pouch around his neck containing a flashdrive that Smith mischievously told him was an “amulet.” Is this the magic of technology? At the first joyous monk-meets-computer moment, the audience at the film’s July 25 New York premiere burst into applause.

The story seemingly ends there. But digitizing isn’t a magic solution. The laptops will need upgrades, the flashdrives must be updated, and digital media is more fragile than we often imagine. We must offer as much curatorial care to a digital canon as we should to the vast and still-important treasures of our print age. As well, the speed and invisibility of the digital neatly hides the truth of entropy. Just as our genes mutate, our traditions evolve, and our stories change, so too a digitized canon will shift little by little in the making. (Just peek at Google Books, with its typos and missing pages, to see that copying is never perfect.) Just as our ability to see the world is a construction – our vision is interpreted by our minds – so too the handing down any bits of culture for the future is a building, a choosing, an incremental shoring up.

Today, we too often believe that technology neatly solves a problem when in reality, technology merely shifts the nature of the challenges before us. I have no doubt that the inestimable Gene Smith deeply understood this. But do we, as consumers, producers and curators of the new canons of our age, understand what we are doing? Perhaps we should copy and paste a little less often, and think about knowledge a little bit more. Gene Smith’s vision will be missed.

The film, directed by Dafna Yachin, will be screened August 1, 8, 15, 22, 29 and September 5 at the Rubin Museum in New York; as well as August 17-23 at the DocuWeeks film festival in New York, and August 10-16 at DocuWeeks Los Angeles.

 

The Secret of Reinvention in an Age of Longer Living

In a new world of elongated lives and career fluidity, we need to have patience – with ourselves.

That was perhaps the most poignant and startling point articulated by a panel on “Second Careers, Doing Good” held last weekend at my Yale college reunion. I put together the event to explore the trepidation and the liberation that we all seem to feel about the gift of a longer life. Like others in the Boomer cohort, we are eagerly planning or pursuing new careers, which often involve social impact. But reshaping our lives doesn’t occur with push-button speed or ease.

The world has changed in startling ways in the 30 years since my class of 1982 graduated from college. In that year, Sony introduced the first compact CD player and Time magazine’s person of the year was the computer (desktop, of course). Life expectancy was 74, a huge uptick from the 61 years allotted to the average person born in 1935. Today, the smart phone is our teddy bear and cognitive prosthetic – and we’re apt to live to nearly 80, with more of these years than not spent in good health. Gender roles and work-home boundaries have blurred, and we can work anywhere, anytime. The idea of a second or even a portfolio of careers builds on this culture of fluidity, as much as on the potential of a longer life. Otherwise, we’d simply be hoping for longer time on the golf course. Voltaire once said, it’s better to wear out than rust out. My classmates and I don’t want to do either.

But amidst lives of flux, we need patience, said panelist Scott Gelband, a lawyer turned co-founder and executive director of Seattle Music Partners, a non-profit that gives free music lessons to schoolchildren. After burning out on corporate finance law, Gelband went home to a “year in my pajamas.” He told 175 of our classmates and spouses that he had to think long and hard about what to do next – while facing raised eyebrows from family and former colleagues.

As a father, panelist Fred Leone told of wrestling with the question of whether he should take a steep pay cut to lead a non-profit that builds playgrounds for children with disabilities – until his 12-year-old son urged him to make the leap. “Those children need you,” Fred’s son said. Leone, former chief executive officer of Boundless Playgrounds, made the shift, and is now hoping to make another change, and start a new non-profit.

Moving into an encore career does not come easily – or without leaps of faith, said panelist Harriet Rogers Linskey, a marketer turned co-founder of Hands Across the Sea, a non-profit working to improve child literacy in the Caribbean. At first, she and her husband, Tom Linskey, did not recognize how many skills they could bring to their new lives. He is web-savvy and a good writer. She is a great networker and marketer. Their past job descriptions hardly did justice to all their talents.

Encore careers drive to the heart of who we are, and who we want to be. We can’t google the answers to such dilemmas. Earlier in the day, I’d attended a rehearsal at the Yale School of Drama for Waiting for Godot. Asked how she prepared for a role, one student said: ‘I look for the character’s super-objective. What is the essence of what this character seeks?’ I shared her words with my classmates, because in an age of career fluidity, we are always shaping and reshaping our life roles.

Today, 31 million workers ages 44 to 70 want an ‘encore’ career that combines income, impact and meaning, according to the think-tank Civic Ventures. On average, they will take 18 months – and a likely pay cut – to make the change. Twelve million in this age group are interested in starting a non-profit or social venture. In this time of invention and insecurity, we need to take the time to think about our next steps. We need to have patience with ourselves.

Intriguingly, when I mentioned to my classmates that we now likely have about as many decades left on earth as we’ve had since graduation, the room erupted in murmur, chatter and moans. Did the merest hint of the m-word – mortality – shake things up? Did the glass look depressingly half empty or wonderfully half full? I don’t know. But in that moment of tension and excitation and chaos, we all were most wonderfully alive – together.

Are We Losing the Magic of Play in a Digital World?

We began by picturing a young Eleanor Roosevelt teaching immigrant children to dance in the very room where we were gathered. Long ago, a dashing young Franklin D. Roosevelt would come to escort her home. I could see in my mind’s eye his jaunty straw hat, the long twirling skirts, an awkward young woman brave enough to spend her evenings at University Settlement in lower Manhattan.

Nearly a century later, it was fitting that we began an evening’s conversation on the place of attention and imagination in a digital age with this feat of collective reverie. Our minds layered past over present – and the room seemed richer for the memory. Our capacity to move between the here and now and imagined worlds is central to our humanity.

But today are we driving children away from moments of reflection and imagination – and intimacy? Richard Lewis, a poet, organized the evening – the first of a series of three he is holding to examine this crucial question. The first evening in February attracted a dozen music and art teachers, artists, musicians and others. (The series continues March 12 and April 30.)

Play allows us to create a sense of internal space, began Lewis, founder of the Touchstone Center. In play, the young can make something out of the ordinary happen. The child starts the magic – a magic that can be shared. Lewis told of visiting a New York City classroom where he asked children what happens to the sun shining into a car? And could they recapture that sunshine? The children were intrigued. Suddenly, they were talking about “the human ability to imagine,” said Lewis.

We circled the room, offering stories of imagination and reflection in our early lives. A young woman told of the freedom that she felt when she danced. A man spoke of a special, secret rock in a city park. A friend of mine recalled ‘cooking’ with mud and grass as a child in the countryside. She’s now raising a city-bred daughter who didn’t play house with the earth as her toy. Yet she and her daughter now cook – for real – side by side, sharing moments of culinary togetherness. I talked about the magic of the woods where I played with my friends – the trees, ponds, paths and hide-outs that were practically characters in our playtime.

Then we began to gently explore what happens when children immerse themselves more and more in an entrancing digital world of another’s making. That evening as in the rest of our lives, there was a vague sense of worlds clashing. In celebrating the play of our own childhoods, we couldn’t help but worry about its increasing absence in children’s lives today, even as we celebrated the promise and achievement of the technological.

Long after the close of the evening, I mused about these questions, dallying with the differences, circling around these puzzles. And I see two causes for concern. True, digital living offers opportunities for the cultivation of imagination: videogames, tv and the ‘net offer entrancing, wildly visual fictions. Not since medieval times have we inhabited an era as richly visual as ours today. And that’s good.

Yet the screen is a hungry force in the world: children spend more than seven hours daily immersed in media, losing play-time, sleep, quiet and face-time. Lewis recalled watching a child on the subway, glued to a videogame, tuning out a parent who was insistently trying to engage him. If we drive children away from their innate needs to go within themselves to reflect and imagine, we’ll be losing something of our humanity. Are we looking up from our screens often enough – and teaching our children to do so?

As well, while digital escapades tap into the human imagination, immersing the player in entrancing worlds for hours on end, on-screen play too often demands that we fit into templates of another’s making. It provides alluring worlds, where we make choices. But these are not worlds of our own making.

We don’t yet fully understand what our technologies are doing to us, and how we in turn are shaping our machines. But we have to keep asking these questions – and looking up from our screens. I wrote this blog in fits and starts, reflecting over time. And one evening, I reread my notes from University Settlement house, as I hurtled through the night on a train.

In the café car, a mother and college-age daughter sat across from each other, mom in head phones glued to an ipad movie, daughter fiddling with her song lists while playing itunes out loud. Not a word was exchanged for hours. Nearby, a small boy played a video game as his dad toyed with his smart phone. When the father looked over and advised the boy on the game, the youngster hit him and screamed, ‘why’d you make me do that?’ Farther down the car, four women shared giggles and beers, and a couple played backgammon. Half of the people at the cafe tables were looking one another in the eye, sharing a laugh, talking. Half were not.

Where are we headed? What’s being lost and gained as we become entranced by these new forms of magic? And could a loss in time for play affect our ability to connect? I can’t help but think that a rich inner life sets the stage for deep human connection. Imagine that.

Of Einstein and Distracted Driving … and Writing

I shouldn’t kvetch about this, because then I’ll seem like the attention police – a role that I never have wanted to play. Distraction can be a great thing – a creative break, an unconscious impulse to steer in another mental direction, a welcome intrusion from a friend.

But Distraction isn’t the title of my book. And it’s amusing and sometimes frustrating to hear and see how often people make that slip of the tongue… from Distracted to -ion. I wonder if this happens all the time to other authors? Do we celebrate Dickens’ Good Expectations? Did Nabokov shock us with Lola? Is this a peculiarly post-modern symptom of our hurry and overload?

I just stumbled on a particularly amusing example, a humor column by Canadian filmmaker and writer Josh Freed … or was it Greed? … in the Montreal Gazette last fall. The column itself seems to have disappeared from the paper’s website, but I found it in a database by accident. Here’s a slice of it:

In her book Distraction, author Maggie Jackson warns of the shallow modern attention span she calls “Mcthinking.” She says it’s “eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention and stunting society’s…

Uh, sorry what’d she say? I checked my email partway through.

When I saw that a correction ran later in the Gazette, I was thrilled. Someone caught the mistake! But no, the correction alerted readers to the fact that Tolstoy, not Dostoevsky, wroteWar and Peace, another book mentioned in the column. Sigh. Note to the editor: How about giving a helping hand to the living author, the one who’s trying to feed her kids on her writerly profits?

Oh well. Thank you, anyhow, for the shout-out, Josh. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. And I’m glad that you are fighting the good fight against inattention in society.

And on that note, let me give Albert Einstein the last word on distraction. The great thinker once said:

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.

Does Self-Control Come in an App?

My HuffPost blog from the weekend on the pros and cons of new apps that screen out digital distractions for us:

Last night, I got a PTA alert about a software application that allows users to block access to email and websites such as Facebook, while retaining use of the larger web for self-selected time periods. Parents and educators alike are buzzing about this new cure for our distracted, multitasking children.

The name of the app? SelfControl.

Certainly, children are inundated with info-streams, enticing video playgrounds and constant opportunities to visit the virtual party of Facebook. The average 8- to 18-year-old devotes more than seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media on a typical day, according to theKaiser Family Foundation. About half of young people use media most or some of the time they’re doing homework.

At the same time, young children and even teens often don’t yet have the cognitive capability to say no to distractions. The parts of their brains — the frontal lobes — that underlie higher-order will and thought continue to develop into their 20s.

Still, will flipping a switch to darken distractions help children to cultivate their powers of self-control? Or is such software just a quick fix for a hurried age? Similar software — “Freedom,” “Concentrate,” “Cold Turkey” — is proliferating. Are we once again leaping to adopt technologies, and then asking questions about how they shape us?

Humans, of course, are tool users. We close doors to create privacy. We reach for Post-It notes and apps to augment memory. Perhaps SelfControl, a free OS X application developed in 2010 by a high school student who is now an undergrad at Columbia University, helps augment our will power by guarding the boundaries that we repeatedly fail to respect ourselves. Sometimes our monkey minds do need external handcuffs.

But we should think more carefully about how we’re using SelfControl and other such apps, and whether we really want to hand them off to young children as ready solutions for taming overload.

At the least, using this app should be accompanied by lots of conversation about the ways we use technology and the subtle value systems that accompany their use. We’ve long equated speed with intelligence in the U.S.; the first hand up in the classroom is considered the smart kid. If we dole out apps such as “focus” or “will power” or maybe someday “empathy” to our children, we are subtly giving them the message that complex, difficult human faculties can be obtained with a click. That’s akin to doling out Ritalin while ignoring the environmental factors that have been shown to influence attention-deficiencies.

Placing these apps center-stage in our battle to tame technology ignores the effort and time needed to nurture self-control — and ultimately diminishes a sense of our own potential. It sounds passe to talk about patience as a “virtue,” as my Depression-era Dad did. But mastering a skill would be a hollow achievement if we could do so in a digital instant.

And as decades of research by Roy Baumeister, Walter Mischel and others show, self-control is a difficult skill that’s worth mastering. Along with intelligence, will power is arguably the most crucial means to a successful school and adult life. And it can be trained.

How do we help children cultivate their willpower? Teach them to respect the integrity of a moment. An interruption has ripple effects, breaking into and potentially clouding ongoing thought, while boosting stress and the risk of error, a wealth of studies show. Heavy multi-taskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Stanford’s Clifford Nass.

Set up rules about media use. Sounds basic, but just three in 10 children under 18 are given any parental rules about how much TV and other media they can consume. Helpless parents now feel they cannot shape our increasingly all-embracing media environment. Yet when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media, studies show. Moreover, the very existence of a reasonable rule effectively shows children that the seeming unmanageable in life at least partially can be tamed.

Sure, when my teenage daughters are under deadline, inundated, and over-caffeinated, they might want to download SelfControl for a while. But as my 10th grader said with a laugh when I told her about this application, “Mom, that’s not self-control!”