Baby Unplugged: An Interview with John Hutton, MD, Part 1

We are excited to welcome pediatrician, author, children’s bookstore owner, and dad, John Hutton, MD, to the Family Bookshelf. Dr. John  contacted me a couple of months ago, and we have been sharing stories and chatting about books and children’s literacy ever since. In fact, our conversations went so long that we actually have a two-part interview here at the Family Bookshelf and a third interview on the Reading Tub website!

  • @ The Reading Tub – John talks about his journey from medical resident to children’s book author and his goals for his award-winning Baby Unplugged board book series.
  • @ Family Bookshelf, Part 1: John talks about “analog kids” and preparing them to learn.
  • @ Family Bookshelf, Part 2:  John shares his thoughts on e-Readers and the secrets of the box!

For my grammar fanatic readers … John knows blue manatee isn’t supposed to have capital letters. I am following doctor’s orders. Enjoy!

The Book DoctorWithout leaving the Cincinnati metropolitan area, John Hutton has morphed from mud-loving, neighborhood explorer to pediatrician, bookstore owner, literacy fanatic, and a dad raising three book-loving girls.

In his journey to become a practicing physician, John took a detour to focus on his writing and then, fortuitously, as an independent bookstore owner. In fact, by the time he got back to his medical residency he had to start all over!

In 2010, John and his wife Sandy bought The Blue Marble, a soon-to-be-closed bookstore. A family favorite, they couldn’t let this landmark go. They have kept the best and added more to what is now called blue manatee Bookstore and deCafe.

John, aka “the Book Doctor,” is also the self-proclaimed “most prolific, under-published author working in Southwest Ohio.” After many, many rejection letters, Dr. John Hutton decided to make a go of it as an independent publisher. blue manatee publishing has, as its first offerings, a series of award-winning board books for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

John and his wife Sandy live in Cincinnati, Ohio. They have three daughters, each of whom loves books and being unplugged!

Terry: Hi John, and welcome to the Family Bookshelf! Could you tell us a little bit about being an “analog kid”?

John: You bet … I was an analog kid, as I’m sure most of us were “back in the day.” I loved playing in my mud pit, searching for all manner of creatures, riding my bike, and inventing/playing games with neighbor kids.  I also loved all sports, especially baseball.

I was a reader on the following occasions: (really) rainy days, sick days, car trips, and at night.  Since 100% of my day was “unplugged,” with nothing else to do, by today’s standard I was probably a big reader.  My parents were and are huge readers, and I recall consistent bedtime stories, as books were a major part of our home.  We were regulars at the library and our local bookstore, and I also recall picking classic, floppy comics (before they got all highbrow as “graphic novels”) from drugstores and gas stations.

Despite my best teenage rebellion to not be like my parents, I gravitated more and more towards books through and after college, and most certainly with my own children, where it is especially fun to rediscover these old favorites. I still have many of them, with original tears and crayon marks.

John Hutton board booksWhat I enjoyed – and what I pay forward in my books – is a multi-sensorial, screen-free experience. Each of the books is built around the icons of childhood which are educational as a happy byproduct of a child’s natural instinct to play, bond, and explore.

There is oodles of research to support the “screen-free until three” mantra. Physiology and brain science tell us that kids are not developmentally ready for electronic media. We are analog mammals, evolved over millennia. So it only makes sense that when you think about a developing brain, that it must first process the real world experiences.

It is well documented that the brain does not process screen-based media in a constructive way until it is between two and three years old. Children learn language via practicing with real people. Recent statistics find that the average age kids start using e-media is nine months old (it was three years in the 1960s), with kids under two watching approximately three hours/day (this includes devices like smartphones).

Terry: I can remember wringing my hands those early years “TV /  no TV” … and to appease my concerns (read: guilt) I carefully chose educational products. Is all media created equally?

John: Ah, the trap of “smart baby” electronic media! Despite any evidence of efficacy for young children – and no requirement for any to back “educational” claims – technology wears a halo of sorts, promising a better, faster way for children to learn and develop.

The cardinal rule of child development, especially for children under three, is that in general, things that help bring grownups and them together for quality time tend to be healthy and nurturing, things that interfere tend not to be.

No matter how well-intentioned or well-designed, technology mostly gets in the way.

Terry: Thanks, Doc. I feel better … not!

John: Sorry about that. I know the lure of the screen … my daughters want screen time, too. E-media is very absorbing for young children, akin to anesthesia. Combine that effect with the “educational” marketing claims, creates the illusion of learning, when the only real learning going on is learning to use more media.

Let’s say you’ve gone screen-free for three years, now its time to get kids ready for school. The search for and reliance on e-media fosters a tendency for “parental outsourcing” to shows and devices. There is no two ways about it: it is unhealthy and interferes with a young child’s interaction with loving caregivers and the real world. E-media tends to impair development, literacy and otherwise. Real things – like books – catalyze learning in spades.

I don’t think it is a surprise that a number of our pediatric epidemics parallel the rise of e-media: obesity, ADHD, sleep problems, and even allergies, have screen time as risk factors.  This is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has had evidence-based guidelines in place since 1999 advising parents to discourage all electronic media for children under two, and then 1-2 hours per day ideally with a grownup caregiver. The AAP also advise strongly against any e-media in bedrooms. Having a screen in their room – and recent studies found that 70% of US kids have at least 1 bedroom screen; 30% of those are younger than two years old.

I extended the AAP guideline to age 3 for Baby Unplugged, since this is the age most children start preschool where e-media is increasingly prevalent and parents lose a good deal of control over the issue.  The first three years also offer the only true sanctuary a child has to live wholly in the real world. It is their only opportunity, a time to do wonderful, robust things like turn pages, play with boxes, bounce balls, snuggle up with blankets, and explore the yard. Once introduced into the increasingly wired world, the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak.

As parents, we talk about how fast our children grow up. Those first three years are a precious opportunity to explore the real world together – reading, playing, bonding – while critical “old-school” skills develop naturally as they always have, as opposed to via an overt Baby Genius DVD curriculum. Young children want to feel loved, safe, and connected.

Kids allowed to explore the world in this way are healthier, more active and focused, sleep better, and more confident and secure. Thus, they are afforded a sturdy foundation to do whatever they want in life, including computers later when they are ready.  Raising a baby unplugged is the stuff of enduring memories – catching real fireflies versus watching Dora catch them – and a commitment that few parents would regret.

Terry: One of the things we emphasize as part of our literacy mission is the importance of modeling for our kids. We read email on our phone, books on our reader or tablets … as parents is it realistic to turn back time?

John: Technology is here to stay, and it is not the world we grew up in. Yes, kids need to learn to use it, but to argue that if they don’t they will “fall behind” is a hollow argument. Most technology is incredibly easy to use, with no advantage to starting before age three. If early technology was required to be adept at technology later, Steve Jobs could have never founded Apple.

The real risk of falling behind is in “old-school” skills, such as social, empathy, focus, the ability to cope with boredom and create from it, risk assessment, connection with nature. These are key aspects of personal development and communication skills – including literacy. They don’t just “happen. ” They must be practiced, with critical periods during the first few years. If you turn the tables, what are you teaching your kids about communication by staring into a screen?

Terry: Given that your also a dad and use technology yourself, do you find it hard to keep the “electronic toys” at bay?

John: As you might guess, I am somewhat fanatical about them. It was easier when they were young. We would sometimes get these toys as gifts and we would quickly have their batteries removed and/or disappear. Once the commitment was made, we really didn’t miss electronics / videos / etc. We feel that our relationship with our kids is much stronger and more intimate as a result, which we wouldn’t trade for anything.

We waited until our youngest was 3-1/2 for her first Sesame Street video, which she liked but didn’t miss, either. Interestingly enough, she is much more able to take or leave videos and e-media. She’ll ask to watch a movie on a school night, we’ll say no, and she’ll go draw or play ball outside. She can also sit calmly in the car, put herself to bed, and even be bored without media.  It’s pretty wonderful.

She did lobby hard for a ZhuZhu pet for her 4th birthday, which we finally caved in to (partially research), but she only played with it for a few weeks and then found it kind of annoying. It has vanished, perhaps carried off by a vulture).

A bigger challenge is our teenagers, enamored as they are with cell phones, but that is a tougher issue. Our major intervention there is to keep them, along with laptops, etc., out of their bedrooms. The side benefit to that is that we see them more often and they actually read and sleep in there.

Terry: I think I’ll leave us here for today. If you’d like to see more of our interview with Dr. John Hutton, I invite you to check out our chat on the Reading Tub website.

Next week John and I will talk about screen reading, apps, and their impact on literacy development..