Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think-and What We Can Do About It, by Jane M. Healy, New York, NY, Touchstone, 1999, 384 pp., $14.00 (soft cover).
Pediatricians have many roles in the care of their patients. One of the most difficult roles is as an advisor to parents who are concerned about their children's future learning potential. "What can we do to make our children smarter?" "What can we do to help them do better in school?" I am frequently asked these questions by parents. The answer is simple, yet complicated. Less TV time and more family interaction time is a simple answer to give, but not always feasible for many families. Trying to negate the powerful lures of popular mass media "learning tools" is also difficult partly due to the paucity of data to challenge these claims and to the inaccessibility of these studies to the general public.
Endangered Minds is a wonderful resource for anyone involved in the care of children. It is not a fast read however. There is a plethora of information and many summaries of studies, but Dr. Healy gives a unique perspective on the developing brain and on the many challenges parents today face. She includes insightful observations from educators, physicians, psychologists, parents and others regarding the problems we are now facing regarding the learning and development of our children.
Part One of this volume is entitled "Changing Brains." This section delves into the differences observed between the skills of today's children as compared to the children of years past. "Have brains really changed?" is the initial question asked in this chapter. Dr. Healy gives a frightening account of reading skills, standardized tests and watered down school curriculums. She then goes on to set the stage for the remainder of the book by describing some of the biology of the developing brain, its learning capability and gives some initial discussion of environment on the growing brain.
Part Two examines the importance of language development on growing brains and their learning potential. Dr. Healy builds a case that the lack of common conversation in today's busy households combined with the minimal time spent reading or being read to have led to declining verbal skills. These declining skills affect every aspect of school performance and understanding. In addition, conversation and interpersonal interaction also have suffered. Dr. Healy finishes this section with an interesting discussion on how language changes the growing brain.
Part Three delves into issues of concern to many parents, teachers, and pediatricians. "Why can't they Pay Attention?" is the title of the second chapter of this section. Dr. Healy examines learning disabilities and attention disorders and what aspect lifestyle might play to the development of these symptoms. She also examines society's definition of learning disabilities and some of the social stigmas associated with this definition. Dr Healy focuses on the environmental influences that contribute to disorders of attention and ADHD. This section of the book might draw some criticism for not mentioning the positive effect of medical treatment on true ADHD patients. However, Dr. Healy's insight into environmental influences provides a different perspective on the cause and possible adjunctive treatment of ADHD. In addition, this section also discusses the process of the development of attention itself.
Part Four focuses on the effects of mass media and the developing brain and learning. While the literature on this subject is not abundant, these three chapters provide a good summation of the studies pertaining to the subject. In addition, Dr. Healy explores the addictive nature of TV and its harmful effects on learning, attention and language development. This section is a must read for any individual involved in the care of a child. While the theories are detailed, they provide tremendous insight into the effects of today's mass media overloaded world on young developing minds.
Part Five is perhaps the most important section of this book. Dr. Healy's suggestions for what we might do to begin to teach our children how to learn again are presented here. This section of the book also discusses how mass media modes such as computers can be important tools in learning but also stresses the need for learning to be independent of these tools as well. Throughout her entire book, Dr. Healy emphasizes the need for interaction as a key modality for effective learning and development whether it be in the areas of language, reading, writing, or creativity.
This book is a great information source for parents regarding their child's learning potential. The book also details the effects of environmental influence on the developing young brain and offers suggestions on how to alter these influences. At the core, more family interactive time is emphasized and encouraged as an essential component to learning and development. Overall, this book is both eye-opening and insightful. It is an excellent resource for anyone involved in the care of children.
Anitha John, M.D., Ph.D.
Hasbro Children's Hospital
Brown Medical School
Providence, Rhode Island