A true advocate of literacy for children, with 40 published picture books under her belt and a new book just released, Mem Fox has her concerns about the role of technology for young children

At 67 years young, acclaimed children’s author Mem Fox is on the national publicity circuit again and she’s exhausted. Not only does the doyenne of children’s literature have 40 published picture books to her name, but she’s reliving the taxing (yet delightful) experience of raising a child in the energetic form of her three-year-old grandson, Theo.

A recent Australian tour to promote her new book Baby Bedtime has left the literary stalwart drained and she’s drawn on all energy reserves to keep up with the boundless get-up-and-go of her pint-sized fans at storytimes across the country.

Then there’s the book signings and talks to parents and teachers about the importance of literacy and reading aloud to children, not to mention another five books in the pipeline.

“It looks as if I’m going to be dying with a pen in my hand,” Mem says with a hearty laugh. “(I’ll be) going to the grave just crossing out one word and replacing it with another.”

Clearly, retirement is not on her agenda.

It’s 30 years since Mem’s first book Possum Magic was published. Originally written as a university assignment, it is now one of Australia’s best-selling picture books, amassing almost 5 million sales worldwide.

But these days the Adelaide-based literary expert is grappling with a greater quandary. In the age of smartphones, iPads and tablets, Mem is gravely concerned about the evolution of apps and their impact on a child’s literacy development.

Mem, who has previously lambasted full-time childcare for babies under the age of one, is concerned at the “heartbreaking” phenomenon of parents turning to smartphones and tablets as quasi babysitters. It’s akin to television-sitting. And that, she says, is a danger.

“I’m not anti-technology and I’m not anti-technology for little kids, but between the ages of zero and five I do feel that we should not abandon our children to technology,” she says.

Her bestseller Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was part of Australia’s official gift to Prince George, the new royal baby born to Prince William and wife Kate in July.

“Even though I’m 67, I’m crazy about technology. I love it. I love my smart phone, I love my mini iPad. I couldn’t do without either of them, especially when I’m travelling around and I absolutely love the things that it can do for my grandson.”

She loves the fact that his motor skills are being developed by trying to navigate a mouse through a maze. She loves the fact that the iPad can introduce him to the animals of the world and teach him about nature, among other things.

“But what bothers me is when I see children abandoned to the technology in a way that they wouldn’t be abandoned with a book,” Mem says.

“It is a basic human need that we want to be with other people. We want to interact, we want to know that we’re cared for, we want to know that we’re special to certain people in our lives, we want to know that there are people who are special to us.

“And if you just let a child play on a tablet for hours on end while you do the washing, while you put tea on the table, while you’re out having coffee with a friend, even while you are reading yourself, it’s terrible for the child.

“The child is lonely, the child doesn’t feel any love and the child is not learning language because the iPad is talking to it, not with it – they’re not having a conversation.”

As an author and avid campaigner for children’s literacy, Mem has attracted international praise and her timeless tales have reached young minds across the globe in 19 languages.

Mem, who has previously lambasted full-time childcare for babies under the age of one, is concerned at the “heartbreaking” phenomenon of parents turning to Smart phones and tablets as quasi babysitters.

Her bestseller Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes was part of Australia’s official gift to Prince George, the new royal baby born to Prince William and wife Kate in July.

Mem concedes that her concerns about new technologies are not based on formal research but rather a “lived experience” having helped rear her grandson with her daughter, South Australian politician Chloe Fox, due to her hectic parliamentary schedule.

“Because Chloe is a politician and because she’s a single parent, we are more like parents than grandparents. Our grandson, Theo, is three and a half and I’ve watched this happen,” she says.

“Even before Theo was born, I used to see kids abandoned, playing on Smart phones and just ignored by the adults around them. I just found it so sad. I just think there is a terrible deep sadness about a child who is ignored in favour of technology looking after it.

“I feel that deep down, psychologically, kids must pick up on the feeling that they are just being palmed off because the adults in their lives just couldn’t be bothered to interact with them.”

“I feel that deep down, psychologically, kids must pick up on the feeling that they are just being palmed off because the adults in their lives just couldn’t be bothered to interact with them.”

Mem, a retired associate professor of literacy studies, says after 24 years teaching at Flinders University she is acutely aware of the importance of reading to children and exposing them to a wide vocabulary to improve speech before starting school.

Technology, she fears, hinders that development.

“There are things that books can do which technology will never be able to do.

“When a story is being read, that child is learning about courage, about resilience, about meanness and cruelty and there is a whole lot of incidental discussion going on between the parent and the child.

“The interaction between the child and the parent is of phenomenal importance because all sorts of moral values and feelings of love and comfort and solace and warmth and tenderness are being relayed to the child…That’s not happening when a child is abandoned to technology.”

Mem says despite her concerns, there is a still place for a balance of technology and books in a child’s life if the experiences are shared with parents.

“I very much approve of children having no fear of technology, of being able to interact with it. I love to let my grandson play certain games on the iPad, literally when I’m cooking sausages and cannot leave the stove.

“But even then, he says: ‘Nanny, Nanny, come and look at this’ and I’m always pleased when he wants me to share his technology with him. He’s used to having an adult interact with him and love him and doesn’t particularly like being alone.

“The most wonderful thing about Theo, and it may certainly happen with other children who are immersed in books, is that he never tires of books and he does tire of technology.”

It’s Theo himself who has left an indelible mark on his grandmother. His premature arrival eight weeks early in January 2010 inspired Mem’s latest book, Baby Bedtime.

“Theo was very premature and didn’t look to be viable, but he did survive,” Mem recounts.

“His legs were the size of my fingers and he weighed just 1kg.

“Baby Bedtime is just an absolute outpouring of love. It is the exact opposite of an app.”

“One day, I opened the humidicrib and looked at his ears and they didn’t stick out like mine. I just loved him so much I just wanted to devour him. I said: “I could eat your little ears, I could nibble on your nose, I could munch your tiny fingers, I could gobble up your toes” and suddenly I realised I’d written the first verse of a poem for him.

“Baby Bedtime is just an absolute outpouring of love. It is the exact opposite of an app.”

The doting grandmother says she and husband Malcolm feel “so very lucky” to have had hands-on involvement in Theo’s formative years. “You know how funny little kids are. It’s side-splitting. And you get so proud of every word that they say and every step that they take.

“As well as the exhaustion, you have all of the joys. It’s a delight, it’s just divine.”

Author

Nicole has worked in print and online media for 15 years in Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Now she has the most adventurous job of her life - mum to energetic toddler, Matteo. Nicole says the flexibility of freelance journalism allows her to combine her two loves, motherhood and writing.

Write A Comment

Subscribe

To receive the latest edition of Offspring Magazine, Australia's largest parenting magazine, straight to your inbox for free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!