Published on 01 May 2022

Why buying my kids 300 dollars headphones is a smart move

Despite the criticism he gets for being extravagant, Adj Assoc Prof Abel Ang explains why he sees the headphones as "must-have" anti-distraction productivity tools that help his kids improve their attention span and stay focused on their work

Don't judge me, but I buy $300 noise-cancelling headphones for my two sons.

Instead of an extravagance, I see the headphones as "must-have" anti-distraction productivity tools that help my kids stay focused.

A criticism I sometimes get for purchasing such expensive audio accessories is that I am being extravagant. Detractors point out that the expensive headphones function the same as regular ones that are a tenth of the price. They say that once my boys have become used to expensive audio gear at a young age, they will be "spoilt rotten" and expect more expensive gear as they get older.

I am no audiophile and had never splurged on high-end audio accessories before I got the first set of expensive headphones for the kids. But I decided to get these as the boys got older and our home started getting more crowded.

My family lives in a Housing Board flat, with my boys, 17 and 20, sharing a room. Together with my wife and I, there are four grown adults sharing our three-bedroom apartment. This has forced us to be creative in how we use our limited living space.

The boys' study table is in the living room and that is also where their personal computers are. They do all their studying, homework and personal projects in the family common areas, much of which is online.

With so many people online in our home's common areas, talking loudly is highly discouraged. This can be hard if one kid is in the heat of a first-person shooter game, trying to rally fellow teammates to "kill" the competition.

As you can imagine, our family common areas are full of distractions. Someone always seems to be walking around to get a snack or a drink or just take a break. Between family members in virtual meetings, chats with one another and the odd parcel delivery, there is a cacophonous hum at all hours, even late into the night.

I make no apologies about having the kids do their work in the common areas of the home. It really is the most practical place for them to do so.

A side benefit of having them work there is cyber safety. With their computers and devices in full view, my wife and I can look over their shoulders at whatever they are viewing and raise objections when needed.

In addition, I see my boys entering the workforce in a co-working world. Hotdesking will be the norm for them as corporations seek to lower rental costs and optimise their use of commercial real estate.

I believe that in the workplace of the future, it will be rare to have a personal office to do deep and thoughtful work, and my kids will need to be able to function in a noisy and messy environment.

To thrive in such an environment, they will need to be able to maintain focus on whatever they are doing, despite their surroundings.

My plan is to teach them how to manage their environments and minds so they can focus on what they need to get done. Training the ability to block out distractions is an essential life skill for them.

So, where do the noise-cancelling headphones fit in?

Firstly, they serve as a physical cue to the kids that it is time to do work. Putting on chunky headphones, which make them look like they are stepping into an airplane's cockpit, indicates to them and the rest of the family that they are trying to work.

The inspiration for these special headphones came from best-selling author, psychologist and science writer Daniel Goleman, who found fame in 1995 with his groundbreaking book, Emotional Intelligence.

In his 2013 follow-up Focus - The Hidden Driver Of Excellence, he describes how he was able to maintain his focus while working in a "classroom-sized cavern" at The New York Times (NYT) alongside about 20 other journalists and editors.

He describes the NYT newsroom as a place where there were always people chatting, interviewing or shouting across the newsroom, with no place of solitude and silence to work on stories as deadlines loom. Curiously for him, no one had ever said: "Everyone, please be quiet."

When Goleman was in school, he used string music from Hungarian composer Bela Bartok to help him focus. The music helped to minimise sensory distractions and allowed him to better focus his selective attention.

The secret that dawned on him at NYT was that he needed to train his selective attention ability so that he could "beam in on just one target while ignoring a staggering sea of incoming stimuli".

For him, "attention works much like a muscle", he adds, "use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows".

I believe that continuous partial attention is the enemy of learning.

Goleman's book describes learning as a process where the brain maps information out against what one knows and creates new connections as new knowledge is digested and stored in it. For this to succeed, focus is needed and the headphones seem to help my kids do exactly that.

Over the years, the kids have gone through several generations of noise-cancelling headphones. My elder son, R, uses them much less now, as he feels he learns better when he can hear ambient noise. S, my younger son, is almost always wearing his headphones as he is more sensitive to distractions from surrounding noise.

For sure, my kids are not robots that can go after complex tasks with laser focus at the drop of a hat. They still get easily distracted when they are trying to learn something difficult or write a paper for school. But over the years, I have found that their selective attention has improved substantially and that the headphones were helpful in giving them a boost at the start of their journey.

I will continue to invest in such headphones for as long as the kids feel that they need them.

I also joke that it is cheaper to buy expensive headphones than to move into a larger home. The fringe benefit is that my kids will be well-equipped for co-working offices in the future.

Source: The Straits Times