My wife can hold three small children at the same time. She can make dinner, tell me to stop looking in the fridge for a snack and keep an ear open for the plaintive wail of a distressed child. She can listen to a podcast and play WoW or be in Second Life. She's a pretty impressive person.
But she can't multitask.
You can't either.
NPR has an interesting article on this. But I think, 'Perhaps I'm different. Perhaps I really can do multiple things at once.' If you're anything like me, I suggest you give yourself a practical test via the Multitask flash game. [NB: There are ads for webgames on this site. While I didn't notice any offensive ones when I hit the site, that does not rule out the possibility that they exist.] It took me all of about a minute before I realized that my constant switching in focus didn't cut it.
Businesses--I hear--have found this to be true as well. People are far more productive if they sit down and focus on a task. Unfortunately, the world of instant messaging, email, phones, Facebook, Twitter, RSS and the like make it difficult to stay on target. I know I get distracted when a message pops up telling me that I just got a new email.
I found it interesting, then, to read about a school that is excited that giving their students laptops "helps them multitask." I don't see how this would be a good thing. I heard that recent studies have found no benefits to trying to multitask.
Case in point: I know when my wife is multitasking while I'm on the phone with her. She's far less communicative if she's also checking Facebook or looking for a cool new app... she may be able to juggle a bunch of kids, but she still can't multitask.
Instead of encouraging your children to practice being distracted in the hopes that it will make them more prepared for the world of new media, encourage them to focus on a book or story and then switch their attention fully to the next subject at hand. This is a great skill to have when talking to people too: Give them your full attention.
Filmmaker, Writer, Surrogate Father
P.S. Despite what I say above, I think it was great that my mom let us play quietly with Legos while she read to us. My sister sometimes doodled as well. There is something to be said for freeing children to focus on something other than merely "staying focused." So, perhaps--just perhaps--moderation is a good thing as well...