Going early and slow

Back when I started this article, people were talking about Race to Nowhere… one of those movies about pressure cooker parents messing up their kids.  (Note:  neither of us, despite our elite circles, has ever actually met someone whose parents pressured them thusly.  We believe they exist, otherwise Amy Chua wouldn’t be, but are by far the minority… or at least don’t actually end up at the elite institutions with which we are familiar… maybe they go to Princeton.  No wait… one of us met a first gen Chinese girl with one of those moms, but she didn’t go to an Ivy for college… just grad school.  The other one of us remembers a couple of pre-meds on her hall in college, also of Asian descent.  But they seemed perfectly fine, except for the not really wanting to be doctors part.)

Of course, on the mommy forums, folks were taking this documentary to mean that kids should not be allowed near a written letter until they are 5 years old at the absolute earliest, and that’s only if you don’t get into the local Waldorf school, in which case age 8 or 9 is better.

The argument seems to be around whether you’re providing your kids with an advantage by “hothousing” them (or as some like to put it, “enabling them to reach their potential”) or by letting them “enjoy their childhoods” (or as I like to say, “be Rosseau dream-children”).  Proponents of the anti-learning model argue that we’re stressing out our kids with all the pressure.   Arguments in the other direction (that I haven’t actually heard made by a real person, just by articles against hot-housing) seem to focus on children getting into ivy schools later in life and becoming successes, whatever that means.

What the arguments seem to ignore is that when you start something early instead of late, the learning can be more leisurely and more fun.  There can be LESS pressure instead of more pressure.  Deadlines are far away and nobody expects a child to show genius at such a young age for task X, Y or Z.  The time can be spent focusing on the learning and the joy, and when it stops being fun, you can take a break and come back to it later, no harm, no foul.  Plus there’s the meta lesson that even if you don’t get something right away, with practice and time you will get it eventually.

We’ve seen the positive aspects of starting early and going slow across several aspects of DC1’s life.

Potty training

Unlike most parents, we found potty training to be pretty fun.  Unlike most parents, we started pretty early.  15 months.  We would have started earlier but before reading the research I thought you had to go all or nothing.  Ze wasn’t completely trained for many years (went a week without accidents right before age 2, was mostly dry before 3, was dry at night before 5).  The joy of starting at 15 months is you feel a bit naughty doing it– people who find out will be more than happy to provide their opinion of why you’re torturing the child or you’re the one being trained, etc.  (To which I would say, “Did you know that before disposable diapers the average age of potty training was 18 months, and in cultures with infant training, the average age of being completely trained is 12 months?  It’s really interesting, the potty readiness signals were created by Barry T Brazelton who was working for Pampers at the time.  They seem to coincide with the worst time to start training.”  You can see I have the speech memorized– as a professor I use people not minding their own business as an opportunity to educate.)

Potty training for us went much like all the other skills.  It was fun watching DC1 get better and better at this new skill.  Very relaxed.  Whenever it wasn’t relaxed we’d just stop.  And that would feel fine too, because the feeling of naughtiness would go away while on break.  Then we’d go back later.


Reading isn’t quite as good an example, because we didn’t deliberately start training DC1 to read (I did read  a couple of books on how to teach infants to read via flashcards, but decided that wasn’t fun and only taught sight reading which isn’t phonics.)  We did, however, read a lot to DC1, and I tend to run my finger along the words as I read children’s books because that’s what my mother did (possibly from her Headstart training).  And we have literally hundreds of children’s books to flip through and chew on, many at baby height.  We also introduced the Leapfrog CDs long before DC1 could decode because DC1 was really into frogs at that age.  The side effect of that was that ze knew all the phonics rules (in verse form, “The A says ah, the A says ah, every letter makes a sound the A says ah”) so that as soon as hir brain was ready for phonics, the inputs were already there.  On top of that, we have some great simple puzzles that attach words to pictures or letters to words and pictures.  These worked so well that we hope to do the same for DC2 even if ze isn’t as into frogs as hir older sibling.


I love math and I love teaching math, so math is something we start right away, counting baby lifts and baby fingers and toes and ears and eyes and noses.  Numbers are everywhere and we point them out.  Following that, any kind of manipulable can teach simple addition (two raisins plus two raisins is one two three four raisins).  Skip counting is also a lot of fun.  We practice these kinds of games when we’re waiting for things, even if it means I occasionally get dirty looks.  Better dirty looks for “hothousing” than for my kid getting stuck in the slats of a chair yet again.  Later on we added workbooks and money games from Scholastic books.

We’re totally Boicing our kids.


There are some disadvantages besides the occasional dirty look and accusation of doing horrible things to your children in order to win at life or something.  Sometimes the whole point of learning something new is learning to overcome a new challenge.  When learning is easy and happens over a long period of time, and doesn’t have those frustrations that a deadline will bring, the child may be missing that important lesson.  Additionally, when a child knows something that hasn’t yet been taught in school, that can lead to boredom when it is finally covered.  Though perhaps the boredom is a societal problem, not because of us.

[Disclaimer:  We do not recommend trying CIO-style sleep training or solid feeding earlier than what doctors recommend– baby brains and baby tummies aren’t ready for those until about the date the AAP recommends or they show signs of readiness.  Of course, anyone knows that trying to feed a baby who doesn’t want to be fed is not fun for mom and dad, and CIO generally isn’t ever fun.  So if you keep to the rule of only doing things early if they’re fun for all, you should be ok.]

Anyway, my point is that introducing something early doesn’t necessarily lead to pressuring.   In fact, sometimes it keeps you from ever having to pressure.

How do you make choices about when to introduce new concepts?  What did your parents do?

35 Responses to “Going early and slow”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I actually have never met a child in that preschool age that doesn’t like learning. They are always pushing themselves into your business trying to help and be a part of whatever it is you are doing. They may have short attention spans but when they are into something interesting they lap it up. My 3 year old has a bit of an obession with counting and collecting eggs from babcis chickens. He must pull out the egg carton when he goes over there and take an inventory.

  2. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Tthe “when” and the “what” aren’t as important as the “how” and the “why”.

    If you try to force kiddes to learn particular shitte in a high-pressure atmosphere because if they don’t learn it then they are going to be complete failures eleventykajillion!!!11!, they may learn the shitte, but they will hate it, and it will f*cke them uppe. If you provide an environment where kiddes can learn particular shitte at their own pace and because it is fun to learn the shitte, then they will learn the shitte, but also learn to love the process of learning and not see it as some onerous f*cken burden.

  3. Pilgrim/Heretic Says:

    My father was an Ed.D. who worked with ways of teaching and evaluating handicapped children, and he used to use me as a guinea pig for developing various kinds of tests. What that meant for me was when I was around 2-5 years old, I got to spend a lot of time in his office, playing with puzzles and blocks and solving problems. I don’t think this was his primary goal, but the upshot for me was that very early on I associated learning and challenges and even tests with fun and play and parental attention, and I think that’s made more of a difference in my success in academia than any other single factor. (I had to be the only kid in high school who delightedly looked forward to taking the SATs.)

    So yeah, early beginnings and fun and no pressure and picking up on kids’ natural curiosity can be a pretty great combination.

  4. Cloud Says:

    We’re mostly similar, although we don’t start the slow potty training thing until sometime between 2 and 2.5- whenever the kid seems interested. And unlike you, I don’t find it fun! Something about the accidents just pushes my buttons and I have to really work to be encouraging, non-judgmental, etc, etc. Maybe I’d have done better if we started earlier, but I sort of doubt it. I just think potty training is my parenting Achilles heel. As Achilles heels go, it isn’t a bad one. Somehow our oldest is all trained and has been since sometime before 4. And the youngest will get there, too.

    On reading and math and other “academic” things- we generally just follow the kid’s lead. When shes interested in something, we work on it with her.

  5. Perpetua Says:

    I agree with @First Gen American that preschoolers love to learn (for this reason, I’m a big believer in a preschool). For me, it’s finding the balance between creating an atmosphere where learning is possible and letting them decide what they are interested in and facilitating the interest. The first is important and manifests in ways that I don’t notice or don’t think of consciously (helping them learn how to change their own clothes, for example, or help in the kitchen, or to recognize letters and sounds, or counting out things out loud with them). I’m engaged in the process of helping them learn about their environment and facilitating their independence. But I’m not interested in trying to get them to acquire specific skills or knowledge sets by certain ages. My just 4 y.o. came home one day and said he wanted to learn how to read. I bought some teacher-recommended books (the BOB books) but he never wanted to read them with me. But he’s reading in school now and comes home every day to practice his letters. I don’t push him on the reading – I don’t care if he learns how to read before he is 5. I care that if he wants to learn he’s able to learn. This is why I love preschool – he has the opportunity to explore all these different areas of knowledge at his own pace, and what he wants to practice at home he can (or not). (And why I was secretly a bit horrified at the local Waldorf school – the idea that he wouldn’t be *able* to learn how to read if he wanted to really bothered me.) The only thing I have had to make a conscious effort to introduce to him is art. We are not artsy and it’s taken a lot of work (and a lot of time on the artful parent, which is such an amazing blog), but it’s been wonderful, because he loves it. We’ve thrown out the coloring books and have been exploring different media (shaving cream paint! leaf sculpture!).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      There’s a good reason he didn’t want to read the BOB books– They’re boring as all heck!

      Dr. Seuss much better. :)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DC1 never really went through that “No I do it” stage. Ze did need some encouragement to try new things… like when we discovered that our friend whose kid was several months younger was already dressing herself and had been for some time. It wasn’t that DC1 didn’t want to dress hirself or couldn’t dress hirself, we just had no idea that was an option. And ze was perfectly happy (and able) to start once we suggested it. Heck, DC1 had no idea about crawling until ze saw other kids doing it.

      • Perpetua Says:

        That’s so funny, how different kids are. Christopher Robin was born saying No I do it! He sat up at 5 months, crawled at 6. He was so much happier the second he could get away from us and on his own – just, get out of my way and let me do it. I have no idea how he knows what’s possible, if he’s following subtle cues from us or he just intuites it.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        DC1 was scooting, but didn’t realize that ze could use hir arms. I estimate that learning cross-crawling added a month to walking, which was what ze had been focusing on prior to daycare.

  6. NoTrustFund Says:

    As many have already said, our preschooler also loves to learn and sees it as play. We have her in a Montessori based program and have been so impressed with the philosophy that really cultivates learning as fun. But I think you use Montessori, too. And your kid is older than ours so you probably know way more about this.

    Our youngest is 14 months and it hasn’t even occurred to me to start potty training. I’m hoping having an older sibling will make #2 more interested.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Montessori is the bizbomb. We used the Diaper Free Baby method for older kids (older being older than age 1). If you’re super organized, another early training method is from Diaper Free Before 3.

      I believe both start with simply allowing your kid to pee without a diaper on– un-diaper-training. I remember the first time DC1 peed sans diaper and was all, “What is this coming out of my body?” though not in so many words.

      • Perpetua Says:

        We are devotees of Montessori, too, but then my mom is a Montessori teacher & ran a school, so we were born to it. Pooh was recently described by hir teacher as “the perfect Montessori child.” I can see not every child thriving in this environment, but mine are like ducks, here’s the water.

      • hush Says:

        Word. Same here!

      • Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

        I loved montessori school. I think I still miss it. Maybe I’ll start a montessori medical school!

  7. pvcccourses Says:

    So many conflicting theories…do any of them really hold any water?

    With our kid, we just went with the flow. I felt that a) he should be allowed to be a kid; b) when he wanted to learn something he should have the opportunity to learn it; c) if he didn’t want to learn something, sooner or later he would and that would be the time to let him learn it. And weirdly, it actually did work out that way. He’s very bright and well educated.

    Drawback: He’s not what you’d call “driven.” Probably had he been pushed, he would have learned to push himself. Without any sense of urgency inflicted on him as a child, he has virtually no ambition as an adult. If I had it to do over again, I absolutely would do it differently. No tiger mom stuff, but I would have insisted on things like music lessons at an early age, practice, set homework periods, concerted efforts to get top grades, and the like.

    About Montessori: the switch from a Montessori to a “traditional” school, if and when you have to make it, can be difficult and counterproductive. In his Montessori preschool, my son was reading fluently. How do I know? He used to sit at the breakfast table and read the front page of the Wall Street Journal to me, aloud. When we moved him to a private K-12 school, he quit reading: suddenly he said he couldn’t read. Asked why, he announced that the teacher had told him that since he hadn’t learned to read at their school, he didn’t really know how to read and he had to start over.

    That school used a system called Open Court, just awful. He was in the third grade before he started to read fluently again.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That doesn’t sound so much as an indictment of Montessori as a private school that hasn’t gotten out of the 1950s– my mom’s K teacher said pretty much the same thing, which started a life-long cynicism about K-12.

    • NoTrustFund Says:

      We are worried about this. There is one Montessori in our area that goes through grade school but I’m not sure we’ll ever get in. Also not sure on what time period is optimal for Montessori. Is it good through 4th and 5th grade, or even higher?

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        DC1 did a beautiful transition from Montessori to a very parochial private school.

        In terms of what time period is optimal, or how late you can continue to do it, that depends a lot on the kid. Almost all kids thrive in it up to say, 3rd grade. Self-driven kids do well after that, but some kids would do better in a more structured top down environment. And, of course, the quality of teaching is what is most important no matter what system is being used.

        If our school goes under, our back-up is a montessori that goes to 6th grade.

  8. femmefrugality Says:

    We’re not quite to reading and math (although we do count and work on early literacy,) but we were the SAME way about potty-training…right to the age! I know I’m weird, but I think it’s so much fun. Getting to watch hir learn a new skill? They get so proud of themselves!

  9. chacha1 Says:

    I don’t 100% remember because, you know, I was a kid (I have very spotty recall of my early childhood years). But it seems, however hazily, that my parents gave me resources to learn whatever I showed interest in learning, regardless of age.

    There are, after all, age-appropriate ways to communicate just about everything. My first book on human reproduction came to me around age 10.

    Not sure how they got my older sister started reading. Probably she started because *they* were always reading! And I wanted to start because *she* was reading (monkey see, monkey do). I was reading at 2nd-grade level by the time I got to kindergarten.

    As a non-parent I can only say that I imagine once a kid is reading, steering educational things their way is simply a matter of paying attention. Kids talk about what they are interested in.

  10. anandar Says:

    On the issue of pressuring kids: the parents I know in real life also do not seem to be the over-pressuring sorts, but living near some very affluent, high-pressure, high “performing” school districts, I totally have seen the “race to nowhere” thing in operation — in the families I know, it is not so much caused by the parents as by the overall environment and expectations to overcommit to academics and extracurriculars. In the case of a few teenagers I know, it seems to have turned them off/burned them out on school and learning (despite having siblings who thrived under the same circumstances). Hopefully the burnout is not permanent!

    I’m a fan of interest-led and student-led learning, which can feel slow or fast, or early or late, depending on the kids and the context. So far, with preschoolers, it is all just a lot of fun. My exception will be music: while I don’t plan to go all Amy Chua on my kids, I do feel like musical understanding & skill is an important family value that might not get developed without extra guidance. We’ll start formal lessons until 1st grade or so, though we do plenty of singing and informal ear training already.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Man, we really need to stop being lazy and figure out piano lessons…

      • Rosa Says:

        You do! I need to, too.

        Mine is learning drums already, and loves it, but i think there’s a critical age for learning to read musical notes if they’re going to be good enough at it to read the music and play an instrument at the same time. A piano-lesson-teaching friend says he thinks the critical age is 3rd or 4th grade, which is later than I would have thought. Probably there’s research out there on that, too.

  11. Homeschooling Housewife Says:

    I think children have a desire to learn until they learn it is something to be dreaded when their personal interests get squashed regardless of their age.

    I do the child-focused, child-led and interest led where we do many activities in which to learn from, there is no race or formulas for what age they need to learn certain material by. They are free to learn as their interests come up either by their own internal motivation or by something we the parents have introduced thinking they may enjoy. No pressure, learning is not separated from living but rather all seen as it all connects in meaningful ways. This to me is the largest blessing of being a homeschooler is seeing how passionate for learning my children are and how we connect and bond over these interests.
    I have had friends growing up where their parents put so much pressure on them, even to where they would break down crying if they got an A- because it was not acceptable to the parents the the whole race to nowhere philosophy, I never did understand it.

  12. Laura Vanderkam (@lvanderkam) Says:

    I’ve been writing about high achieving kids for years — long before having children myself — and I have seen very few examples of pushy parents. More often, “pushy” parents are just parenting pushy kids. I don’t deny it happens, but as with narratives about mothers fretting about the quality of baked goods for school bake sales, I think it happens more often in our imaginations of how other people live than in real life.

  13. Contingent Cassandra Says:

    I suspect (mostly on the basis of Time magazine headlines that I can remember reading, and the timing of the events that they represented) that I learned to read by 4 or 5, but didn’t advertise/admit it until I was “supposed’ to be reading in first grade (this was the late ’60s, and I think some of the same warnings against pushing things, or using “old fashioned” methods at home that would conflict with the new, scientific ones at school, were in the air. My father did try teaching math the old-fashioned way, which I enjoyed, but then got extremely frustrated with the new-math methods at school; I knew one way to do it, so why did I need to learn another with hoky terms for things?). If I’m right (and there’s unfortunately no way to check this with the parent who was home with me, my late mother), then my experience suggests that (1) children will, indeed,learn certain things when they’re ready, whether or not they’re explicitly taught, as long as the basic information/materials are available in the environment, and (2) children (or at least extremely conscientious children like me) tend to conform their behavior to their parents’/the larger culture’s expectations, even if that means *not* learning things (and/or not admitting they’re learning things) they’d like to and are ready to learn. The latter might explain why parents (and teachers) who take various approaches tend to feel vindicated by their charges’ reactions.

  14. Revanche Says:

    On the point of not knowing anyone in your elite circles whose parents pressured them that way: Interestingly(?), I have known people whose parents told them they would become doctors or they would be worthless. No kidding, people of no worth, no value, not just zero net worth. Meaningless in society and in their parents’ eyes. And that includes at least one guy I dated.

    That guy’s dad was definitely physically abusive. Guess whose kids didn’t turn out well? One may probably become a doctor because he’s too damn scared to do anything else, but goober only knows what other decisions he’ll be able to make on his own because he demonstrated no ability to cope with the idea of parental disapproval in any way. The other kids just accepted that they would be worthless since they weren’t going to be doctors and that’s been a sad winding path of self destruction. But the main point is: you wouldn’t have found him at any elite institution: he didn’t get in any elite schools. Dictating that they will follow a specific path still doesn’t make for success. Beat them as much as you will.

    I’d suggest that anecdotally, not only does it not work, it backfires in a pretty big way.

    • Revanche Says:

      Oh, to be less depressing: my aunt and uncle couldn’t have been less pressure-y.

      They just sheltered my cousins from the ugly parts of life with the expectations the kids should probably do well in school and not do drugs instead because they’re poor and so have to earn their way in the world (and coddling them a bit, for which I snicker a little but it’s harmless. Never learning to cook until you’re older b/c mommy always cooked for you is not really a big deal.)

      I never once heard a word about what they were expected to go out and do with their lives, the kids self determined.

      They both earned pretty big scholarships (if not full rides) to elite schools for undergrad, and eventually got into medical school. One is at a top ranked med school. /proud cousin brag.

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