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.
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?