Why are we so keen to put our kids ahead of the pack?
The early bird catches the worm.
In our culture, “early” tends to conflate with “good.” Nowhere is this more evident than in our aspirations for our children. We want them to develop not just normally, but ahead of schedule. We puff with pride when they identify a colour at 18 months or a shape at age two. And if they don’t reach those milestones early, we take pains to nudge them toward the goal.
Why do we do it? “It’s a competitive world and parents want their kids to have a leg up,” says Janette Pelletier, an associate professor of human development and applied psychology at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. “If a parent hears about a new educational gizmo, she may feel compelled to use it so her kids don’t miss out.”
But will they, in fact, miss out? On the one hand, with 85 percent of brain growth occurring in the first three years of life, “it makes sense to stimulate the rapidly growing brain,” says Janice Im, senior program manager at Zero to Three, a US non-profit organization devoted to improving the lives and development of infants and toddlers. But, she stresses, “the child has to be ready to make the cognitive leap. If the challenge is too great, the stress will make her anxious and unable to focus on learning.” It also bears noting that learning doesn’t begin and end with “academic” skills like letters, numbers and colours. Everyday play is essential. In fact, “playing is learning for young children,” says Im. They’re lifting, pouring, bouncing, floating, balancing, telling stories, using their imaginations — experiences rich with learning opportunities. “You don’t need formal lessons to provide such opportunities — on the contrary, too much structure could interfere with this natural process.”