Is earlier better?

Why are we so keen to put our kids ahead of the pack?

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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.”
The reading race

If there’s any area in which parents want their kids to excel, it’s reading. Any parent who’s spent time in a schoolyard can recall the mom who “casually” mentioned her five-year-old son “just couldn’t put down” the first Harry Potter book. When it comes to literacy, no age is too young seems to be the prevailing mantra. Companies are coming out with reading-instruction programs for increasingly younger kids — even babies.

Victoria Purcell-Gates, Canada Research Chair of early childhood literacy at the University of British Columbia, takes strong exception to this trend. “You can train a one-year-old to recognize individual words, but that’s not reading,” she says. Besides, “there’s no evidence that getting toddlers to read will make them better readers as adults. There are societies in which kids don’t start to read print until age seven, and they’re at no disadvantage.”

It’s true that some kids (about three percent of the population) pick up reading very early, seemingly without effort or instruction. Intuition might suggest otherwise, but “these self-taught readers are not smarter than average,” says Purcell-Gates. “Researchers have tested them and their IQs run the gamut.”

If your child shows no such inclination, Purcell-Gates believes that pushing early literacy on him is more apt to do harm than good. “The sense of pressure and tension will get transmitted to the child. He’ll either decide he wants nothing to do with it or that he’s unable to do it, so he can’t be very smart.”

Parental anxiety comes through loud and clear in this post on an early-learning discussion board from a parent of a 17-month-old girl: She is at the top of her class, but sadly she can’t read yet. How should I make her interested in flashcards? Should I start later or just keep trying? I’m worried — please advise.

Instead of interesting her daughter in flashcards, this parent would do better to “read lots of storybooks to the child, expose her to adults who are reading and writing, and playfully point out words on cereal boxes without trying to ‘teach’ the words,” says Purcell-Gates. “You prepare a young child for literacy not by ‘getting her to read,’ but by immersing her in the world of print.”
Buyer beware

Kean Li Wong, owner of BrillKids, a Hong Kong company that sells early learning materials to parents worldwide, insists that ultra-early learning need not create tension. “The critics assume that teaching involves coercion and that it takes up the majority of a child’s time,” he says, and asserts that “the learning is joyful and pressure-free.”

BrillKids offers two software programs designed for babies, Little Readers and Little Math. Wong maintains such instruction can have long-lasting benefits. “Studies show that children who start ahead, stay ahead,” he says.

Ah yes, the famous “studies show,” says Purcell-Davis. “Commercial enterprises use the term rather liberally, and it means very little,” she maintains. “I would love for the public to learn some basic things about scientific research so that they could interpret such claims.”

For example, the BrillKids website touts a study of a precocious self-taught reader who continued to “stay ahead” in all aspects of literacy. What isn’t mentioned on the site is that, according to the Gifted Child Quarterly journal, this study’s findings contrasted sharply with those of similar studies.

Some savvy consumers have begun to call companies to task for making spurious educational claims. In 2006, a Boston-based advocacy group lodged a formal complaint against Disney-owned Baby Einstein, alleging the company made deceptive claims that it can give babies a leg up in learning; following the allegation, Baby Einstein stopped billing its videos as educational and now offers cash refunds to US consumers for some Baby Einstein DVDs.
The meaning of milestones

If there’s little use in pushing your child ahead of her peers, surely there’s reason for pride if she leads the pack on her own? It turns out even this assumption may be misguided. “Milestones are more useful for figuring out if your child lags behind than if she’s ‘ahead,’” says Purcell-Gates. “If a child has a significant delay in, say, speech acquisition (I’m talking about many months behind schedule), it tells the parent there may be a problem that needs fixing.”

For instance, most kids begin to learn pre-reading skills in kindergarten. If certain language-based aptitudes, like rhyming or pronouncing a word without its first letter, don’t develop at this time, “a child is at risk for dyslexia and we would start an intervention,” says Linda Siegel, a professor of educational and counselling psychology at the University of British Columbia. If a child develops these skills ahead of schedule, however, “it doesn’t follow that he’ll be a better reader as an adult.”

Striking a balance

So where does all this leave the parent of a young child? “There’s no doubt that providing early stimulation to a child is beneficial, but it has to be age-appropriate,” says Siegel. “Games involving sounds, rhymes, word and letter substitutions, and non-words all develop the critical pre-reading skill of phonemic awareness,” she says. “That’s why Dr. Seuss books appeal to young children so much. They’re silly, full of rhythm, and build on sounds the kids already know.”

Age-appropriate stimulation also sets science and math learning in motion. “Manipulating objects in three-dimensional space provides countless lessons about basic physics,” notes Siegel. It can also foster number sense. “To a small child, the concept ‘three’ starts to click when she lines up three blocks.” Adds Purcell-Gates: “We’ve known since [pioneering cognitive theorist] Piaget that abstract concepts cannot be the first step in child learning. Sure, you can get kids to parrot back anything, but it doesn’t mean they’ve absorbed the underlying principles.”

Is there a way to make kids smarter then? Most experts say it’s the wrong question to ask. According to Im, a more useful question might be: How do I help my child reach her potential? “What we know is that children with a nurturing and interactive early environment develop better, both physically and mentally,” she says. Purcell-Gates concurs: “The research consistently shows that early learning blossoms in the soil of human interaction — the more nurturing the interaction, the higher-quality the learning.” That’s why a cartoon character is no substitute for a loving, engaged parent.

So pull up a chair, says Pelletier, and “sing to your baby, rather than playing Mozart.”

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