Leave them kids alone

An article by Neil Swidey in the Boston Globe Magazine begins with a profile of a three year old girl — tutored in the Better Baby Institute method — who does not know the names of the Disney princesses but can correctly “identify flashcards with the following images: the Mona Lisa, Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer, Marie de Medici, and Erasmus of Rotterdam.” If you are impressed by that, you should not read the article. But if you are, however vaguely, troubled, then this article provides a good starting point for resisting the preschool rat-race mentality.

For instance, in regard to early reading, the author points out,

Researchers who’ve been marinating in reading studies for years say a tiny percentage of children – maybe 3 percent, maybe a little more or less – can be classified as truly early readers. These 3- or 4-year-olds understand phonics and context, and they will likely keep up their accelerated reading pace throughout their school years. . . . But most of the other early readers bringing smiles to their parents’ faces aren’t really reading at all. They’re demonstrating merely that they’ve memorized lots of words by sight. Instead of understanding the discrete sounds and segments that make up the word CAT, and understanding that each letter in the word has both its own name and its own sound or group of sounds, these children – like our early ancestors – see it as just a whole symbol for the furry feline. Change the first letter to E, and they might still think feline, until they memorize the new word. Studies have demonstrated that the early reading advances these kids show typically wash out a few years down the line.

Moreover, the author cites a study that indicates that rather than hoping to raise a precocious child, one might be better off hoping that your child is a late bloomer:

Researchers from the National Institutes of Mental Health performed periodic MRI brain scans on children and teens ranging in age from 5 to 19, tracking the relationship between the thickness of the brain’s outer mantle, or cortex, with the subject’s IQ. They found that the people whose IQ scores put them in the “superior intelligence” category had cortexes that matured much later than those of average intelligence. The cortexes of the smartest kids peaked by around age 11 or 12, whereas the average kids’ peaked by around age 8. Jay Giedd, one of the lead researchers, says he and his colleagues were initially taken aback by the findings, but with more reflection they realized they made all kinds of sense. “By having this peak period of plasticity later,” he says, “the brain is adapting to the 12-year-old world, which is more complicated, more similar to the adult world, than the 8-year-old world.”

The final word goes to David Elkind, who, twenty-six years ago, wrote The Hurried Child, “lamenting the fallout from parents thrusting their children into adulthood prematurely.” He argues that “if parents could give themselves permission to stop worrying about college acceptance letters while their kids were still in booster seats, everyone would be a lot better off.” Retired after twenty-nine years of teaching at Tufts, he says he was worn out “from students who had adopted their parents’ angling, recoiling from criticism and lobbying him to goose their grades, sometimes enlisting their parents to intervene.” Now tending his gardens, he observes, “A gardener can’t hurry the ripening of tomatoes.”

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