This week I want to revisit a topic that’s coming up a lot in the Parenting Posse again, as well as in ParentAbility specifically as we’ve been settling children into school over the last two months: and that is the concept that earlier is not better.
We’ve had lots of parents concerned about “late” and I put that in big, fat, puffy air quotes…toilet training.
Teachers are concerned about “late” fine motor skills.
Parents worried about “late” reading.
It’s been coming at me from all sides so it’s time we talk about it again, especially in light of the last two years we’ve had!!!
First I want to say, I have personally been on all sides of this debate.
My oldest is a kid, who was generally ahead of his milestones and was a very proficient communicator from infancy. He signed before he talked, once he talked, he was talking a blue friggen streak. He’s now 7 and I have yet to find the off switch but he’s a late-year baby. He was not developed mentally ready to enter kindergarten when he was 3, as is common for children born late in the year here in Ontario. Therefore, I had to fight quite hard in order to keep him back a year. Technically, he should be in grade 3 this year. He’s in grade 2. I have not regretted that decision a single day.
My youngest on the other hand was a late talker, he’s slower on academics, he’s not behind in any areas but he’s not ahead. Late potty trainer. All of it.
I also was an early interventionist for 10 years. And I got a front-row seat to a lot of kindergarten and preschool classes where we had kids who were miles ahead of the others, and others who were quite behind others in terms of development. Typically I was there because the child I was supporting had some kind of diagnosed developmental delay.
I’ve seen the full spectrum but regardless of where your children are developed mentally, there’s this pressure to always be pushing them forward… As fast as we can!
Let’s master one thing and then YAY!
We celebrate that accomplishment for like 2 seconds and push on to the next milestone.
Everyone is in such a rush to be ahead of everyone else.
First, it’s walking, then it’s talking, then it’s potty training, then it’s reading, writing, math, and it never ends.
I know where this comes from, it’s been the recipe for success since the Victorian era.
You had to cross the finish line first, be better than everyone else, or else you would end up poor and destitute and on the street.
Everyone wants their kid to be the Elon Musk or Bill Gates of the world.
What we’re starting to realize, far slower than the research has proven it to be true, is that you cannot be your best if you’re not well.
You can’t skip steps.
Doing things faster doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good at them.
You know that old saying “Jack of all trades, master of none?” You cannot be the best at everything.
In fact, learning all the things as fast as you can almost guarantees that you won’t be the best at anything and that you won’t be well, mentally, physically, any of it.
We can see it in the school system!
This push for earlier and earlier academics has ruined kindergarten.
It’s slowly being reclaimed, but it was in a deep dark place for a while.
I have multiple clients I’ve had to support through discussing with their preschools why they won’t be allowing them to pressure their 3-year-olds to read or write- just in the last 3 months!
As I said the research backs this up, so I’d like to give you some things to chew on and consider next time you’re worried that your child isn’t learning something as quickly as someone else’s kid.
Let’s start with longer childhoods universally equal smarter animals. This is prevalent across all species.
Humans have longer childhood periods than ANY other primate on the planet. By a LONG SHOT. We’re pretty freaking advanced from chimps and apes and gibbons.
Crows have a childhood that extends almost a year which is astronomical for a bird! A 1-year-old crow can pass logic tests that 7 to 10-year-old human child can. By comparison, the domestic chicken has a childhood that lasts just a few months and is widely considered the stupidest bird on the planet.
That’s just two examples where there’s a huge discrepancy between long and short.
More time playing and being free from responsibility for survival means bigger brains and higher IQs.
I wasn’t depriving my son of a head start by holding him back a year. I was gifting him with a longer childhood. I made the same decision again when I decided to keep him home during COVID and homeschool him. I refused to force him to virtual school for 5+ hours a day because I valued his childhood, and I had the privilege of being able to guard that.
Childhood is not simply on the way to adulthood. Childhood is a time of importance in its own right.
When we shove things like numbers and letters and colors and all the academic skills that follow thereafter on to a child before they are developmentally necessary.
We distract them from what they’re supposed to be focused on learning at that age!
If a 3-year-old is spending all their time learning to read, what aren’t they learning?
All the social-emotional learning that they need to be able to engage socially appropriately with their peers.
I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve worked with who opens with “I don’t understand, she’s advanced in every single aspect. She started reading at 3 for heaven’s sake!”… But she hits us and screams and throws things any time she doesn’t get her way!”
Well, that might be because she was focused on learning phonics and blends and rote memorizing sight words instead of playing with her peers and learning how to navigate conflict resolution, developing her emotional control and regulation skills.
Think of it like dropping an ice cube in a glass of water adding the ice displaces the water.
Adding academics displaces development.
If not when they’re toddlers and preschoolers then when?!
Trying to develop these skills alongside academic skills is really hard. Way harder than it needs to be!
Our focus in the early years needs to be on providing a long childhood that provides ample time to fail, try again, and fail better at the soft skills.
There is so much research on the harm of forcing academics earlier than necessary.
Semi-local to me, the Toronto District School Board, which is the largest school board in Canada, released statistics a couple of years ago now that display a 73% higher incidence of ADHD diagnoses in late year children who enter kindergarten in line with the cut-off date in Ontario. 73%!!!
Now, the more interesting thing will be to see in a couple of years when they revisit those statistics if those diagnoses are stuck.
Was it ADHD?
Or was it that we were forcing children to engage in too much developmentally inappropriate material and they couldn’t cope?
And even if it does stick, what does that tell us about the effect on the brain of developmentally inappropriate academics?
There are many studies that show that early academic training somewhat increases children’s immediate scores on the specific tests that the training is aimed at which isn’t surprising, but the early gains washout between first and third grade and, at least in some studies, actually eventually reverse- meaning that the children that initially could read, write, and do arithmetic earlier than their peers then fell behind them after about grade 3- and remained there.
A study in Michigan not only compared the proficiency of children who had gone to play-based vs. academic preschools through to grade 3 but followed up with them when they were 15 and 23.
The result was that there was no significant difference academically between the two groups but those who had been in the academic settings were at a significant social and emotional disadvantage in their mid-teens to adult years.
At age 15, more than half of the academic group had performed twice as many “acts of misconduct” compared to the other group, meaning they’d been expelled, involved with the law, or otherwise in serious trouble.
By age 23, 39% of them had felony charges compared to 13.5% in the other groups.
All of this is to say, I understand the pressure, and I also understand that we don’t want our children to be falling super far behind.
I was an early interventionist. I fully support and understand the benefits of early intervention but we’re not talking about intervening in skills that are developmentally appropriate to acquire in the instance of academics.
The most accepted number I can find across various studies is that academics are not developmentally appropriate to introduce prior to age 7.
One of the silver linings to COVID is, I think, that it slowed down the rush and proved that children are not going to fall behind if they aren’t constantly on the go learning new things. It gave a lot of our kids that breathing room, and while, yes, I know they missed out on a lot of social and emotional learning too.
Yes, it may look like they’re further behind than their siblings or others at this age that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re doomed.
It could actually turn out to be their superpower. Time will tell. But the data is on our side I think they’re going to be okay.
As always, if you want to chat more about this, come and tell us what you’re concerns are currently and we’d love to help you work through them in the Parenting Posse. Everybody gets stuck in their head about something and really the best way to work through that is to talk it out, and we’d love to help you with that.