You can watch the video version of this post on my Facebook page.
Our topic today has come up in the Parenting Posse, it’s come up in the BSPB Inner Circle group, on our BSPB coaching calls, and in several 1:1 coaching calls and it’s an anxiety that is SO PRESENT in today’s world that even people who are VERY EDUCATED on the subject feel the intensity of it just as much as anyone else: and that’s that EARLIER does not equal BETTER.
We start feeling this pressure almost right away as Moms. People are comparing when their kids smile first. When they turn to their name first. When they roll over- both back to belly and belly to back! When they sit up. When they crawl. When they stand. When they say their first word. When they walk. And by the time they’re 3- it’s who can write, who can spell, who can add and subtract. Your child isn’t even out of infancy and the competition for whose child is smarter and doing things earlier is STIFLING.
The assumption is that if your child becomes proficient at something FASTER or EARLIER than their peers, they’re smarter. They’re at a competitive advantage. And obviously, if you’re not better than someone else, you’re worse off.
Personally, I’ve felt both sides of this. My oldest has been a proficient communicator from the moment his fine motor skills allowed him to form crude signs. By 16 months, he was signing in three-word utterances. By 18 months, he had over 1000 signs and 500 words. You could not shut him up. And everyone awed over how smart and articulate he was. On the flip side, he’s a November baby. And he’s a boy. And he’s entered school this past fall learning his 3rd language- and we redshirted him. Based on the cut-off dates of where we live, he could have started kindergarten LAST September. But we chose to keep him back the year and start him this year instead. And the first thing everyone felt I needed to know? “He’s always been ahead of his milestones, he’s so talkative and articulate, he’s SO SMART! You’re hamstringing him by making him wait!”
Here’s what the research says about forcing children to perform tasks before they’re developmentally ready:
1) Longer childhoods 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 and can pass logic tests that 7 to 10-year-old human children can, but by comparison, the domestic chicken has a childhood that lasts just a few months and is widely considered the stupidest birds on the planet.
And that’s just two examples where there’s a huge discrepancy between long and short.
More time playing and free from responsibility for survival means bigger brains and higher IQs. I wasn’t depriving my son of a head start- I was gifting him with a longer childhood. 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’re developmentally necessary- we distract them from what they’re SUPPOSED TO BE FOCUSED ON LEARNING. We also conflate rote memorization with true understanding.
Providing our children with the RIGHT to quote-unquote “DO NOTHING” with their early years is the best gift we can give him. Because while it may LOOK like they’re doing nothing- they’re actually acquiring all the soft skills needed to be a successful adult. This is why I’m so focused on Shanker Self-Reg and playfully building executive skills in early childhood- because 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.
2) There is SO MUCH RESEARCH on the harm of forcing academics earlier than necessary. To start semi-local to me- the Toronto District School Board- which is the largest school board in Canada- released statistics last year 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%!!! That’s MASSIVE!
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 wash out 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. And at age 15, more than half of the academic group had performed twice as many “acts of misconduct” compared to the other groups, and by age 23, 39% of them had felony charges compared to 13.5% in the other groups.
All this is to say that please DO NOT allow the competitive Cathy’s in your Mommy group to make you feel as though you need to push your child into academics before they individually initiate them. Do not go into debt sending your child to a preschool with a high academic standard. DO NOT feel that your 3-year-old needs to be pushed ahead a year in school so that they’ve “got the jump” on their peers. Nobody is going to be asking your child at their first job interview when they first identified the letter A by rote or if they started reading at 3 or at 7. Nobody cares if they started doing algebra at age 8! What they DO care about? Their ability to navigate conflict, their ability to follow directions, their ability to get along with a wide variety of people, their ability to set and maintain boundaries, their ability to be proactive and self-start, their ability to remain organized and on task, their ability to stay calm under pressure- in other words- THEIR SELF-REGULATION AND EXECUTIVE SKILLS.
So DEEP BREATH. Back away from the school catalogs and the loan forms.
Focus on PLAY. Real, genuine, self-initiated play. THAT is what makes your kids smarter.