Education Opinion

The ‘Miseducation’ of Young Children

By David Elkind — February 03, 1988 10 min read
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In Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University and senior resident scholar at the Lincoln-Filene Center, warns against the dangers of “appropriating” for infants and young children “educational programs intended for school-aged children.”

Adopting the child-development model of the psychologist Erik Erikson, he explores the consequences such miseducation may have in the child’s resolution of what Erikson described as “crises” in the formation of personality: Feelings of mistrust, shame, and doubt may come to outweigh those of trust and autonomy; guilt and alienation may overshadow initiative and belonging; and inferiority and helplessness may eclipse industry and competence.

Parents should encourage the “spontaneous learning” of childhood, Mr. Elkind argues, and reject the growing movement to cultivate “superkids"--a development he says has its roots in shifting family values, efforts to secure equal opportunity, and new competitive pressures in American society.

In the excerpts that follow, the author outlines the dimensions of the “miseducation” phenomenon and evaluates counter-arguments in support of early instruction.

What is happening in the United States today is truly astonishing. In a society that prides itself on its preference for facts over hearsay, on its openness to research, and on its respect for “expert” opinion, parents, educators, administrators, and legislators are ignoring the facts, the research, and the expert opinion about how young children learn and how best to teach them.

All across the country, educational programs intended for school-aged children are being appropriated for the education of young children. In some states ... educational administrators are advocating that children enter school at age 4. Many kindergarten programs have become full-day kindergartens, and nursery-school programs have become pre-kindergartens. Moreover, many of these kindergartens have introduced curricula, including work papers, once reserved for 1st-grade children. And in books addressed to parents a number of writers are encouraging parents to teach infants and young children reading, math, and science.

When we instruct children in academic subjects, or in swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose. There is no evidence that such early instruction has lasting benefits, and considerable evidence that it can do lasting harm.

Why, then, are we engaging in such unhealthy practices on so vast a scale? Like all socialphenomena, the contemporary miseducation of large numbers of infants and young children derives from the coming together of multiple and complex social forces that both generate and justify these practices. One thing is sure: miseducation does not grow out of established knowledge about what is good pedagogy for infants and young children. Rather, the reasons must be sought in the changing values, size, structure, and style of American families, in the residue of the 1960’s efforts to ensure equality of education for all groups, and in the new status, competitive, and computer pressures experienced by parents and educators in the 1980’s.

While miseducation has always been with us--we have always had pushy parents--today it has become a societal norm. If we do not wake up to the potential danger of these harmful practices, we may do serious damage to a large segment of the next generation. ...

... [T]he social revolutions of the 1960’s effectively transformed our conception of out-of-home programs and of children’s readiness to cope with and profit from such programs. The statistics tell the tale. In 1966, only 60 percent of 5-year-olds attended kindergarten, while in 1985, 82 percent of 5-year-olds were attending public, private, or church-sponsored kindergarten programs. Only 25 states provided aid for public kindergartens in 1965; by 1985, all 50 states were providing some form of public support for kindergarten and, increasingly, for pre-kindergarten programs as well.

The proliferation of educational programs for young children is not limited to 5-year-olds. The number of nursery schools has increased a thousandfold since 1965, and the number of licensed day-care centers has grown 234 percent between 1978 and 1985. In 1985, some 2.5 million children (39 percent) attended pre-kindergarten programs compared with only 700,000 (11 percent) in 1965. Never before in our history have so many of our infants and young children been enrolled for extended periods in regular out-of-home programs. ...

No authority in the field of child psychology, pediatrics, or child psychiatry advocates the formal instruction, in any domain, of infants and young children. In fact, the weight of solid professional opinion opposes it and advocates providing young children with a rich and stimulating environment that is, at the same time, warm, loving, and supportive of the child’s own learning priorities and pacing. It is within this supportive, nonpressured environment that infants and young children acquire a solid sense of security, positive self-esteem, and a long-term enthusiasm for learning. ...

The boom in early-childhood education is, it very much appears, becoming a boom in miseducation. The extent of miseducation of young children has recently elicited a joint statement of concern by a group of national organizations involved in elementary and early-childhood education. These organizations include the Association for Childhood Education International, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, International Reading Association, National Association for the Education of Young Children, National Association of Elementary School Principals, and National Council of Teachers of English. Some of the concerns mentioned in the joint statement were as follows:

Many pre-1st-grade children are subjected to rigid formal pre-reading programs with inappropriate expectations and experiences for their level of development.

Little attention is given to individual development and individual learning styles.

The pressures of accelerated programs do not allow children to be risk takers as they experiment with language and internalize concepts about how language operates.

Too much attention is focused upon isolated skill development or abstract parts of the reading process, rather than upon the integration of oral language, writing, and listening with reading.

Too little attention is placed upon reading for pleasure; therefore children do not associate reading with enjoyment.

Each of these concerns is centered on one or another facet of miseducation, the many ways we can place children at risk for learning problems to no purpose. The potential dangers of the miseducation practices described above far outweigh any potential gains.

It is not only the schools that are introducing formal instruction to young children; parents are doing so as well. Parents have been barraged with commercial programs and books which promise them that if they follow certain procedures they can not only teach infants and young children reading and math, but also make their offspring brighter and raise their i.q.--in a phrase, make them “superkids.” ...

Nothing new is offered in these books ... . The authors are merely extending well-known learning principles downward to infants and young children or formalizing procedures parents use spontaneously when they interact with their offspring. There is absolutely no evidence that such teaching gives children any lasting advantage in reading or that it has any effect on a child’s brightness. There is evidence, however, that too early formal instruction can do harm.

The miseducation of infants and young children is not limited to unwarranted efforts to teach them academics; it has extended to all facets of young children’s development. The idea that young children can benefit from a program of formal instruction has spread to sports and to exercise, to music and gymnastics, to ballet, beauty contests, and karate. Done well, with a sensitivity to children’s physical and intellectual limitations and to their psychological vulnerability, such programs need not necessarily be harmful. Nonetheless, because such programs put infants and young children in inappropriate learning situations, they also put them at risk of physical and/or psychological damage--and this despite the fact that such programs have no proven long-term benefit for youngsters. ...

[The] study of gifted and talented people who were successful adults gives no support to the idea that early formal instruction creates intellectual giftedness or creative talent. Rather, what is consistent in these autobiographical statements [prepared by mathematicians under 40 who had won Sloan Foundation Fellowships] is that the parents of people who have attained eminence were careful not to impose their own priorities on their children but, instead, to follow each child’s lead. In this regard, and in their concern with having their children be well-rounded persons, these parents are exponents of healthy, child-centered early-childhood education.

A recent study of the MacArthur Fellows reinforces [these] findings ... .

These findings point up the fallacy of early instruction as a way of producing children who will attain eminence. Miseducation, in fact, reverses the natural order of development. With gifted and talented individuals, as with children in general, the most important thing is an excitement about and enthusiasm for learning. Skills are easily learned when the motivation is there. Miseducation, by focusing upon skills to the detriment of motivation, pays an enormous price for teaching infants and young children what amounts to a few tricks. An ounce of motivation is worth a pound of skills anytime.

Another popular argument for early instruction is that children now are intellectually more able at earlier ages because of the modern technology with which they are surrounded. ...

Actually, this argument has two parts, one having to do with the direct impact of technology itself and the other with the indirect effect of the information conveyed by that technology.

In response to the first half of the argument, there is no evidence that early exposure to a technology in any way accelerates mental development. The overall direct effect of technology on human nature is to extend and amplify but not alter our biological capacities. ...

Eyeglasses do not improve our visual system any more than a hearing aid enhances our auditory system. In the same way, a computer does not increase our ability to remember any more than using a lever makes us stronger. ...

Now for the second part of the argument. If technology does not directly improve our sensory or motor capacities, doesn’t it do so indirectly through the information it provides? Doesn’t this information improve our brains and make us more sophisticated and knowledgeable than if we did not have the technology?

To be sure, there is a point here. Children today do indeed have access to more information than did children of earlier generations. Yet many years ago John Dewey wrote that learning is the “representation of experience,” by which he meant that experience, raw information, does not teach in and of itself. It is only when we talk about and reflect upon the experience or information we receive that we learn from it. ...

For children really to profit from the barrage of information to which they are exposed, they must also be given the time and opportunity to reflect upon that experience. Yet parents today are spending less time talking with their children than in the past. ...

It is all too easy for us as adults to forget just how inexperienced infants and young children really are and how much they have to learn about the world that we have already conceptualized and now take for granted. ...

Infants and young children are not just sitting twiddling their thumbs, waiting for their parents to teach them to read and do math. They are expending a vast amount of time and effort in exploring and understanding their immediate world. Healthy education supports and encourages this spontaneous learning. Early instruction miseducates, not because it attempts to teach, but because it attempts to teach the wrong things at the wrong time. When we ignore what the child has to learn and instead impose what we want to teach, we put infants and young children at risk for no purpose.

A version of this article appeared in the February 03, 1988 edition of Education Week as The ‘Miseducation’ of Young Children


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